History

Artifact

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Above is America's most famous manuscript: Jack Kerouac's continuous, 120-foot-long typescript for his 1957 classic On the Road, auctioned by Christie's in May. According to Beat folklore, Kerouac wrote the novel in a three-week white heat, fueled by benzedrine, coffee, and pea soup. Taping long sheets of paper together to avoid interruption, Kerouac sought to celebrate Romantic intensity not only in his work, but by his method as well.

The scroll has attained near-mythic status, with many versions of its history and even many claims about its material (tracing paper? teletype paper? oilskin? shelf paper?). It is a central exhibit of midcentury American culture, a period that scholar Daniel Belgrad has termed "the culture of spontaneity."

Shake Kerouac's great scroll, and out falls a succession of improvisational innovators: dancers like Merce Cunningham, painters like Jackson Pollock, bebop hipsters, Zen potters, perhaps even the New Left political theorists who argued that ideas emerged from action, rather than the other way around.

Kerouac, as it happens, disliked the cultural left that so embraced his work. Now, biographer Douglas Brinkley, currently examining the writer's archives, is arguing that On the Road was less spontaneous than people think. When Kerouac wrote, he was working from carefully arranged plans and notes. Yet a writer's notes are only potential choices, like the network of highways that offered Kerouac's own characters exits to their fate, on their roads to their tech-enabled nirvanas.