If the counterculture in America has its seminal moments, one of them is the three-week period in April 1951 when Jack Kerouac typed a version of what would be published in 1957 as On the Road. Part of that manuscript--a single continuous text nearly 120 feet long, typed margin to margin without paragraphs on long rolls of teletype paper--is currently on display at UNC's Wilson Library as part of the Jack Kerouac: The Road Revisited show.
It is on loan to the library from its owner, Jim Irsay (the owner of the Indianapolis Colts), who purchased it in 2001 at auction for $2.43 million. Artists can never control their posthumous careers, but the price alone should warn you of the ways that Kerouac and the image of counterculture freedom have been sold.
I have always imagined the On the Road scroll to be like a massive, six-inch diameter roll of packing paper, something that might have been taken off a printing press; heavy, muscular, a product of industry, something rolled off a truck and covered with factory dust. A thing with a Hemingway-like masculinity, an expression of power and freedom. Somehow, even though I know how distorted Kerouac's image is, I still imagined the manuscript in its mythic terms. And of course the manuscript is none of these things. The scroll is slim, more Orphic than machined, the long block of words more like a cloud-river than a road. The paper looks fragile, like something you might find in an attic while cleaning after the owner's death. It is a relic, of course, but it's more of a shroud than a monument.
I should have guessed that there'd be this discrepancy between the myth and the material, because it's a tension that runs through the reception of Kerouac's work. When I teach Kerouac, I am always struck by how many students come away disappointed or confused by what they've found in his works. They expect to find confirmation of the counterculture myths of freedom and heroic individualism, and instead find a more complicated, disturbing story of the limits of freedom. This always makes me sad, because what I love about Kerouac is his awareness and attention to the way things are broken. Americans don't like broken heroes; we don't like to hear there are limits to freedom and progress, that the endless party has its costs. So, what we like about Kerouac is the myth built up by his publishers and by the media; we're not so comfortable with the man himself.
The man himself was a handsome, geeky introvert who kept statistics on imaginary baseball leagues whose seasons he played in his head. Although he is best known as a backpack Buddhist, his journals show the extent to which he remained a committed Catholic. For most of his life he lived with his mother; his ideas about women and marriage were excruciatingly naive (think "caveman"). His most successful books, On the Road and Dharma Bums, are the slickest and most light-weight--Dharma Bums was written at his publishers request to cash in on the success of On the Road. But what I think are his masterpieces--Visions of Cody and Desolation Angels--are far more morally complex and pessimistic. And, in my estimation, he was a beautiful writer, not because of he wrote 60 mile-an-hour jazz prose, but because he cared about the world and captured the turn of a caring thought so precisely.
The Swiss photographer Robert Frank, who travelled with Kerouac while photographing America on a Guggenheim grant, wrote home to his parents that Americans were friendly and outgoing just so long as you didn't criticize their country. I think there's a connection between that observation and the discomfort Americans have with weakness and loss in their heroes. Part of our cultural mythos is that we are winners--that everyone can be a winner. And when a winner loses or is shown to be weak, we turn away fast. I see that in my students when they actually read what Kerouac wrote. I see it when hipsters say the Beats are passé, when they get one up by putting daddy Kerouac down.
What is lost in all this is what strikes me as most important in Kerouac--the fact that, in the end, he valued caring more than he valued freedom. It is what gives his prose purpose and passion. But caring is a hard sell in an era in which irony is the dominant idiom and folks don't dance at rock 'n' roll shows. It is a hard sell in any era, frankly.
Kerouac spent most of the last decade of his life struggling against the image used to sell his work. It's an image on display at the Wilson Library exhibit in the form of original cover art depicting wild beatnik women and disaffected James Deans. During that decade, he would turn away from Buddhism, he'd repudiate the radical left, he'd embrace the flag. People who want Kerouac to be a champion of the counterculture put this all off on his alcoholism, but I don't buy it. If you've ever seen the late interview with William F. Buckley Jr., you know that, even though Kerouac was killing himself with drink, he was as sharp and careful as ever.
In his last published essay, After Me the Deluge, he talks about the problem of allegiance, repudiating Buckley's establishment in Swiftian terms, but finding no home either among the radicals who he suspects "have no better plan to offer the grief-stricken American citizenry but fundraising dinners of their own." He knew the wealthy were no friend to the poor, but he found the '60s radicals disturbing because of their anger, because of the way they put down others. Take a look sometime at actor Peter Coyote's memoir of Haight-Asbury and the commune scene of the early '70s (Sleeping Where I Fall) and tell me if Kerouac didn't get something right.
I am one of those who think Kerouac was an American saint. Not because he was the father of the counterculture, but because he produced a series of texts that teach compassion. Compassion is never easy, and it is never pure; you get your hands dirty, and you are a broken vessel to begin with anyway. There's no reason for it, but it's what's missing again and again in the world.
I wonder what Kerouac would have thought if he'd known that the scroll would end up a million-dollar relic shroud, the dense blocks of words hammered onto the paper like a funeral stele.
A 48-foot section of the scroll will be on display at UNC's Wilson Library from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays, through Dec. 17.
The exhibit also will include first editions, letters and photos of Kerouac and other Beats.
On Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m., Dr. Ann Douglas, a cultural historian specializing in 20th-century America at Columbia University, will speak about enduring interest in the Beats.
On Thursday, Nov. 3 at 4 p.m., there will be a talk by Dr. Hilary Holladay, director of the Kerouac Conference on Beat Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Call 962-1143 for further details.