Legend In Your Own Mind
By Kirsten Nelson On April 08, 2005
The ultimate icon of rebellious high school and college students everywhere, Jack Kerouac, is gaining a third generation of appreciators right about now. Coming of age under the strict control of parents and the American education system, plenty of kids rebel aimlessly, but a certain subset will read On The Road and their teen angst will have a new focal point. With plenty of driving, drinking and hitchhiking to a soundtrack of jazz music, Kerouac's most beloved work provides a condensed lesson in non-conformity-although those who really buck the system will read the Cliff's Notes version.
Kerouac and his most famous work are founded on legend, and survive as such today because not only is the book remarkable, the way it was written is unforgettable. The way the kids in dorm rooms tell it, Kerouac got all hopped up on caffeine and other stimulants, sat down in front of a typewriter, and didn't stop writing his tale for 20 days. He typed the entire work on a massive roll of paper, which ended up as 120 feet of solid single-spaced text with no margins whatsoever. Talk about non-conformity, the guy would never have gotten away with those margins if he used Bill Gates' software and a printer.
Kerouac experts who evolve beyond simply wearing berets and snapping their fingers know that it took a little longer for the novel to be written, and they also know that there were several revisions made to the manuscript before it was published. But the scroll exists. And for the first time, this precious artifact was unfurled for display under 120 feet of glass at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City last month. Readying the manuscript for this first stop on a touring exhibition, the Iowan curators had the case custom-built and put it in a gallery long enough to house the entire length of text.
That's it. A room with a big glass case holding some old typing paper is likely to attract throngs of visitors. Despite what articles in this month's museum feature section report, some museum exhibits are still completely static. In that case, it's the informational material which surrounds them that can benefit the most from technology. Whether it's your basic Acoustiguide or a psychedelic video display, museum visitors who want to hear the jazz, see the road map, and learn more about the man from Lowell, MA who became the New England accented voice of a generation.
Kerouac was well aware of the power of multimedia. He read his poetry with jazz accompaniment and recorded the whole thing for posterity. As a result, that scroll of paper is currently available in hardcover, paperback, audiocassette or audio CD form. If you look for it on Amazon, you'll receive a subtle recommendation for a What Happened to Kerouac DVD.
What happened to Kerouac is of course the story that will make that scroll exhibit fascinating. This is where AV makes a difference. With so much archived audio and visual material about a man who is mostly a myth, museum curators need guidance from experts in these media. Frequently, they will be startled at the possibilities technology now offers.
It's a good thing these quiet exhibits live on. Unrolling this manuscript revealed the true reason Kerouac's novel lives on among non-conformists everywhere. On the back of the final few inches of text, Kerouac scrawled in pencil the leading excuse for not handing in homework: "Dog ate." Sure enough, the last five pages of the published work do not appear in this original manuscript, and the end is ragged and frayed, as if some canine's teeth wanted a souvenir of greatness.