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Rare Kerouac manuscript goes “on the road” to Geneva

"The Scroll" is considered by experts to be an extraordinary manuscript.

The original manuscript of Jack Kerouac's seminal novel, "On The Road", which was typed on a 40 metre-long strip of tracing paper, has made a fleeting appearance in Geneva, before it is auctioned next week in New York.

What Kerouac and his friends came to call “The Scroll” is one of the most extraordinary literary manuscripts ever to come to auction. It is also the draft of the novel that came to define the 1950s Beat Generation.

The scroll, which is on display for a mere four hours in Geneva, has remained out of sight, in the Kerouac family, for some 50 years. It is being seen in public for the first time.

Its brief appearance in the Swiss city is the manuscript’s only stop in Europe on a tour that has taken it to Chicago and San Francisco and will lead it ultimately to New York, where it will be sold on May 22.

“Geneva has a fine tradition of collecting important books and manuscripts,” says Elisabeth Storm-Nagy, vice-president of Christie’s in Geneva. “We have some very passionate private collectors and some major institutions and libraries,” she told swissinfo.

It is no secret that one of the most prestigious of those institutions, the Bodmer Foundation, is interested in purchasing the manuscript.

Kerouac, who produced the manuscript in a marathon 20-day session in his New York apartment in April 1951, said he “wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long – just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs – rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road”.

His friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, described it as “a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling like the road itself”. Some would call it priceless, but the Christie’s catalogue estimate is between $1 million and $1.5 million. Judging by the reaction it has elicited in its travels so far, it could fetch considerably more.

“This is perhaps the most unusual manuscript I’ve ever handled. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in scroll form,” says Chris Coover, senior manuscript specialist at Christie’s in New York.

“We believe he may have got the original idea from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered just four years before he wrote the novel,” Coover told swissinfo.

He says Kerouac used the scroll form to encourage the free flow of ideas, and in so doing he developed an entirely new style of writing, which he called spontaneous prose.

Later in his career, Kerouac was of the opinion that a draft manuscript should not be corrected, an idea derived from the Buddhist philosophy that “the first thought is the best thought”. Indeed the “On The Road” manuscript is remarkably clean, with just a few minor alterations and the occasional passage that was destined to be deleted.

The novel may now be regarded as a groundbreaking work, but back in the 1950s, it was little too avant-garde for Kerouac’s publisher, who complained that the scroll format made it too difficult to edit. Even after the author had rewritten the novel in page format, it took another six years to be published.

On The Road, based on Kerouac’s wanderings across America between 1947 and 1950, is a novel that defines its generation, but it is also incredibly popular today. An example of its appeal is that the French-language translation of the book sells 30,000 copies every year.

“It’s not taught in schools. It’s a book that people want to read, and pass on to their friends,” says Coover.

He says ultimately he would like to see the manuscript being placed on public display, whether it is bought by an institution or by a private individual who then lends it to a library.

by Roy Probert

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