Just over 30 of us push open the discrete double swing doors and dot ourselves around the lecture theatre - complete with raked seating and sound booth - that is hidden in the north wing of Whitworth Art Gallery. We are a diverse bunch, covering all ages from freshers to pensioners, gathered together for the penultimate talk in The American Scene series. The events have been designed to complement the exhibition of the same name, which is on tour from the British Museum until Sunday: for the Words & Fixtures review, click here.
David Morris, Head of Collections for the Whitworth, introduces RJ Ellis, Professor of American & Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham, and explains the connection between tonight’s discussion, Six Myths Of On The Road, And Where These Might Lead Us, and the prints hanging in the gallery next door. He describes the post-war part of the show as “perhaps the most striking” and paints a picture for us of the cultural context of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Artists like Louise Bourgeois and Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists were in full flow; the jazz movement was in full swing: not surprisingly writers were also going full steam ahead. Improvisation was the name of the game, and experimentation (drugs, sexuality, joblessness, travel) provided inspiration to the poets and authors looking for new ways to express the confusion (social, economic, political, emotional...) of post-war America.
And so the Beats were born, so-called because of the similarities of their free form writing to the free form artworks and music concurrently being produced. The Beat Generation was quite a crowd, but the most famous and fecund were William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and, of course, crowned King Of The Beats Jack Kerouac. The moniker Beatniks was later applied by ‘the establishment’ in an attempt to undermine the group by associating them with Communism (the Sputnik programme was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957; the year Kerouac’s seminal novel On The Road was published), just one example of how the group’s image was purposefully and systematically tarnished.
Professor Ellis (hereafter known as Dick) flicks up a photograph of Jack Kerouac, showing him wearing a crumpled checked shirt with tousled hair and a slight five o’clock shadow (the stencil by ~iamfox shown here is a reproduction of the portrait). The shot was taken (and cropped, losing Kerouac’s crucifix in the process) for Mademoiselle magazine and managed to successfully give the impression of a rebellious tearaway, whereas in reality he was unusually scruffy having just come down from his firewatch stint on Desolation Peak (as documented in Lonesome Traveller, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels). The slighting of his character in such ways helped effect Kerouac’s decline, and just over a decade later he died at the age of 47 from cirrhosis caused by alcoholism.
This inaccurate picture is the first of six myths Dick presents, others being: that On The Road is the result of a drug-fuelled writing frenzy (actually, the fact that the book was completed in 20 days was down to Kerouac’s 100wpm typing prowess, and the novel is obviously well thought through and structured with obvious nods to literary influences such as Proust, Dostoevsky and Joyce); that the work was typed onto a continuous roll of tracing paper so the author didn’t have to stop and feed sheets into his Underwood (the “scroll”, as the original manuscript is called, is actually a number of rolls stuck together with Sellotape); that Kerouac refused to make revisions (there are deletions, additions and corrections throughout the original scroll) or accept editors’ changes (there is obvious collaboration between the author and his Viking Press editor Malcolm Cowley and copy-editor Helen Weaver)... I won’t reveal them all here; that might just amount to plagiarism and you might also like to catch Dick in action yourself some time.
Suffice it to say, On The Road is still a legend, despite the deconstruction of some of the myths around it. It is still an example of spontaneity, authenticity and automatic storytelling, but it was carefully edited, modified and honed to make it the great, readable and, ultimately, publishable, work that first came out. It might have taken 50 years for the 1951 uncut “original scroll” to be released (Penguin do a paperback version), but (to quote the Beat-inspired Bob) the times they are a-changin’, and aren’t we lucky to have two texts to study, not just one?
Check out what's coming up next at the Whitworth (and other places around town) on the beautiful new Creative Tourist Cultural Calendar.