Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

On entering the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, the first thing you see is Jack Kerouac’s name lit up in neon. Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the headlining exhibit at the library, is clearly a big deal. Given the 50th Anniversary of On the Road, there has been a tremendous amount of hoopla over Kerouac in the past year. The media attention has been nice. The increased and increasingly thorough scholarly attention has been appreciated. The published version of the scroll has been devoured and enjoyed. But when you get down to it, nothing prepares you and nothing compares to the garden of literary delights that are housed in the NYPL’s Berg collection and documented in Issac Gewirtz’s monograph on the exhibit. Both are quite frankly breathtaking and serve as the icing on the cake for the 50th Anniversary. But icing is too insubstantial; the exhibit is a Beat smorgasbord, a naked lunch, monumental in its presentation and contents.

Isaac Gewirtz, Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the RoadPaul LeClerc, President of the New York Public Library states in the foreword to Gewirtz’s book, “Clearly, the New York Public Library may now proclaim itself the center for Beat research in the world.” I was aware that the Berg possessed extensive holdings on Kerouac but nothing can prepare you for the experience of seeing all the letters, journals, manuscripts, photographs, and books in one place and all spread out before you. If you have read Ann Charter’s accounts of visiting Kerouac in 1966 for her pioneering bibliography on the King of the Beats, you know that Kerouac kept meticulous records of his literary output. Everything was filed and accounted for. Kerouac may have lived a helter skelter, disorganized life, but that did not extend to his literary existence. He kept records and accounts of everything. I was amazed at how fresh the manuscripts and letters looked. The condition of these incredibly fragile items is impeccable. Collectible first editions of On the Road are in far worse condition that Kerouac’s manuscripts of the novel. One of the many impressions that come from the show is that Kerouac probably lived with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The Gutenberg Bible is currently on view at the NYPL, and so is the Bible of the Beat Generation. As you enter the Kerouac room in the center of the main lobby of the Library, the scroll version of On the Road centers the exhibit. I expected to see a few feet of the 120 foot scroll rolled out for viewing. In fact, a full 60 feet are available for study in a long glass case. There is an annotated sheet to help readers out. The scroll is footnoted at the margins so you can go to a number and start reading your favorite section. Kerouac’s visit with Burroughs in New Orleans is section 12 and 13, towards the end of the 60 feet on view. If taking in the entire scroll gives you chills, seeing Bill Burroughs’ name typed out on the manuscript instead of Old Bull Lee provides its own tingle.

Image of Beatific Soul exhibitI would have loved to see the end of the scroll where Lucien Carr’s dog famously chewed the manuscript, but that said, seeing just half of the scroll rolled out is a powerful experience. It is a remarkable object. On one level it stands out in its tangibility, its physicality, its size and expanse, but at the same time it is so fragile, delicate and ephemeral. It threatens to crumble and blow away under your inquiring eyes. As the exhibit makes clear, the scroll as an object immediately bring to mind the concept of the road, the path, the journey that lies at the heart of On the Road. For me, this merging of form and content in the physical object coupled with the physical act of creating it (not just the typing but the act of taping together the paper as well) makes the manuscript a work of art on par with any major work of the 20th Century. The scroll is in some sense ahead of its time, predicting the artists’ book, conceptual art and performance art boom of the 1960s and beyond. The scroll got me thinking of book artists like Dieter Roth or Jim Dine (interviewed in the Bunker). It was just that impressive to me on my first viewing.

Naked Lunch Manuscript PageThere is no way to take in the Kerouac exhibit in one swoop. The Gewirtz book will help you digest what you have seen although the book only deals with half of the objects on display. I decided to take the exhibition in pieces and have a focus. As I checked my bag, I looked at my coat check. It was number 23. This seemed like a sign that I should look through the exhibit with an eye out for Burroughs. In fact, the words and ghostly figure of Burroughs run throughout the exhibit. Just to the right of the scroll and at the beginning of the exhibit, the first object that captures the viewer’s gaze is the Ace edition of Junkie (1953). There is a small collection of Burroughs items including a manuscript page of Naked Lunch with Burroughs’ hand edits. This is a page from the “Original material for Naked Lunch and Soft Machine, and earlier” that begins “Panama: Paregoric gags you.” The Gewirtz book reprints the page so you can read and study it after the exhibit. In addition there are a couple of photos including one by Charles Gatewood of Burroughs sitting in front of an E-Meter taken in 1962 also from the Burroughs archive.

Kerouac is the headliner at the NYPL at the moment, but Burroughs waits in the wings for his chance in the spotlight. Hopefully, the position of Burroughs at the entrance of the exhibit foreshadows a Burroughs show in 2009 — the 50th Anniversary of Naked Lunch — on the level of the Kerouac show. I would expect that the Burroughs Archive at the Berg rivals the Kerouac Archive in its depth and breadth. It should make for a remarkable exhibition. According Gewirtz’s book, the Burroughs Archive is ready for researchers. The foreword reads, “To facilitate such research, both the Kerouac and the Burroughs archives were organized, and electronic finding aids created for them, with the financial assistance of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.” Correct me if I am wrong but I do not think the Burroughs archive is available yet on the NYPL’s webpage of finding aids.

The Kerouac exhibit is organized roughly chronologically and it becomes clear just how influential a figure Burroughs was on Kerouac early on and vice versa. The exhibit includes a draft manuscript for the legendary And the Hippos Boiled in their Tanks, Kerouac and Burroughs’ collaborative account of the Kammerer murder. The manuscript (in impeccable condition) bears the original title “I Wish I Were You: The Philip Tourian Story” with Kerouac and Burroughs’ names as authors written in Kerouac’s hand. The upper right corner reads “45 Ryko Tourian.”

Cover Designed by Jack Kerouac for On the RoadIn this same section, there is a Kerouac journal from November 10-Dec 26, 1944 opened to a page that gives a clue into the power of Burroughs’ influence as an intellectual mentor. The journal reads, “Write about Burroughs’ Gideanism — the acte gratuite, he so indiscriminately champions” He continues later on the same page, “Morality is a word [Burroughs] as frankly disavows as Nietzsche does idealism.” The central role of Burroughs in the concept of the New Vision that held together the early Columbia circle could not be clearer. Another journal from the fall of 1946 contains a section entitled “On Bill Burroughs.” In this journal, Kerouac declares his independence from Burroughs’ influence. Yet there follows a description of Burroughs in his apartment attempting to get high from smoking birdseed. I immediately thought of Oliver Harris’ book The Secret of Fascination. For years after their initial meeting, Kerouac would attempt, like Oliver Harris decades later, to get to the heart of Burroughs and explore Burroughs as an object of fascination.

Burroughs was no less influenced by Kerouac. The Burroughs archive contains a folder dedicated “to Kells Elvins and Jack Kerouac.” These two men early on encouraged Burroughs to become a writer. Burroughs in essays and in interviews has credited Kerouac with being instrumental in this regard. Gewirtz’ book contains a quote from Burroughs’ essay “Jack Kerouac” to that effect.

Another possible but tenuous link to Burroughs appears in Kerouac’s juvenilia. At an early age and continuing on to adulthood, Kerouac constructed an elaborate fantasy life revolving around role playing games of baseball and horseracing. In 1936 (Kerouac was 14), Kerouac created handmade newspapers (Tuft Authority, Romper’s Sheet, Daily Owl, Stake Special, The Sportsman are a few of them) recounting these fantasy contests. In 1950, Kerouac created a draft of On the Road in a newspaper format entitled American Times. These works reminded me of Burroughs’ three column cut-ups of the 1960s, like Moving Times. I wonder if Burroughs saw Kerouac’s newspapers. If so, somewhere in the back of Burroughs’ mind, these works of Kerouac might have influenced Burroughs’ in taking up this format.

In addition, Kerouac, again in 1936, kept scrapbooks dedicated to his fantasy games. These scrapbooks continued later in Kerouac’s life. The Book of Dreams manuscript contains a collage with a linkage to numerology. Kerouac fixates on the number 69 (Burroughs was fascinated with 23). Another scrapbook work entitled By Memere also contains sexual references revealing an oedipal component to Kerouac’s relationship with his mother. Collage and scrapbooks were early expressions of creativity for Kerouac that continued throughout his career.

Kerouac’s mother figures prominently in another item that features Burroughs. In 1958, Memere wrote Allen Ginsberg a nasty letter telling Ginsberg and Burroughs to stay away from her son. The letter focuses on all the worst aspects of Burroughs and derides him as a pernicious influence on Kerouac. Nearby is a less threatening letter with a maternal theme from Ginsberg to Burroughs from 1959. Few of Ginsberg’s letters to Burroughs from the 1950s survive. In this letter, Ginsberg mentions his poem in progress, Kaddish, that was dedicated to his mother, Naomi.

Photographs are a big part of the exhibit and several of them feature Burroughs. There is a photo of Burroughs birthplace taken in 1912/1913 when Mortimer and Laura Lee bought the home on 4664 Berlin Avenue. Burroughs was born in 1914. The street was renamed Pershing Avenue after WWI. Several photos from 1953 are sprinkled throughout. Burroughs visited New York City in late 1953 in an effort to reconnect with Ginsberg after years in Mexico. Ginsberg famously rejected Burroughs sending the dejected lover to Tangier. Many of these photos have become iconic shots. The pics of Burroughs without a shirt at a desk at 206 East 7th St as well as the pic of Burroughs lecturing Kerouac on a couch in this same apartment are included. There is also a photo of Burroughs with Alene Lee. Lee was Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans, and she typed up the manuscript for The Yage Letters. There is another interesting photo of Burroughs outside the San Remo with Alan Ansen from the same period. As a group, these photos document a pivotal moment in Burroughs’ life and capture a slice of New York City in the 1950s, when the city was the world’s center for art and literature.

There are a few photos from Tangier as well, including the famous shot of Burroughs in a business suit lying on the beach. This is from the period in which the Naked Lunch manuscript was constructed with Kerouac typing large chunks of it at lightning speed. Later in the exhibit, there are four snapshots of Big Zoco (Big Market) and Zoco Chico (Little Market) in Tangier from 1954. Taken shortly after Burroughs’ arrival in Tangier, the blurry pics give the briefest of glimpses of the marketplace that in part provided the backdrop for the Market Section of Naked Lunch. “The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.”

One of the odder pieces in the exhibit also possesses a link to Burroughs. As I mentioned before, Kerouac compulsively kept lists and statistics. In his writing, he meticulously monitored his daily progress in terms of words and pages produced. He also detailed his sexual conquests. Remarkably, in a list of over fifty names, Joan Adams (Vollmer) is listed as number 23. The number is coincidental but still I was amazed by this sexual link to Burroughs. Kerouac notes that they slept together 175 times. This is more frequently then he slept with Edie Parker or Joan Haverty and second only to Alene Lee, Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time of Burroughs’ visit in 1953. Clearly, the early Columbia Circle was incestuous (Kerouac also slept with Celine Young, Lucien Carr’s girlfriend), but I was unaware of the extent of Vollmer and Kerouac’s relationship. Vollmer remains a shadowy figure in Burroughs’ life and in Beat history in general. She was an intimate member of that early circle on many levels. By all accounts (scanty as they are), she was a remarkable woman who captivated Burroughs and clearly possessed some hold on Kerouac as well.

Another exhibit on display at the NYPL got me thinking about Burroughs. Graphic Modernism in the Baltic and Balkans conjured up images of Burroughs’ small press output of the 1960s. Works by El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and others link, in terms of design, to the newspaper and scrapbook works. Certain pages of Moholy Nagy’s Malerei, Photographie, Film (1925) got me thinking of Time and Apo-33. The Polish Journal, Zdroj (Source), looks exactly like a Lower East Side mimeo. In fact, Modernist little magazines and the samizdat tradition in Eastern Europe foreshadow the mimeo revolution of the post-WWII era. You cannot look at Fuck You, a magazine of the arts or C: A Journal of Poetry without thinking of these earlier predecessors. The Expressionist innovations in layout, design, production and use of printing materials were something for the mimeos of the post WWII era to build on and react against.

I exited the New York Public Library and was greeted by a January thunderstorm. The bad weather brought to mind the Ghost of the Susquehanna section in On the Road. The exhibit included manuscript and journal versions of that section including pages with drawings of the Ghost. The exhibit also had several drawings of Dr. Sax. Of course, Dr. Sax features an epic storm as well. Dr. Sax was in part modeled on William Burroughs, and Kerouac wrote much of the novel while living in Mexico with him. The exhibit contained a photo of 212 Orizaba Street where Joan and Burroughs lived in 1950 and Kerouac and Bill Garver later resided in 1956. Dr. Sax is in many ways Kerouac’s much planned Visions of Bill. Like Visions of Cody written for and about Neal Cassady, Visions of Bill would have captured the essence of Burroughs that fascinated Kerouac from their first meeting. In some ways, Dr. Sax serves that purpose. Walking away from 5th Avenue in the rain, I kept looking over my shoulder. I felt somebody was following me. Call him el hombre invisible, Dr. Sax, Old Bull Lee, or William Burroughs. From the Beatific Soul exhibit, it is clear that Burroughs haunted Kerouac. He haunts me too.

Note: Columbia University has a companion exhibit dedicated to the art work of Kerouac and his friends. I was unable to attend this exhibit. In addition, in my single-minded quest to see the scroll I forgot about the book fair at the 25th Street Armory. If anybody attended these two events, please send an account to the comments section. The University of Texas at Austin will have a Beat exhibit starting in February. The scroll will be on hand as will examples of the stellar holdings of the library at Austin, one of the finest in the world. For example, the library houses Kerouac’s On the Road journals, included in the paperback version of Windblown World. Again, if a RealityStudio reader attends that exhibit please send along an account of it.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 29 January 2007. Also see the companion piece William Burroughs in New York City 1964-1965.

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