The Holy Shit of Burroughs and Kerouac

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Plenary Address given by Oliver Harris to the Conference “Kerouac’s On the Road: The Beats and the Post-Beats”

Birmingham University, 13th December 2008

I took it for granted that I was invited here to cause trouble … not that I have a reputation for being difficult or dangerous, but William Burroughs certainly does, and in a tight spot, Burroughs will always hold the upper hand over Kerouac, because he’s got a knife in his.


Still, it could be worse, because Burroughs was wont to use the rope as well as a blade — a routine he famously pulled on Alan Ansen in 1957, bringing to life a scene from Naked Lunch.

WSB and Alan Ansen

Actually, for what follows — which is more focused on the writing than on the writers and is as much to do with collaboration as conflict — the definitive statement of the role Burroughs plays can be summed up in this image:

Scroll and Jar

No prizes for recognising the left side of this diptych; the right half shows a jar of epoxy resin. In it is my punch line. So I will save to the very end revealing its contents.

In the meantime, and by way of an introduction, I want to prepare the ground by highlighting the relation between Kerouac and Burroughs through four key moments in time, three of which belong to a familiar narrative of Beat biography and self-mythologisation.

For the first scene, we have to go back to 1945, when the two men collaborated on the book that was published last month after a wait of over sixty years — And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. This is the period when Burroughs and Kerouac were truly a double act. 

Kulchur 4

Here we see them acting out in the grounds of Columbia University a scene from Dashiell Hammett, which confirms both their taste for self-dramatisation and the hardboiled detective style in which they wrote about those boiling hippos. Of course, there’s more to it than that — even just in terms of stylistic debts, since I would suggest that the prose rhythm is also informed by a modernist tradition that includes Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil and Joseph March Moncur’s The Wild Party. But I want to make two points of a different kind.

First, if we look through one end of the telescope, Hippos is a fascinating primary document, a major foundational text for the Beat movement and the record of a crucial event in the formation of the Beat circle — well worth the wait. If we look through the other end, however, it’s a minor bit of undistinguished juvenilia that’s only seeing the light of day at all as a cash cow for the Burroughs and Kerouac estates, keen to exploit the endlessly recycled narrative of Beat mythmaking and hagiography. The point is not that we have to choose between these extremes of reverence and cynicism; just that we should recognise both are possible.

And second, Hippos is an important instance of authorial collaboration — important because rare in its own right and because it occurs right at the start of these two writers’ literary careers. In practice, the extent of the collaboration here — writing alternate chapters — is pretty limited; but, as a principle, it’s a significant opening up of the author’s presumed autonomy, the singularly private and solitary act of writing.

Our next scene is prompted by the image of Burroughs besting Kerouac in a fight, which appears on the jacket of the U.S. edition of Hippos. This is historically confusing, however, since the scene takes place not in the mid-1940s, when they wrote Hippos together, but in autumn 1953 in Ginsberg’s lower East Side apartment. 

The image holds a double significance. To start with, the photograph itself is one of a famous series Ginsberg took with his Kodak Retina, an important visual record of the three men and their circle (other important images from this sequence include those of Alene Lee and Gregory Corso). According to Ginsberg, his motive for taking what he called “sacramental” snapshots of his friends was as a means of “recording certain moments in eternity” — a vital element in his commitment to finding the holiness of the mundane — a point I will return to later. 

Second, insofar as literary history is concerned, it was at precisely this time that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs collaborated accidentally to come up with the title “naked lunch.” Now you’ll recall that in the “introduction” to Naked Lunch Burroughs states that the title of his novel wasn’t his: “the title,” he says, “was suggested by Jack Kerouac.” 

Kerouac biographer Ellis Amburn claimed that the title came about in the mid-1940s because Ginsberg “had difficulty deciphering Bill’s hurried handwriting” in the manuscript of And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, and misread the phrase “naked lust” as “naked lunch” — which Kerouac then promptly suggested as a good title for Burroughs to use one day. 

However, Amburn was wrong: the phrase doesn’t turn up in Hippos — or in any of the other manuscript versions I’ve seen — and what Ginsberg misread came from another manuscript — or rather typescript — that Kerouac had also given Burroughs the title for. This was his second novel, Queer, which in fall 1953 Burroughs had just brought back with him to New York, together with the manuscript of what became the first part of The Yage Letters.

Although Amburn’s mistake is misleading — for both the timing and the role of Queer are vital in the genesis of Burroughs’ title — it fortuitously redoubles the significance of collaboration. Ginsberg’s photograph of Burroughs and Kerouac staging a fight marks the origins of Naked Lunch as a collaborative venture between the three writers, prompted by the mistake of Burroughs’ typing and Ginsberg misreading — an accident that Kerouac seized upon as wholly fitting. And indeed it was, since the origins of the title point towards the vital roles that both Kerouac and Ginsberg would play in the complex genesis of the manuscript Burroughs would spend the next six years writing. 

How the title came about is therefore a symbol and prophecy of the decisive role played by chance and the participation of others in the authorship of Burroughs’ great work.

Which brings us to the third scene. This takes place in early Spring 1957, when Kerouac — soon followed by Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Alan Ansen — visits Burroughs in Tangier to help him turn the manuscript of what he then called “Interzone” into what would become Naked Lunch. Like so many Beat stories, this one has been often repeated rather then ever reconsidered.

Although Ginsberg and Ansen concentrated on the organisation of the material — the most urgent task in hand — Kerouac’s involvement in typing up Burroughs’ mess of notes and turning them into a clean manuscript should not be underestimated. He brought something special to this collective effort by way of the same epic typing speed and stamina that had made his scroll Road possible. Famously, typing up Burroughs’ material gave Kerouac the horrors, but his physical labours at the typewriter in the Villa Muniria produced a manuscript that followed the co-authored Hippos (co-authored, but typed up solely by Kerouac) as a precursor to Burroughs’ future engagements with creative collaboration (the cut-up project, the third mind concept, etc.), firmly rooted in the most practical of matters: Burroughs needed the help of others to complete his work. 

Near the end of Desolation Angels, Kerouac has Burroughs explain the origins and purpose of this writing: “I’m shitting out my educated Middlewest background for once and all […] By the time I finish this book I’ll be pure as an angel, my dear.” (315). These terms — “shitting out” to become “pure as an angel” — are especially relevant to my interests here, but more narrowly the key point is the collaborative act between writers. It’s especially important and deeply poignant too, because this would turn out to be the last time Burroughs and Kerouac had any truly meaningful contact — their intimacy as friends and writers all but over little more than a decade after their co-writing of Hippos.

Many years later, the manuscript Kerouac helped type out, under the title “Interzone,” ended up filed away in the Ginsberg papers at Columbia University. There it had been stored — unrecognized — until it resurfaced in 1984 when Barry Miles discovered it, coincidentally, just weeks before I myself came across it there, as a fresh-faced doctoral student in the Rare Books and Manuscript reading room of the Butler Library. I mention this because it brings us full circle, back to forty years earlier when Burroughs and Kerouac were posing for Ginsberg’s camera on the Columbia campus, and also because for me it was the beginning of my work as a Burroughs scholar, so that next year will be my twenty-fifth anniversary, a very strange kind of sliver wedding… 

And finally, as an epilogue, we fast-forward almost fifty years to 2006, which saw Kerouac and Burroughs now reunited one last time beyond the grave, housed in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.

Berg Collection

The Berg had acquired the Kerouac papers in 2001 and in January 2006 bought Burroughs’ major archive, which had been in private hands since the mid-1970s. Had the Ginsberg papers on deposit at Columbia not gone to Stanford in 1994, they would — many have argued should — have also found a home at the Berg, conveniently keeping the three major Beat writers together, their literary remains stored next to one another in cartons, waiting for us to pay our respects …

This quick sketch ends up in the archives not just because this is where I do most of my research but because the archival preservation of the past will play an increasingly important part in the future of Beat scholarship. And in what follows I want to develop two lines of enquiry based on the literary archive: one is the key role it plays in the back-story, the typically untold story, that underpins the production of new editions of Beat texts; the other is the role it plays as a subset of a far broader cultural phenomenon, involving how we relate to and value the past.

And the first stop in this journey comes under the banner: Anniversary Culture.

1956 saw the 50th anniversary of Ginsberg’s “Howl”; 1957 the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s On the Road; 1958 the 50th anniversary of On the Road‘s first UK publication; 1959 will see the 50th anniversary of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. It’s hard to miss the fact that we are riding a great wave of big Five-O anniversaries for the three key Beat publications. And the media attention focused on the primary texts has been matched in scholarly circles by the appearance of anniversary books about the original books — from The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later and Howl for Now to What’s Your Road Man? Critical Essays on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Jack Kerouac: Back on the Road exhibition catalogue, and, coming next year, Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays. And then of course, there are the conferences, from the Boulder Celebration of On the Road to the anniversary events in Paris next July for Naked Lunch.

This tidal wave of recent activity has clearly been driven by the anniversary landmark. And in terms of anniversaries, fifty is the ideal, optimum number, better than the century especially for landmarks of literature — why? Because reaching a hundred makes it almost certain there’s no longer a living connection back to the author; after a century, only people who knew the people who knew the author will be alive. In another fifty years time, most of us won’t even be here … So, carpe diem: because, clearly enough, that is the point. The fiftieth anniversary registers our place in history, our relation to the past and the passage of time; fifty is the optimum number for us.

The big Five-O situates us in-between mythmaking and marketing, as we find ourselves caught up in both our culture industry’s drive to recycle the past as nostalgic memorabilia and our business culture’s sales campaigns that only need a peg to hang it on. And for us, the fiftieth anniversaries of “Howl,” On the Road, and Naked Lunch are the perfect pegs — ideal opportunities for exhibits like the one at the Barber Institute, showing the Scroll, and for a conference like this. We’re here to seize the moment, to make it productive, to bring people with ideas and knowledge together, to speak to one another and share our interest — all conveniently focused and promoted by the magic round number.

Anniversary culture creates possibilities, then, but it also risks confusing real history with self-interested hype — especially in an age that has great trouble telling apart the authentic and the artificial. So if the series of Beat fiftieth anniversaries give us a peg to hang it on, the question is how to avoid hanging ourselves.

I’m going to come back to the sense of history, of what’s lost or needs to be preserved later on. First, though, I want to turn from the general to the specific: 

2003 saw both publication of the 50th anniversary edition of Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, and the release of Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. And then in 2007 we had of course the Scroll On the Road.

The Scroll Road was always going to be an important and high profile publication, whenever it happened — but what extra expectations does the perfect anniversary edition bring or make explicit, and what extra problems? One way to answer that is by way of the two Burroughs publications.

The Definitive Junky

The fiftieth anniversary edition of Junky — as we can see from its cover — was promoted as “definitive.” The point about this use of the term, is not just that the marketing department at Viking Penguin wanted it, but that I wanted it too — even though in editorial circles definitive is verbum non grata, because it represents a false ideal rather than simply an impracticality. Why did I want the term on the cover? Precisely to insist that this was not just a reprinting to cash in on the half-century anniversary — which is the case, for example, with Viking’s fiftieth anniversary edition of On the Road, a hardback reprint of the same old text (actually, a direct reprint of the fortieth anniversary edition).

No, I wanted to make it plain that this was an authentically new Junky, a different edition. But of course, what that also meant was that it necessarily became the edition, the last word on the subject. It upped the ante — all the way up; from the point of view of textual theory, too far up…

Or consider the Restored Naked Lunch. The text has proved very popular and is clearly on course to become the standard edition. I’d venture to say that it’s had a pretty easy ride, however, because in many ways it’s a quite problematic edition. There are many important and valuable elements, but from a scholarly point of view there’s no clear or detailed description of methodology, no apparatus of notes, and no real explanation of what is being “restored.” 

Textually, there are questions that could be asked of the editing — but my point is that few have asked, and while one reason for that might be that Naked Lunch does not attract many scholarly pedants, another is that the edition benefited from not being hung on a peg of anniversary hype. Although “restored” promises a return to some lost past, it’s a vague enough term so that it doesn’t claim to be the edition, like the anniversary Junky.

But paradoxically, the reverse is also true. The very fact that it wasn’t published to coincide with a marketing opportunity date might have helped the Restored Naked Lunch appear the real thing, the genuine article, rather than a ploy to cash in on the calendar. 

So, to come back to the Scroll Road: the anniversary timing made great sense, but also ran a risk. Instead of killing two birds with one stone — celebrating the old text while revealing another — it doubled the stake on what the edition promised to deliver, raising expectations in regard to both the long-published novel and the newly published manuscript. 

And on a strictly material level there’s also a serious practical danger with publications driven by the calendar. An immovable publication date imposes constraints from which there is no escaping. Deadlines are bad enough under normal circumstances in determining the work we do and how well it gets done. For a scholarly edition of a famous text based on original manuscripts, it’s doubly so. In the case of the fiftieth anniversary peg, the very thing guaranteed to maximise the audience for the work might also be the decisive factor in determining the limits of that work. 

So far as I understand, the Scroll Road was commissioned only about two years ahead of publication. If so, that’s less time than I set myself for Junky, a much shorter and simpler novel, and a text with an interesting but nowhere near as complex manuscript and publication history. The tighter the deadline, the less time to complete the research, the smaller the margin for error, the less opportunity for reflection. Without any leeway, you’re at the mercy of circumstance or the desires and decisions of others — dealing with the other parties involved in such a project, you’ve got no bargaining position, if you ever had any at all.

This is a simple but important truth that needs to be told more often, for no matter how hard we try to minimise the mistakes we make on our own terms, the fact is that many of the key terms are dictated to us and entirely outside our control. 

This is to introduce the proverbial elephant in the living room — the uncomfortable truth that a textual scholar is granted authority over a very limited part of any publication. Having been around that block four times over the past 15 years, I know I’ve been lucky, but each project has been decisively shaped by factors I couldn’t control. To give the most directly relevant example, The Yage Letters Redux.

After three years of working from archival sources, my manuscript was due to be delivered to City Lights at the start of 2006. The work was all done — I think we were about ready to go to proof stage — when I heard the New York Public Library announce it had bought, from the uncooperative hands of a private collector, the world’s largest Burroughs archive.

I knew there was a “Yage” manuscript in there, possibly one I already had but just as possibly an important missing piece in the jigsaw. I didn’t know for sure because I’d tried for the previous two years to take a look at it, even going all the way to Ohio in a vain effort — but the private hands had stayed uncooperative… In my Introduction to Yage Redux, I had called finding the lost manuscript “my own Grail quest” — and now, with my text ready for publication, it had turned up. 

However, City Lights were understandably reluctant right at the last minute to delay publication by what might be months — I couldn’t tell. That was one problem. The other was that just because the Burroughs archive was now out of private hands and safely in the Berg Collection, didn’t mean they would let anybody in to look at any part of it, however specific and for whatever good and urgent purpose, until the archive had been processed and catalogued: privileged access would, as they rightly told me, contravene both the Code of Ethics of the Rare Book and Manuscript Section of the American Library Association and the Joint Statement on Access to Original Research Materials issued by ALA and the Society of American Archivists.

So … there were the publishers with their deadline, the private collector able to exercise arbitrary power, and the public body curator with bureaucratic protocols to police. In the end — by another entirely unexpected twist of the hand of chance — it has all worked out for the best. I was out at Stanford last May, collecting materials for a new edition of Queer, when I stumbled across a misfiled “Yage” manuscript, whose existence I had never suspected and which turns out to be far more interesting and significant than the one in the Berg. In retrospect, it was just as well that in the Introduction to my edition I’d claimed it “won’t have the last word”: look out for The Yage Letters Redux Redux (This Time It’s Definitive), coming soon…

Moral of the story? Simply that textual editors find themselves inevitably caught up in the material contingencies of publication — precisely the same conditions that resulted in unsatisfactory previous editions, such as Viking’s 1957 On the Road, which of course is where the editor comes in, to carry out the work to “restore” or “recover” what was lost or damaged the first time around. In the very course of trying to free the text from the contingencies of the past and to assert the integrity of authorship in the face of other agents and factors, the textual scholar discovers the ineluctable power of those forces… 

Publicly, however, the restored or recovered edition promises it can indeed put history into reverse, can bring back what has been lost — so that its results risk being taken as not within history, not another part of the messy historical process, but somehow safely outside of it. This illusion, I think, frames the reception of the Scroll On the Road.

We can see why this is significant in symbolic form through the contrasting cover designs of the original Viking edition and the edition of the original manuscript.

On the Road

On the cover of the Viking first edition of 1957 we have a small red, blue, and black abstract cityscape, designed by Bill English, set against a plain black background. Symbolically, this miniature modernist image says: this is a novel, a serious work of art. 

Malcolm Cowley, writing to Kerouac less than two months before publication, in July 1957, called the design “handsome” and “chaste,” adding: “I don’t know whether it looks more like a devotional work or a handbook in applied sociology. But that’s just the appearance it ought to have if it is to receive the sort of serious attention it deserves and we want to get for it” (Charters, vol. 2, 49).

Now of course we know that Kerouac was intensely interested in the visual presentation of his work, and made his own cover designs. But what’s interesting here is that Cowley’s attention to the cover substituted for a reply to Kerouac’s previous letter, dated July 4, which reflected his specifically textual concerns about the impending publication of his manuscript. 

Kerouac begins his letter by referring to the piece of “untouched” prose recently published (“Neal and the Three Stooges,” a section from Visions of Cody, which had appeared in the small press magazine New Editions), putting the key term, with its connotations of virginal purity, in quotation marks to make his point. Next, Kerouac asks Cowley of On the Road the pressing question: “when do I get to see the final gallies?” Then in a postscript, he closes his letter by citing the Bible — Mark 13.11 — which enables him to equate the “spontaneous language” of his novel with the speech of the Holy Ghost. To this point, Cowley did respond directly:

“If the Holy Ghost is speaking through you, fine, fine, let him speak. Sometimes he turns out to be the devil masquerading as the Holy Ghost, and that’s alright too. Sometimes he turns out to be Simple Simon, and then you have to cut what he says.”

Or, to read between the lines: Cowley responds to Kerouac’s request to see the gallies of On the Road, by countering the idea of “untouched” — that’s to say, un-edited — writing, insisting that cuts are necessary because not everything is holy.

On the Road Scroll edition

Now look at the cover of the Scroll edition: the background manuscript facsimile says symbolically what the title states literally: this is the original, the authentic, material writing of Jack Kerouac. This is — by inference measured against the Viking edition — the untouched Real Thing.

In which case, how should we read the internal organisation of the Scroll edition? For while the front cover promises us at long last the unmediated authenticity of the original, the reader doesn’t reach Kerouac’s text until page 109, by way of not only the editor’s fifty-page introduction but also by another fifty pages of critical essays. This has nothing to do with how useful that material is; it’s a structural issue of symbolic importance, and it’s significant that in this regard the Restored Naked Lunch did precisely the opposite.

The Restored edition delivers on its title most literally by restoring the way in which the first Olympia Press edition of 1959 began, with maximum impact, bang, with line one: “I can feel the heat closing in…” It did so by removing the so-called introduction that mediated the text in all other editions after 1959, and by placing the editors’ own introduction at the back of the book. Moving the introduction was especially significant since Burroughs’ text — which, to cut a long story short, was put there by his publishers — is the single most influential source of myths about the origins of his novel, most famously the misleading claim that he had no “memory of writing the notes that have now been published under the title Naked Lunch.”

However, in each case the structural organisation of these texts could be read in contrary ways: it may be correct, but it might also be considered naïve to present Naked Lunch as though we can ever read Burroughs’ book as if for the first time, as if unmediated by all the mythology that has built up over the past fifty years. Equally, in mediating the text of Kerouac’s scroll, it could be argued that the edition’s introductory material merely represented the situation as it stands, simply admits that this is where we all come in…

Given the hype and presentation of the Scroll Road, however, it was inevitable that the editor’s introduction should beg the key question quite explicitly: “Is the scroll the real On the Road?” The difficulty here is that if the scroll is identified as the original — the original, a single, true source — then it must indeed be the “real thing.” And if the goal of the edition is to “displace mythology and recover Kerouac as a writer,” then “recovery” amounts to curing the text of the debilitating and corrupting editing it suffered at the hands of its publishers. In other words, to recover the original is to counter the contingencies and contaminations of publication. 

But the upshot is an untenable dichotomy: on one side, the Viking edition that falsified Kerouac’s manuscript; on the other, the Scroll edition that escapes and puts an end to history, turning back time to restore the lost true original. But of course, the scroll On the Road is itself an edited work and subject to the choices and contingencies of any published text.

Leaving aside those factors beyond the editor’s control, the stated rationale for editing the scroll runs the risk of accepting this false dichotomy. In his brief “Note on the Text,” Howard Cunnell explains that he has “stripped away” all handwritten corrections and revisions made on the manuscript by Kerouac and restored lined-through typed text. This serves his goal of “presenting a text that is as close as possible to the one Kerouac produced between April 2 and April 22, 1951” (101). In other words, we’re invited to accept the three-week period of composition as completely inviolate, in keeping with Kerouac’s famous claim — which is at the back of his exchange with Malcolm Cowley — that it was dictated by the Holy Ghost and therefore could not be altered: you don’t edit a sacred text. Holy words are not subject to the forces of time, the processes of history; they just are

However, as Cunnell himself very ably demonstrates, the scroll both had a long pre-history — in the various false starts Kerouac made on his road book in the previous three years — and was reworked by Kerouac almost immediately he had finished typing it, long before Viking’s editors stuck their blue pencil to it. And he almost certainly made some corrections during the privileged three-week period itself. 

These and other criticisms are a valid part of any dialogue about editing practice and Kerouac’s novel, but the simple truth is that the original scroll cannot be made into a published book. The extraordinary physical, aesthetic, and semiotic attributes of Kerouac’s manuscript insist on this impossibility. 

Now, some scholars who have critiqued the Scroll edition have called for a facsimile publication that would visually reproduce the whole scroll. While that may be highly desirable and valuable, it doesn’t so much answer the issue as try to sidestep it. For even a facsimile would still be an unmistakably edited text — the continuous scroll cut up into separate pages — and would still be subject to all sorts of internal and external design decisions, often made by in-house editors who place scholarly concerns below the bottom line of commercial demands, or who simply don’t understand them. Having only recently edited precisely such a facsimile text — Everything Lost: the Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs — I speak from experience.

Equally, while any original manuscript loses an essential quality in reproduction, in the case of such a remarkable object as Kerouac’s scroll, a facsimile edition would only make all the more tantalising the sense of missing out on the physical properties that make the scroll so unique a material presence.

Interestingly, when Joyce Johnson reviewed the Scroll Road, she claimed that Kerouac had “defiantly kept the myth of the scroll alive — thus distancing himself from the book he had such mixed feelings about.” In other words, the Real Thing was itself a myth sponsored by the author in order to reaffirm the integrity of his work in the face of compromises enforced by publication. (In itself, blaming the publishers was surely a convenient displacement of the doubts Kerouac must have had about his own voluntary revisions, since they inevitably resulted in a “mixed” text, a composite of his choices over a six year period, dividing and multiplying his own act of authorship.)

In this light, I’m struck by something very peculiar about the history of the scroll manuscript. Consider these quotations:

Kerouac to Cassady, 22 May 1951: “Went fast because road is fast . . . wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long (tracing paper that belonged to Cannastra.) — just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs . . . rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road” (Charters, vol. 1, 315-6).

Kerouac to Ginsberg, 1 October, 1957:  “Unbelievable number of events almost impossible to remember, including earlier big Viking Press hotel room with thousands of screaming interviewers and Road roll original 100 miles ms. rolled out on carpet” (Charters, vol. 2, 66).

Kerouac to Philip Whalen, 7 January, 1958: “[On the Road] was published as is off my ms. from the 120-foot roll” (Charters, vol. 2, 97).

Ginsberg, reviewing The Dharma Bums in the Village Voice, 12 November, 1958: “The result was a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the Road itself, the length of an entire onionskin teletype roll.”

Kerouac to Keith Jennison [his previous editor at Viking], 3 December, 1968: “I require the return of my original manuscript of ON THE ROAD” (Charters, 461). 

What’s striking is that the “scroll” is described again and again as a roll. This isn’t to suggest that the term scroll was never used in the 1950s, it plainly was. It features in at least one contemporary review, by John G Fuller in the Saturday Review, who described the manuscript in October 1957 as a “continuous scroll” that he had himself seen. But the fact remains that most reviews referred to Kerouac’s manuscript as a roll. In later accounts, various people in the Beat circle would use the term “scroll,” but what they said in retrospect often contradicts what they said at the time. John Clellon Holmes, for example, one of the first to see it hot off Kerouac’s typewriter, merely described it in his diary as a “long strip.” Robert Giroux, describing the moment Kerouac unrolled the manuscript in his office, recalled no scroll either; “he had a big roll of paper, like a paper towel like you use in the kitchen, big roll of paper under his left arm.”

Kerouac’s own first reference to his manuscript of On the Road (May 1951) and his very last (December 1968) are, against all expectations, fully representative in their not describing it as a “scroll.” 

Why does this matter? I’d suggest that media and critical preference for “scroll” over “roll” exploits, whether unconsciously or cynically, the mythic and the marketing value of Kerouac’s manuscript. As many have observed, the scroll, especially when it’s displayed wrapped around glass spools at both ends, evokes a religious text — most obviously the Dead Sea Scrolls, a resemblance already reported by Fuller in his 1957 review, (it “looks a little as if it was one of the originals from the Dead Sea”). The image on the spine of the Scroll edition clearly plays on its resemblance to a Torah as displayed in a synagogue.

There are other grounds for objecting to the rise of the scroll at the expense of the roll: standard definition. Historically, papyrus or parchment scrolls are distinguished from rolls because they unrolled from side to side, so that the text ran from top to bottom of the page, and the pages were discrete, not continuous. Scroll has an evocative, superior ring to it, but Kerouac’s manuscript might properly be defined as a roll — a form that, as Wikipedia brightly informs us, “survives today in retail cash register use and as toilet paper rolls.”

It would be hypocritical to pretend that the mystical connotations of the scroll, like its monetary value — as the world’s most expensive modern literary manuscript — do not underwrite the attention we, as scholars and critics, give to it. Without the cash and the cachet, there’d be less media hype, less sales, and a smaller budget for exhibitions and conferences. 

But we shouldn’t only consider our motives in preferring scroll to roll, we should also reckon with its interpretative consequences. For to go along with the conceit that this manuscript is The Word of Kerouac is to affirm the unproblematic integrity, unity, and authority of authorship. This is fully consistent with privileging the writing of it as an act of solitary, unbroken composition — embodied materially in the continuous roll of paper — and with privileging the text purified of all post-facto changes — including those made by Kerouac himself. The upshot is to falsely sanctify this text, to take it out of historical time, out of the social processes and institutional dimensions to authorship, and to promote the authorial fallacy in a most retrograde and Romantic form.

At this point, finally, we should step back to consider the bigger picture — which is the place of the literary manuscript within the broader culture. (See Dana Gioia’s Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture [2004] for some interesting and relevant analysis.)

The reverence for an author’s original writing is historically quite recent, and can be traced back through the Victorians to the Romantics. The main reason for this development in making the medium seem as important as the message was the rise of print culture. The author’s manuscript — initially, the handwritten manuscript — stood out against the mass produced book in retaining a unique personal aura. There’s no need here to rehearse Walter Benjamin’s well-known case, because it’s clear enough that the sudden omnipresence of mechanical print identified in the manuscript that which could not be fully reproduced. And this in turn confirmed the sense that the original, unique physical object embodied a direct and unmediated link back to the author.

Here we should recognise the irony in our position: at the same time as we have come to fetishise Kerouac’s original, we actually need the publication of the scroll to fall short, to fail to measure up against the real, magical, unique object that bears the impress of Kerouac’s heroic typing. And that’s why, despite the obvious value of it, we would never be satisfied with even a full facsimile of this manuscript. 

In our age of electronic reproduction, the holy relic that resists being reproduced takes us back into the vanished past every bit as much as the elegiac nostalgia of Kerouac’s mournful prose.

And this is surely the main reason why — to come towards my conclusion — the last fifty years have seen such an extraordinary expansion in the archive. So long as scholars go in and out of them for what seem entirely practical purposes of research, the unprecedented and illogical scale of the archive eludes us. I mean, the archival holdings of the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas are insured for over a billion dollars. Archives have become a sign of our times, the pyramids of our culture, in both their massive scale and the reverence with which they are approached.

Anyone who has worked in the Manuscript Reading room of a major library knows the rituals: donning the white gloves for delicate papers, and having to use those funny cushion things to rest really old books on; then the little pencils they hand out because pens are prohibited; and of course the rigid rules about collecting items one at a time, causing those long, long waits that make scholars feel like supplicants, granted the strictest of access to the holiest of materials. 

So what is the archive that it warrants so much investment of time and money and is protected by such elaborate and restrictive rituals? D.T. Max, writing in the New Yorker (“Final Destination,” 11, June 2007) quotes Tom Staley, the director of the Harry Ransom Center, on the role of the archive: “There will be these bastions, whether the ruins of Athens or these archives, and they will be all the more valuable.” In short, archives are fragments shored against our ruin. In preserving the past they seek to deny the passage of time, to disavow our looming individual and cultural death — to which we can now add our impending global death.

In a symbolic gesture rather more meaningful than the rest of the movie, in that recent epic of environmental doom, The Day After Tomorrow we should remember that the main setting is none other than the New York Public Library, home to the Berg Collection and the papers of Kerouac and Burroughs… 

When the waters that engulf the library freeze over, its books are tossed into the fire to keep the survivors warm, but an exception is made for a Gutenberg Bible. “If Western civilization is finished,” says the character who protects the book — the book of all time — “I’m going to save at least one little piece of it.” From the Gutenberg Bible to the Bible of the Beat Generation, it’s not such a long step, and by a nice coincidence the $2.4 million that the scroll manuscript sold for in 2001 was exactly the same figure that the Harry Ransom paid to acquire its Gutenberg back in 1978. 

So, do we turn back to the past, to preserving it against loss, because we no longer have any sense of a future? Are we making more and more relics out of old yellowing pieces of paper because the whole planet is going to hell in a hand-basket? Is that what this is all about? Certainly, since we all wind up in boxes, it’s fitting that the writer’s remains are preserved in cartons containing acid-free manila folders to create a sort of after-life, in which the physical body can be sustained indefinitely by carefully controlled air pressure, humidity, and light, so that, under strictly controlled circumstances, it can be resurrected. Is that what we mean when we say we can feel the presence of the living author embodied in the material he once touched? Is that contact what really matters?

Perhaps this is also why archives combine self-evidently significant manuscripts with what writers themselves would regard as their detritus. When the Harry Ransom Center paid Tom Stoppard $225,000 for 62 linear feet of materials, Stoppard told the director: “Most of what you want is what I want to throw out.”

Even more revealingly, archives increasingly feature collections of realia: the Harry Ransom has Arthur Conan Doyle’s undershirts, Anne Sexton’s glasses, and a pair of beaded moccasins worn by D.H. Lawrence. And when you work on the Burroughs or Kerouac papers in the Berg Collection, you sit opposite Dickens’ mahogany writing desk, with its little brass reading lamp and a crystal inkwell in which the great Boz once dipped the nib of his pen. Elsewhere, they have a pair of Mrs Browning’s slippers and not one but two locks of Whitman’s grey hair. 

Is that so different from Johnny Depp paying $15,000 for Kerouac’s raincoat? Or whoever it was went to Christie’s Popular Culture auction in June this year and bought a stapler that supposedly once belonged to Kerouac? Where will it all end?

Kerouac's stapler

Conveniently, this brings me to the end — with the deliciously Burroughsian thought that one day this jar of epoxy resin

holy shit

will end up on a little plinth in the Berg Collection. And that’s because what it embalms is one of William Burroughs’ turds. In other words: holy shit.

Also see Harris’ notes on the conference and on the exhibit at Birmingham.

Oliver Harris is the author of William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination and the editor of Burroughs’ letters, Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”, Yage Redux, and Everything Lost, the Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs.

Published by RealityStudio on 22 December 2008.

8 thoughts on “The Holy Shit of Burroughs and Kerouac

  1. So one day we can clone WSB from DNA from his merde, and he can rampage back to life a la Jurassic Park? I await that day with interest!

    Good article, Mr. Harris. Illuminating and truthful. I saw the (sc)roll last month in Chicago and, no matter you think of it, it is still a beautiful thing. Touched me deeply.


  2. I attended the first day of this conference but missed this on the second day. Glad to read it here.


  3. His shit in a jar? When? How? For whom? etc etc. i think these vital questions demand a book in themselves. Perfect for the 50th anniversary….!

  4. One day in 1987 there was a plumbing problem at Burroughs’ house that caused water to back up in the basement. The flood threw up some of Burroughs’ shit. His close friend Wayne Probst came in to sort out the mess and rescued the turd for posterity. Probst tells this story with great humour in the documentary “Words of Advice” by Danish filmmaker Lars Movin. (The film, incidentally, will be screened in Paris at the NL@50 homage events.)

  5. This kind of disgusting crap is the reason I couldn’t enjoy Naked Lunch. You’d actually start to enjoy the non-linear story and word hash and then Burroughs would ruin the whole thing with some disgusting gross-out scene full of ten-year-old humor.

  6. i just scrolled through your article and found it pertinent to my own work as a visual artist who’s documentation processes constantly confuse the original intention of ‘finished’ artworks

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