Birmingham, 5 December 2008
by Oliver Harris
Carolyn Cassady shudders and says the same thing she did the last time we met, “Burroughs? That degenerate…” Actually, it’s an effort to disguise my satisfaction at this put down. After all, I’m here at the Barber Institute as the Burroughsian outsider to the exhibition of Jack Kerouac’s “scroll” manuscript of On the Road, party-pooper for the inevitable Kerouac love-in. Except that it doesn’t quite work out this way because everybody is too nice to diss as, uh, too nice… and Carolyn Cassady is no exception. She is soon dragging me outside to share a cigarette and gossip about the fame that destroyed Jack’s life and the film that “ruined” the story of hers (Heartbeat), all carried off with her trademark cool grace and style. As the private view’s guest of honour, her presence anchors the manuscripts and memorabilia on display and puts in context all the media hype and academic fuss.
The “scroll” itself is upstairs, about twenty feet of it unrolled in a specially constructed display case, at a height that invites the crowd around it to reverentially stoop or bend low. It’s a ritual that’s been repeated, thanks to the generosity of its owner, Jim Irsay, in dozens of locations around the US and now Europe. But it’s a strange experience: I’m well used to poring over manuscripts, scrutinizing the tiniest trackmarks of pencil or ink, squinting to read through cancelled lines of type — but always in silent and solitary concentration. In a public space, my self-consciousness is awkward and I find myself looking instead at the posters and maps on the walls and the first editions and small collection of jazz records (Artie Shaw, Glen Miller, George Shearing) in glass display cases. I inspect the Underwood Portable (4B) typewriter, the same model used by Kerouac, and cast a last glance back at the “scroll.” Through the throng of onlookers, it seems to gaze back at me, less holy relic than big cat or great ape in a zoo cage…
Among the guests downstairs is Jim Canary, the “scrollmeister” conservator from the Lilly Library, Indiana, who goes wherever the “scroll” manuscript goes. I warm to him immediately, his delightful smile radiating above a full white beard. Imagine Robin Williams playing Santa. And then there’s Kerouac scholar and aficionado supreme, Dave Moore, who contributed important editions and objects from his own collection to the exhibit. In among the crowds I start up a conversation with a striking young woman from Denver who turns out to be Stefanie Posavec. Her extraordinary visualisations of On the Road are on the walls upstairs, and we discuss her work as an in-house designer at Penguin UK, where she was responsible for the hardcover of the Burroughs-Kerouac collaboration, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, published the previous month. Meanwhile, Professor Dick Ellis — the mastermind behind the whole project — is introducing Michael Horovitz, veteran of the British poetry scene, whose particular interest for me is that he published sections of Naked Lunch in the debut issue of his New Departures magazine when still a student at Oxford in 1959. Horovitz gives a charming reading from various short Kerouac texts, then Carolyn Cassady gives her blessing to proceedings, and the evening closes with four Kerouac songs composed by Steven Taylor and performed by a choir of university students. As a finale, it’s eerily beautiful but somehow bizarre, as if, here in the midlands of England, I’ve stumbled across a cargo cult worship of Saint Jack — which in a way I have…
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.