Kerouac’s Sacred Scroll Comes to the Auction Block
“The original mad version is greater than the published version, the manuscript still exists and someday when everybody’s dead
will be published as it is.”
- Allen Ginsberg, on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, 1958
“Anyhow, the reason I wrote the book is because we’re all gonna die.”
- Jack Kerouac
You may recall seeing a copy of the book poking out the top of some gangly kid’s backpack at a Greyhound station, or being read by a
wizened guy with stubble at a diner counter. Or maybe in the rucksack of a punked-out chick in neoprene slacks with pierced eyebrows, or held reverently by an elbow-patched, tweed-jacketed English professor, holding
court under stately Elms at a college campus.
The book got around. So did its author.
And that’s the point, exactly so, yes: “all that road going.”
It’s a story as uniquely American and distinctive of voice as Huckleberry Finn.
The book is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and the original typed manuscript, which was typewritten on a continuous 120-foot long
roll of teletype paper that Kerouac pieced together so he could keep typing without the interruption of changing paper in one long marathon session of mad writing from April 2nd to April 22nd in New York City, will be auctioned by Christie’s Auction House on May 22nd.
It is being touted by antiquarian booksellers and scholars alike as the most important manuscript of a late twentieth century novel ever to be offered at auction. Early estimated are that it will fetch in the
neighborhood of $1.5 million.
I went to see “the scroll” (as Kerouac and his friends called it) on display at Christie’s, twenty-some floors up in the
John Hancock building, in an inspired getaway from work with my friend Mike. These days, true, wild freedom means taking an extra hour or two at lunch. Anyway, the scroll was unfurled to about eight feet of its
length, which is the most actual manuscript that had ever been displayed previously. The “owner” of scroll is the estate of Anthony Sampatacacus, the brother, I believe, of Kerouac’s last wife. And there it
was, single-spaced and beautifully preserved, with penciled-in marginal corrections and scratch-outs that made me nostalgic for typewriters, and something else, too.
Of time passed, maybe. Of road-going.
It’s a love letter to all of us.
Once upon a time, a group of Kerouac fans and friends gathered to see a filmed biography of Kerouac, which ended up with us getting
Thai food and then crashing the opening night party at the Limelight, a big party where chicks in blue lipstick had huge snakes wrapped around their necks and strange boys with shades wore tassled fezzes. Andy
Warhol was rumored to be present. Our troupe claimed to be “with the poet Michael O’Connell,” and the bouncer was too afraid of a faux pas not to let us in. Jack’s mad spirit engaged us that night, empowered us.
It still does in those moments when the world makes little sense and you find yourself gazing up ruefully at the lack of stars in the
sky in your back yard, feeling mistrustful of politics and at the same time feeling an overwhelming sense of empathy for all the people you see around you, struggling to raise beautiful little babies and digging the
company of each other for the time that they have left here.
As an English teacher, I’ve given several copies of On The Road away over the years.
I like to think that Kerouac himself would probably have given away the scroll itself to someone who could truly dig it.
Let’s hope that person is high bidder.
©Mark Andel 2001
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Where Can We Turn Now For K-Mart Realism?
“I got a ’69 Chevy with a three-ninety-six,
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.”
- Bruce Springsteen, “Racin’ In The Street”
As a part-time English teacher, I have always been a sucker for that particular school of American fiction known as K-Mart realism.
You know it when you see it. When a sunburned character reaches for a Camel that he pulls from his striped Big Mac overalls, and then
asks someone named Sadie if she’d like another corn dog or a quarter for another go-around on the plastic jalopy out front, you know you’re hilt deep in it.
K-Mart realism is an original American voice, full of hurtful and venomous Springer-like accusations and Fruit of the Loom underwear
rolled up and thrown under the bed. It drips sweat and salt tears and bellows with inexpressible longing and animalistic grief. Tennessee Williams was K-Mart realism before K-Mart realism was cool. Raymond Carver
and John Cheever never were K-Mart realism and would probably consider slow suicide by gin poisoning at the mere thought of being so labeled.
And now that K-Mart has folded under the pressures of high-stakes retail after all these years, where are we supposed to turn for our
icons of simple Americana? Wal-Mart? If you look at the Forbes annual list of the richest people in America, you always find a bunch of Walton family members stacked near the top of the heap. How could these rich
people ever relate to the fiction writer’s need for expressing the low-ebb of American life? Last time I looked, Wal-Mart had even widened its aisles and buffed its floors to a high gloss. “What is this?” I
sneered at my wife. “Marshall Field’s?”
We want scuffed floors and dirty boxes lying around. We want to see slices of pizza hardening all day long behind smeared glass
cases. We want rows of vinyl shoes that cost $6.99 a pair and David Allen Coe cassettes at the Nice Price. We want stiff orange circus peanuts that smell like styrene and kiddy pools in the shape of turtles and
Timex watches spinning on countertops.
We want K-Mart realism.
Apart from Wal-Mart, the next logical choice of competitor that first plunged the knife into K-Mart would be Target. And the
Dayton-Hudson company that owns Target also happens to call the shots at – Marshall Field’s! Far be it for me to hatch some kind of conspiracy theory, but hey: “Et tu, Target?” When Dayton-Hudson closed the
Frango candy kitchen at Field’s and started producing the candy more cheaply in Pennsylvania, it hurt not only those nice old hair-netted and chubby-armed ladies who got fired. It hurt us, too. Money talked.
I only hope that Martha Stewart doesn’t sign any blood-pacts with Target now, oblivious to those small horn-like projections coming
out of the “T” or the logo that appears to be a round globe with a very hot-spot right at its core. What could that be?
Stick with Martha by Mail, I say. E-Commerce! That’s the way to go!
Pretty soon, that’s how we’ll all shop for everything anyway, and K-Mart realism will go the way of the drive-in movie and car-hops
at root beer stands: a quaint footnote.
©Mark Andel 2002
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Remarks at Wright College Reception:
Music To Fill An Empty Purse
I AM THRILLED to be able to speak at Wright College’s unveiling of the annual literary magazine “The Wright Side.” One of the
most fulfilling positions I ever had was as adjunct lecturer in the English Department of Wright College, which I did on and off for a period of about three years. My “day job” was working as a Marketing
Manager for an unconscionably evil Fortune 500 corporation. I counteracted that soulless work by writing a newspaper column (which allowed me to vent) and by teaching “Basic Writing Skills” and “Developmental
Reading” on Saturday mornings.
Teaching, even in my minimal role, gave me new-found respect for the work that teachers do outside the classroom – the immense
time commitments that corporate folks tend to forget about when they say things like, “Summer’s off? It must be nice!” My evenings were spent grading papers and preparing lecture notes in a local neighborhood
coffee shop (where I believe the idea of charging for refills came about because of me and me alone – you’re welcome).
During that time I also became very respectful of the students who attend city colleges. Practically every one of my students had an
outside job of some kind – along with their two or three classes and untold other commitments in their extremely active lives. Yet there they were – out for personal betterment – and willing to
spend sixteen Saturday mornings in a row in a classroom from 8:30 a.m. to noon. I never lost sight of their commitment and dedication – and that is what kept me focused on trying to do the best job I could for
them. I owed them that much. Most teachers know exactly what I’m talking about. Professor Jane Wagoner, whom I regard as my teaching mentor, made me feel welcome in this academic realm, gave generously of her
time, and was willing to share many good ideas to help smooth the way. Thank you, Jane.
Many of my students were city kids whose only experience with silver spoons consisted of maybe seeing a few in the pawn shop windows on
Irving Park Road. They weren’t born with them in their mouths. They were not, by and large, children of privilege, which accounts for the grit and candor of their expression – and its honesty. They juggled
many things – classes, jobs, relationships, and even taking care of their own children.
With everything else going on, the fact that college students (and an occasional instructor) managed to squeeze some time out of their
day to “recollect emotions in tranquillity” (to paraphrase Wordsworth) and compose a poem or two for the college’s literary magazine – is meritorious, and nearly astonishing.
Poetry is made for free. No one asks for it, and no one guarantees you anything back on it. Financial people would call it a “bad
bet,” a waste of time. Only poets – and the people who appreciate what they do – would beg to differ. Anyone who has ever felt their throat closing up after reading a remarkably laid-down line, or watched
their own teardrops stain a page would beg to differ. And anyone who found themselves smiling that inward, secret smile of complicity upon reading something that seemed to speak to them alone, would beg to
And remarkably enough – on occasion – it is the plain voice of a poet that outlives him or her.
A poet once wrote:
“How many that have toiled at the hard craft of verse,
Had nothing more than music, to fill their empty purse,
But found it was sufficient, in making out a will,
To pay for their mortality, and they are living still.”
The poet is dead. His words live.
In much of the student work that I saw, the voices were original – tough and tender, laconic and flowery, as diverse as the
city itself. In it, you could almost smell the roasted leg of lamb wafting down Central Avenue. Or the fresh-cut grass in Portage Park. You could hear Nelson Algren mixing it up with Mike Royko, while Siskel
and Ebert critiqued their performance on the sidelines, bullying each other in that distinct, Chicago way of theirs. You could feel the rough brick of bungalowed neighborhoods, and sense the jolt and thump of urban
Although every class had those characters who would just as soon not be there, connecting with those students who did care about using the language to its full effect, who treasured those written passages that managed to pull it off, and who strove for perfect expression of an idea, was pure joy – and that is why I am honored to have been asked to participate in a celebration of those who have “gotten it down on paper,” as the saying goes, who were willing to share something, who hoped to convey a truth or two.
“Getting something down” is a hopeful act – “a momentary stay against confusion,” as Robert Frost would have it. The
moment I refer to Frost, he lives again. His presence – his words – can be felt here among us – and that will happen in classrooms and other gatherings for a good long time, because a portion of our common
fabric is woven with the golden threads of poetry. A country singer named Vern Gosdin wrote, “I know the written word won’t follow me into the ground.” A crude phrase, perhaps – but there is no mistaking the
rough philosophy behind it. In his eulogy to Jerry Garcia, the poet Hugh Romney (better known as “Wavy Gravy”) said, “A lyric is an orphan thing.” It must find its home in the beating hearts of listeners and
readers. Writing is important – beyond what people do to make a living, and beyond whatever day-to-day struggles belong to them that get in the way – beyond what poet Allen Ginsberg called “the accumulations
of life that wear us out.”
“Getting it down” then, is laudable. I commend those writers here today who have invited us to spend a few contemplative moments
resting on what Matthew Arnold would call, “the furniture of their minds.” Writing and sharing are by no means easy things to do.
The College textbook writer Donald Murray once wrote this startling line: “The act of writing is incomplete and meaningless unless
the writer has a reader,” a kind of “tree-falling-in-the-forest-with-no-one-around,” argument. But it’s not a specious statement. There’s should be no doubt that the tree crashes to earth with every bit as
much noise as it does with an audience around, that it makes just as much noise for the lowly potato bug as it does for the hard-hatted paper mill personnel. Birds flutter away, and to those tuned in, the flap of
their wings can sound like the whipping of sheets on a clothesline on a windy day. If there can be a “mind’s eye,” why not a “mind’s ear” and “mind’s nose?” Engaging all the senses is the
writer’s task – and to contemplate how to do that before tapping on a keyboard or scratching on a pad with a pen is an act of creation – of creating life in one’s mind – “whole life,” to put a spin on
the old insurance adjusters phrase.
Donald Murray praises literary magazines for the opportunities they afford writers to be read – for being the ears in the forest.
But, although it is rewarding to have your work printed in the pages of a book or magazine, sometimes an audience of one can be sufficient – plenty, in fact. You need only imagine Emily Dickinson alone in her
room, heartbroken and administering the first aid and healing balms of poetry to herself in order to understand why poets work. Forget the phrase “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” We’re talking serious triage and
life support! A poet’s wounds are large and deep! It may seem a bit ironic that even Emily herself craved having her work in a book – so she stitched one together herself: the first “Vanity” project.
Poet – heal thyself!
“You don’t write for money or fame,” Stephen King once said (someone who has heaped mammoth portions of both on his sizable
plate). “You do it,” King said, “Because to not do it, is suicide.” We forgive King his split infinitives, of course, because he has sold more books than us.
Tribune columnist John Kass once suggested renaming Wright College Royko University – a suggestion that appears stillborn, but I can
understand a bit of what was behind it: Kass saw it as a way to honor one of the city’s tough guys, a guy who pulled no punches and laid it on the line – who expressed himself with eloquence, grit, and
vitality – a guy who, in fact, did what the men and women who are the honored guests today have done.
Please join me in saluting them.
Thank you very much. ~
©Mark Andel 2001
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