American Collections blog

12 posts categorized "Beats"

07 October 2013

"All these books are published in Heaven"

San Francisco: City Lights, 1956

Literary history was made on 7 October 1955, when Allen Ginsberg performed the first reading of his poem Howl (addressed to his friend Carl Solomon, “intuitive Bronx Dadaist and prose-poet”), at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth presided over the reading (other poets to recite their works that night were Philip LamantiaGary SnyderMichael McClure and Philip Whalen) and Rexroth's wife Marthe published a limited mimeographed edition of Howl and other poems to give to friends. This edition led to the larger selection of poems that was published in October 1956 to immediate and controversial success by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (also present at the reading) as number 4 in his City Lights Pocket Poets series. In March 1957, Customs and police seized copies of Howl when they arrived in the U.S. from their British printer, on the grounds of obscenity. Further sales were banned until a long court case, with Ferlinghetti as defendant, finally decided that material with "the slightest redeeming social importance" is protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments.  This legal precedent was to allow later publication in the U.S. of such works as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  Ginsberg’s first collection of poems remains one of the best-selling volumes of American poetry.

Bibliographies of our printed and sound Beat holdings are available on our resources blog page (including our recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl), and all our Beat-related blogposts can be found here.



25 September 2013

In remembrance of Carolyn Cassady 1923-2013

This time last year Matt and I were frantically trying to get our labels done in advance of the opening of our On the Road exhibition, not to mention eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jim "keeper of the scroll." We were really pleased that the exhibition proved to be so popular over the following three months, although it’s perhaps not too surprising with such a star item on display. But we were also pleased with the "look" of the exhibition, much of which was down to our great designer of course, but also to the fact that we were given permission to use some wonderful photographs by both Allen Ginsberg’s Estate and Carolyn Cassady. In our view, Carolyn took the best photo of Kerouac and Neal Cassady together (though she often doesn’t seem to get credited) and we were delighted to have a big reproduction of it in the exhibition (it now lives in our office). In fact, she was hugely supportive throughout our preparation for the exhibition, as she had been with another Kerouac event we had held a few years earlier to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road.  She had been on great form that evening (a recording “An evening for Jack Kerouac” was made and is available in the reading rooms) and she had also donated to us a tape made in the Cassady’s home in San José in 1952, of Neal and Jack in conversation (an excerpt of Neal Cassady reading Proust featured on the soundpoint in the exhibition). So we were really looking forward to seeing her again at the opening of On the Road, but unfortunately, Carolyn was unable to make it as she had been having problems with her leg and the journey up to London from Berkshire would have been too taxing. And now we won’t have another chance to see her – we were really saddened to hear the news of her death last Friday. Of course she was 90 years old, but some people you expect to live forever. We’ll all miss her.

For more on her eventful and extraordinary life, here are the obits from The New York Times; The Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian; a lovely, much more personal tribute from Brian Hassett; and an interview with Carolyn by Polina Mackay from July 2011. And we of course have her books in the collections, in particular, Off the Road.

And if you’ve noticed that we’re not blogging as much usual – I’m afraid it’s because we’re a bit thin on the ground at the moment. Beth is on maternity leave, poor Phil had a cycling accident and has broken his arm and hand, and Matt is very preoccupied with Europeana Collections 1914-1918. Oh, and we have a massive office move too. But stick with us – we’ll be back!

P.S. You can still read all our On the Road exhibition and other Beat-related blogposts here.




06 December 2012

The Aura of the Object: Jack Kerouac's manuscript scroll

 It won’t be too long before Jim ‘Keeper of the scroll’ returns to roll up On the Road and take it back home to Indiana. I’ve no idea how many visitors have come to see it while it’s been on display at the Library but it’s A LOT. And it’s been a real pleasure to see so many people, of all ages, carefully scrutinising the scroll.

When he was over in October, Jim told me that the scroll had recently been scanned -once he had managed to source a big enough scanner! This was an important step for the future preservation of the manuscript and is a demonstration of the careful stewardship of its owner. But scanning had also enabled Jim to locate particular passages more easily and to generally become even more familiar with the scroll, whilst also reducing wear and tear at the same time.

Digitisation is, of course, great – I love the way that we’re starting to open up our collections and make them more accessible, particularly to those who will never get the chance to come here to use them. But, to state the obvious, digitisation doesn’t make the original redundant. It can make something more accessible (both in terms of audience and also in revealing ‘hidden’ content);  it can help preserve a frail or incredibly valuable original; and we’re only really just beginning to get our heads round the potential of digitisation for new modes of scholarship and research. But never underestimate the power of the object.

When Jim started to unroll the scroll in its specially built case, I was surprised at the wave of emotion that hit me. It’s a really amazing textual object, and for a moment I felt like I was in that apartment in Chelsea, standing at the shoulder of Kerouac and watching him pound the keys of his typewriter in that manic burst of creativity.

For someone who really only cared about being considered as a writer but who was destined to be forever burdened with the tag of King of the Beats during his short life, Kerouac couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams that thousands of people would take the time to come to look at his manuscript, - not only here, but in numerous exhibitions across the U.S. and Europe (and by the way, let’s hear it for the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, also owner of the scroll, who has allowed it to travel and not kept it locked in a private vault). So, whatever the wonders that digitisation can bring us, would getting up close to a digital version of the scroll bring a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye? I doubt it. You only have until 27 December to come and see it for yourself.


24 October 2012

Typing - and Retyping On the Road

 In Matt’s last blog Film and On the Road, he referenced Truman Capote’s quote (often misquoted),'That's not writing. That's typewriting.'  At the time, a dim memory surfaced in my foggy brain, only to disappear again almost immediately. But it reappeared at the weekend, when a friend and I were browsing in the wonderful bookshop at the Whitechapel Gallery. My friend suddenly waved in front of me a copy of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing: managing language in the digital age. And then I remembered – Goldsmith includes a piece in the book entitled ‘Retyping On the Road.’ He talks of meeting some students who had been given assignments to write a piece in the style of their favourite author. One had chosen Kerouac and complained at how meaningless the exercise had seemed. Goldsmith thought she would have been better off going on her own road trip, - but then came to a another conclusion. He recalled often seeing art students engaged in copying old masters – and wondered if such ‘copying’ could be applied to literature, quoting from Walter Benjamin’s Reflections ‘the power of the text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.’ Perhaps the student could retype some (or even better, all) of On the Road, and she might thereby succeed in getting ‘inside the text.'

The British artist Simon Morris came across Goldsmith’s suggestion and decided to carry it out. Using the scroll edition of On the Road, he began to retype one page a day from the book on his blog Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head. He began on May 31, 2008 with that first sentence ‘I first met Neal not long after my father died,’ (of course, I immediately wondered why he had omitted the second met – it should be 'I first met met Neal'), and continued to the end of the page (ending in mid sentence), then continued the next day with the next page and so on. Every day he would spend c.20 minutes typing a page, finally completing his task in March 2009. Morris says that he would proofread each page, checking for mistakes (so how did he miss that met met?). Having never read the book before, he describes it as ‘the most thrilling read/ride of my life,’ and talks of the insights he gained into Kerouac’s writing. Goldsmith picks up on the fact that Morris found himself accidentally adding his own words – as Kerouac’s ‘shorthand’ allows the reader to complete sentences in their heads. Morris would then delete his own additions in the checking process, but acknowledges that he might have missed some. Goldsmith suggests that Morris’s appropriation of the text ‘need not be a mere passing along of information,’ but something more creative which could lead to ‘producing different versions and additions – remixes even- of an existing text.’  Appropriation and re-purposing are of course recurring themes in Goldsmith’s writing – often controversial but always challenging and thought-provoking (see for example, his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

The web was the perfect conduit for Morris’s performative project – predigital it would have been an altogether different proposition. So the rather surprising culmination to the project was the publication – in print – of Morris’s Getting Inside of Jack Kerouac’s Head. The book mimics almost exactly the design and typography of the Penguin edition of On the Road (google it), and includes Morris's blog, but commences with the last blog and works backwards. As Goldsmith comments, ‘it was jarring to see a blog-driven project reborn as print.’ For me, it's a step too far - the blog I get, but not the book.

So has the project been a success for Morris? ‘One would hope for some truly profound response but really there is none. I don’t feel anything at all. A bit like Jack Kerouac’s own journey on the road and into himself in search of something he never really finds…… all I can really say with any certainty is I’ve never spent such a long time with a book or thought about any book as much.'

For those of you wishing to engage with Kerouac's own typing, the On the Road scroll is on display at the Library until December 27.



12 October 2012

Film and On the Road

Truman Capote famously dismissed Jack Kerouac's On the Road in two pithy – and rather tart – lines, 'That's not writing.  That's typewriting'.  (The quotation was later often boiled down to 'that's not writing, that's typing'; a subtly different set of words.  Neither epigram would look good as a blurb.)

Capote, of course, had the honour of having several of his books and stories turned into films and TV shows (indeed, two films inspired by the writing of In Cold Blood were released in the same twelve months).  And, as George Costanza could tell you, a book can be much more easily digested in video form, particularly if you join a bookclub to impress your girlfriend ('If it's not about sports, I find it very hard to concentrate!').  The novella that George was trying to get through – and even fails to watch to the end because he spills grapejuice over the couch and has to flee the appartment – was, of course, Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, as George failed to notice, takes certain liberties with Capote's typed text.  As Time magazine noted, 'for the first half hour or so, Hollywood's Holly (Audrey Hepburn) is not much different from Capote's. She has kicked the weed and lost the illegitimate child she was having, but she is still jolly Holly, the child bride from Tulip, Texas, who at 15 runs away to Hollywood to find some of the finer things of life—like shoes... after that out-of-Capote beginning, Director Blake Edwards goes on to an out-of-character end'.  The film is also set in the 1960s, rather than the more austere 1940s. 

In contrast, Walter Salles' adaptation of On the Road is pretty authentic, cutting things out of necessity here and there; combining bits of the published novel with the unpublished scroll (such as the reinsertion of the death of Jack/Sal's father at the start of the film, replacing the split with his wife that opens the novel, and by so-doing, emphasising the sense of loss and spiritual search of the novel), and bringing in other bits and pieces (such as Joan Vollmer's marital advice, which is discussed in Ted Morgan's biography of William Burroughs); the scroll itself (which, need I remind you, is on display in the British Library at St Pancras, London until 27 December), makes a brilliant appearance towards the end of the movie.  Indeed, at the previewing screening at the Library this week, members of the audience let out a yelp of delight at this point.  (And, unlike Carole and I, you probably won't be jarred by the Sal/Jacks' correct typing of 'I first met Neal' rather than 'I first met met Neal' or the crisp whiteness of the paper.)  Like the reception of Breakfast at Tiffany's, a lot of critics and viewers have commented on the casting (The New York Times found Hepburn as 'implausible as ever', Capote thought the studio had double-crossed him, and wanted Marilyn Monroe all along), particularly Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Kristen Stewart as MaryLou.  For me, both were more than fine, but Tom Sturridge almost stole it as Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg, and has the best 'beat' moments.  Salles also does a good job at drawing out the female characters' roles, something that readers of the book often find troubling, and also in following the structure of the book, which places Denver as the heart of the narrative structure.

I'm not sure what George would make of it; he may find two hours a little long, given his need to visit the bathroom.  And, taking into account his unease with bookclubs, he might resort to a line suggested by a friend of mine, 'that's not filming, that's CCTV', but, that would be wrong of him.  It's a very artful film (with I expect a future nomination for the cinematography by Éric Gautier).  If anything, it's overly true to the book, which does not really make for comfortable viewing or reading; a view nicely summed up in this review by The Scotsman.


09 October 2012

Three weeks, fuelled by coffee: Jack Kerouac's On the Road scroll

So did Kerouac really write the scroll in 3 weeks? Well, the answer is both yes - and no. And that’s not a cop out – it’s really quite complicated!

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the scroll was indeed typed over 3 weeks in April 1951. But did Kerouac just sit down at the typewriter and the story suddenly came to him? No, definitely not. He’d had the idea for a road novel for a long time – years, from his own first solitary road trip in July 1947 in fact. In a journal entry from August 1948 he wrote, “I have another novel in mind – ‘On the Road’ – which I keep thinking about: - about two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else. Also, I’m finding a new principle of writing.” The last sentence is particularly significant, referring to Kerouac’s desire to find his ‘own voice,’ to get away from the standard prose of his first novel The Town and the City, and to find a new, more immediate and authentic way of expressing experience – the style that was to become known as ‘spontaneous prose.’

As early as autumn 1948 Kerouac had completed the first draft of a road novel he later referred to as ‘Ray Smith,’ (a name he subsequently gave to the narrator of Dharma Bums, - a character based on himself). And this is just one of numerous road drafts of varying lengths that can be found in Kerouac’s archive at the New York Public Library. Elements of some of those drafts would eventually become part of On the Road, whilst others ended up in other novels (e.g. Pic).

Kerouac’s journals covering 1949/50 document his later road trip with Neal Cassady, Luanne Henderson and Al Hinkle, and demonstrate how he was constantly writing about what he was seeing and feeling. In fact, one of the things that struck me when I started reading about Kerouac is that anyone who knew him would inevitably say at some point that he was always writing, - always scribbling in notebooks and journals (if you check out some of the images of him in the exhibition, you will spot notebooks poking out of his pockets). Not only was he a very disciplined writer, but he was also very methodical – the perfect self archivist in fact. And the writing of drafts and notes was clearly an essential part of the creative process for Kerouac – his way of exploring both himself and his friends.

Something else that also always pops up when you read about Kerouac is that everyone remarks on the fact that he had a phenomenal memory. And that’s the final point to add before going back to that Chelsea apartment in April 1951. So, various drafts, chapter outlines, ‘cast of characters’ already exist, Kerouac is sitting at the typewriter with his coffee (and ok, maybe Benzhedrine too), and, in a truly extraordinary burst of creativity, everything comes exploding out of his head on to that scroll over the next 3 weeks.

Many more drafts were to follow of course, and the title of the novel would also go through many variations, including, for example, The Beat Generation (in 1955/56), but it would return to On the Road at the insistence of Viking’s editor, Matthew Cowley.

And that’s the short version. If you want to read more on the complex story of all the pre and post scroll drafts, I would recommend Isaac Gewirtz’s excellent (and beautifully written) Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road, which was published to accompany the exhibition of the same title at New York Public library in 2007.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac's manuscript scroll is on at the British Library until 27 December.


06 October 2012

On the Road: scroll versus book

 I've enjoyed doing the research for our On the Road exhibition over the past couple of months, but inevitably, a lot of that research didn't make it in to the exhibition. The scroll is the star and we didn't want to spoil your viewing of it by cramming too much in to the gallery. As I've already mentioned on the blog, we decided instead to include just a few books and focus on our great sound holdings. But we had very little space for words too; some topics fell out completely, or we were able to just briefly allude to others. So, over the next few months, while the scroll is still in residence with us, Matt and I will be blogging about some of the things that got left out.

One of the questions that has already come up a lot concerns the differences between the scroll and the published novel. Well, you could write a book on the subject, but I thought I'd add a few more details to the limited panel and label text, even though I'm still presenting a very simplified view. Essentially, you can put the differences in to at least 4 categories, 3 of which are down to the publishers.

Viking's main concerns had to do with the obscenity and libel laws of the times. In 1956, just the year before publication of On the Road, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had found himself involved in a long court case when copies of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (published by Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books publishing house) were seized for obscenity by U.S. Customs. Viking were anxious to avoid the same fate, so Kerouac was obliged to tone down or take out the more explicit language and sex. On top of that, he had used real names in the scroll, and Viking were worried that anyone who took exception to the way they had been portrayed might sue. So for the novel, Ginsberg becomes Carlo Marx, Neal Cassady is Dean Moriarty and so on.

The other category of enforced changes involves the publisher's attempts to deal with Kerouac's 'spontaneous prose.' It's a myth that he used no punctuation, but there aren't standard paragraphs or chapters, a lot of his sentences are LONG, and clearly the style was an issue for Viking (though I can't help think, why publish then?). If I remember correctly, Kerouac wasn't even sent a final set of proofs so he didn't know just how much unsympathetic editors had hacked his sentences until after publication. No wonder he was annoyed!

But the final category is the changes that Kerouac made himself. By 1957 he was an older, more experienced writer and it's unsurprising that he would want to make revisions which he thought improved on the original. In fact, even on the scroll you can see where he's already started to make changes. And the subject of Kerouac's numerous drafts for the novel, both pre and post scroll, is a whole new can of worms which will have to wait for another blog.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac's Manuscript Scroll is on at the British Library until December 27.



03 October 2012

David Amram, Then and Now


A beat moment this morning: at the press preview of our On the Road exhibition, David Amram - the composer and musician - spotted a younger version of himself, as he helped with the film Pull My Daisy (1959).  Kerouac can also be just about seen in the photo on the left.  The exhibition opens tomorrow (Thursday, 4 Oct.)



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