The Auctioning of Jack Kerouac's On The Road manuscript
And the next item up for bid, ladies and gentleman, is sale # 9652- Lot 307.
This is a common introduction heard on a regular basis at the world famous Christie's Auction House when they are about to auction off one of the many items up for bid. This particular item is not, however, the usual painting, vase or other piece of art work that they usually have in their collection. This particular item is a rarely seen but much talked about piece of literary history that has inspired many budding writers to go on their own road, as it were, to find their own voice in the written world.
Back in my college days, as an English Lit major, I had heard about it for years. Beat Generation co-founder Jack Kerouac's coffee induced, single spaced typed, three week marathon writing session on twelve foot long pieces of paper. It was the type of story that has inspired many writers to follow in his footsteps. Locked away for many years, the scroll saw the light of day, once again, back in 2001. The scroll, it seems was now owned by the nephew of Kerouac's third wife who put it up for bid at the famous Christie's Auction House in New York City. Not only would the rarely seen, but also much talked about, scroll be up for bid but it would also be on display to the public for several days at their Manhattan location prior to the event. As a student of English Literature I knew I had to make my pilgrimage, as it were, into the city to see this piece of literary history. I started my quest on Christie's web site. There I found several pictures of the famous scroll, information on the bidding process and the dates and times that the scroll would be on display. I called Christie's to find out about information on viewing the scroll. The woman who answered was very nice and pleasant to me. I was afraid that since my name did not end in "esq." or "ltd" that they might not want to speak with me. She told me that the viewing was free to the public and hoped that I could make it. I took the train into New York. I nervously walked up to the front door of Christie's. "Yes Sir, right this way" said the doorman." Had he mistaken me for Donald Trump? When I walked in the building the person behind the information desk told me to go to the second floor and to make a right for the exhibit. I walked up the plush carpeted steps and turned to the right. There it was, the famous 120-foot long scroll that is legend. It was partially unrolled and covered in a Plexiglas case. I slowly stepped up to it as if I were about to see The Declaration of Independence or The Shroud of Turin for the first time.
The scroll had yellowed over the years, had various pencil markings throughout but it was still amazing to see. I saw the pieces of scotch tape that Kerouac used to attach the various pieces of 12-foot paper together. I saw the crossed out lines of writing that he did not want in the final draft. It was amazing to actually read off of the actual paper that he typed on almost fifty years ago. One of the gentlemen working at Christie's was very kind in answering some of my questions. No, you can't take a picture of the scroll (copyrights and they don't want the camera flash to wear out the ink on the paper).
Yes, it would go to bid at 2:00 on the 22nd of May and would be the last item up for bid that day. He also said that I was welcomed to fill out a form to receive an auction paddle if I wanted be part of the bidding process. Since I do not have an extra million or two lying around I told him that I would not take him up on his offer. Besides, with my luck I would try to swat a fly and wind up owning an expensive Rembrandt or something. Other people were also there to view the scroll. We all just sort of stared at it.
It was not going to do anything but we watched it very closely just the same.
One couple was there from London. They were here visiting family and read about the viewing and just had to come. Several students of literature were also there trying to soak up some inspiration by being near the scroll (as if touching the Plexiglas case would make you a better writer). On the way out I purchased the official catalog for the auction. Inside it had several photos of the scroll, information and details about the auction itself. The cover of the catalog had an amazing color photograph of Jack Kerouac taken in the late 1950's as he stood in the streets of New York's Greenwich Village. I leafed through the book on my train ride home knowing that I had experienced something that I would not soon forget.
© 2001 James Eimont