I went into the Main Library the other day to scavenge for DVDs (slim pickings, though I did check out "Tanner '88," which sounds somewhat intriguing) and was stopped short in the main lobby by a poster advertising the display in the gallery downstairs: Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for On the Road. Thinking that they couldn't possibly mean the manuscript--that crazy long scroll of type--I went down to investigate.
And damn was I wrong: it was indeed the manuscript, (partially) unrolled in all of its wild, uncorrected, paragraph-break-less, nonstop glory. I won't go so far as to call seeing it a religious experience, but it was undoubtedly an amazing treat, especially as I vaguely recall reading, a few years back, about there being such disputes as to the manuscript's ownership that it was doubtful it'd be seen again in public. (Though perhaps I have that backwards, as SFPL's exhibit would suggest.)
So I spent a long time down in the gallery, walking the length of the manuscript and reading bits and pieces as I went, checking out the related exhibits (Beats in SF, Ferlinghetti on trial for Howl, a map of North America with quotations from the book, a timeline of Kerouac's life), and grinning like a nutter. I find it so easy, always, always, to fall in love with the utter impossible romanticism of the whole Beat experience, and found myself looking longingly at the photos of North Beach in the fifties, thinking, I was born too late.
But that romantic ideal never holds for very long: the fifties in which Kerouac and Co. did good chunks of their writing were also the fifties in which a book like Howl could be (and, of course, was) confiscated for indecency, in which even San Francisco remained somewhat buttoned up, in which societal norms were worlds away from what they are now. And I can't imagine a better symbol of how the Beat dream imploded than the photo on display of a bloated and alcohol-weary Kerouac, circa 1967, looking years and miles away from his Sal Paradise heyday.
Still, it was amazing to see the original incarnation of a work that had such an impact on my early adult years (and that still makes me pine for a life I could never live), to look at the scroll (fragile now, but still legible, and still showing penciled-in markup) and lose myself for a while in imaginings of an era and a San Francisco and an artistic movement now gone.
It stayed with me--all of it--as I walked out of the gallery and back upstairs and out again into the relatively unromantic and un-Beat San Francisco of 2006.