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Museum for the celebration of Beatniks

A New museum in San Francisco celebrates a renegade literary movement.

books Updated: Jan 16, 2006 20:21 IST

In his 1957 classic On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote that he "stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time" of his life.

San Francisco became a central point for the Beat Generation, the collection of 1950s novelists and poets that inspired a literary and cultural revolution. The city was the site of its most famous readings and home to Beat publisher City Lights Books. Decades after the Beats read poetry in smokey galleries, a museum celebrating the Beat Generation with rare books, photos and memorabilia opened this weekend in the city that entranced Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"I see the Beat Generation as an enlightening movement," said founder Jerry Cimino, 51, who kept his collection of beat artefacts in the backyard of his Monterey, California, home while working in the computer industry. "Because they followed their dreams they changed the world."

The opening of "The Beat Museum" coincides with the arrival of the original scroll manuscript of On the Road at the San Francisco Public Library and the naming of renegade poet Jack Hirschman as the city's poet laureate. Shortly after receiving the honour Thursday, Hirschman read at an anti-death penalty rally at City Hall.

The one-room museum, housed in a former art gallery, is tucked away on a narrow street in the city's North Beach neighbourhood. Beat photos line the walls- including signed photos of poets Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti- along with abstract art.

Glass display cases house rarities like a signed, annotated copy of Ginsberg's poem "Howl," one of only 250 copies, as well as the second paperback edition of the controversial work confiscated before an obscenity trial. There's a first edition of Kerouac's novel Tristessa, and a $10.08 check Kerouac wrote to a liquor store.

Cimino started reading the Beats while a history student at the University of Maryland. But road trips and mystic visions weren't in his future- he sent letters to every Fortune 500 company upon graduation and started a long career with American Express and IBM. Cimino collected Beat memorabilia and reread the books in his spare time- and earned enough money to eventually turn his hobby into his job.

"I did well in the corporate world, but I felt I could make more of a difference doing something no one else would try," Cimino said. "I did not think I was making an individual and unique contribution."

Cimino said he believes Kerouac and Ginsberg, who both meticulously saved and chronicled their work, would be excited to see a record of their contributions.

"I think they'd be pleased to know their works live on," said Cimino, who often tours the U.S. in a rolling "Beatmobile" with John Cassady, son of Beat icon Neal Cassady, the inspiration behind the free-spirited hero of Kerouac's On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, 82, who married Neal Cassady, said she's still amazed at how Beat literature resonates with younger readers. "There's something powerful that speaks to every new generation," said Cassady, who lives in London but was in San Francisco to see the Kerouac scroll and visit her children. "We never ever thought this would happen," she said. "I had hundreds and hundreds of pages of letters that I let go of for peanuts."

The 36-foot (11-meter) Kerouac scroll- a little less than about one-third of the original manuscript- will remain on display at the library through March 19. Cimino's museum is just down the street from City Lights Books, a required stop on a literary tour of San Francisco.

City Lights owner Ferlinghetti, who wrote the poetry classic "A Coney Island of the Mind," said the Beats have become popular again because of dissatisfaction with war and conservatism and a hunger for spirituality and deeper experience.

He hopes the literature continues to change perceptions. "The world today needs the Beat message because everything the Beats stood for was the opposite of the dominant culture today," he said.

First Published: Jan 16, 2006 20:21 IST