On the road, with Lowell on his mind

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / January 31, 2007

LOWELL -- He is this historic manufacturing city's most famous native son, a celebrated 20th-century writer who wove its modest landscape -- schools, churches, businesses -- into many of his published works.

Although Jack Kerouac (1922-69) is best known for his artistically pioneering "On the Road," the 1957 novel that chronicled his cross-country wanderings, he was born, raised, and buried in Lowell. And despite his desire to move on, the city and its people frequently surfaced in his largely autobiographical books.

"The Town and the City," for example, is a tale of his coming of age in Lowell and New York. "Maggie Cassidy," named for his first love, takes place during his senior year at Lowell High School. "The Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46," includes more high school reminiscences, while "Visions of Gerard" is about Kerouac's older brother, who died of rheumatic fever at age 9.

"It's hard to miss Lowell in his books," said Hilary W. Holladay, director of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

"This will sound simplistic, but I think Lowell gave him the soul of his writing," Holladay said. "And, of course, after he left Lowell he then had a tremendous longing for it and realized it could be a subject of his writing. So he came back to the city looking for inspiration and trying to connect with that more innocent part of his life."

Nearly 40 years after his death, Kerouac -- a Beat Generation icon who wrote more than 20 works of prose and poetry -- is omnipresent in his hometown.

Landmarks from the author's life still exist: his birthplace at 9 Lupine Road in the city's Centralville section; Pollard Memorial Library (formerly Lowell Public Library), where he combed the shelves; the Lowell Sun, where he was briefly a sports reporter; Nicky's Bar at 112 Gorham St. (now a restaurant), one of his frequent haunts; and his grave at Edson Cemetery.

At Kerouac Park, a commemorative monument reflects his Roman Catholic and Buddhist beliefs with a cross and series of circles. One of Kerouac's typewriters and one of his well-traveled backpacks are on display at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, and each fall the city hosts a three-day event called "Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!"

"His connection to Lowell is very deep," said Jack Herlihy, a librarian at Lowell National Historic Park. "The city was an integral part of Jack Kerouac's life, always. He really never left Lowell. It was intricately intertwined into his writing, his being, his self."

This summer, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the publication of "On the Road," the novel's original manuscript will be on display in Lowell. It's no ordinary manuscript; Kerouac produced it in a three-week, drug-fueled writing frenzy in a style he called "spontaneous prose," a freewheeling, confessional, literary stream of consciousness.

He typed it, single-spaced, on thin, fragile teletype paper, using no paragraphs and little punctuation. The final product was a nearly 120-foot scroll, patched together with tape. He finished it in 1951, and six years later it was published.

The exhibit, scheduled to run June 7 to Sept. 16 at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, is one of many local tributes to Kerouac, who was 47 when he died in St. Petersburg, Fla., of liver damage after years of heavy drinking. The manuscript's public showing will be sponsored in part by the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for American Studies, which also houses the Kerouac Writer-in-Residence program, the Kerouac Conference on Beat Literature, and Kerouac scholarships.

In addition, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell will award Kerouac a posthumous honorary degree in June.

By serving as a window into Kerouac's life, the manuscript exhibit may help explain why the writings of a man who spent much of his life struggling over money, relationships, self-identity, and substance abuse resonate so widely.

"Kerouac wrote a sort of autobiography of his soul," said Holladay . "And because he was able to write about his own shortcomings and yearnings so eloquently, he speaks to an incredible number of readers."


About "Lowell CelebratesKerouac!"
About the upcoming "On the Road" manuscript exhibit.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

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