Manya Callahan, manager of the Barnes & Noble Downtown store, sees them all the time, young and old, looking for books by Lowell’s most famous citizen.
“They’re usually wearing backpacks and they kind of have a sense of adventure about them,” she says. “They walk inside, looking kind of nervous, then go up to me and ask if I have anything by Jack Kerouac.”
Nearly 40 years after his death, and a half century after the release of his most famous novel, “On the Road,” Kerouac remains an author who inspires motion. Students still re-enact his rambling, improvised trips across the country. Baby boomers retrace their own youthful journeys. Tourists seek out Kerouac landmarks, like this mill town the author left as a teenager but to which he always returned.
Some celebrities are ignored, or shunned, by their hometowns, but Kerouac’s name is easily found in Lowell, with its red brick buildings, winding canals and cobblestone streets. You can start at the Visitors Center where Kerouac walking tours are offered and maps handed out, noting such attractions as his actual birthplace and a favorite bar.
Kerouac has his own park, shaded by weeping willow trees and centered by a circle of granite columns inscribed with excerpts from “On the Road” and other works. A few miles south, at the Edson Cemetery, his marker is ever adorned with stray tributes. Recent leavings include cigarettes, a bandanna, black flip flops and a note, stabbed into the bare ground by a pencil, that reads, “The only people for me are the mad ones. Here’s to you Jack!”
Helen Bassett, 16 and a resident of Eastbourne, England, was a recent visitor to Lowell. She read “On the Road” last year and was immediately drawn to Kerouac’s musical, conversational prose, so much more accessible, she says, than the classics she’s assigned at school.
When Bassett and her father decided to travel to Boston this summer, they arranged a side trip to Lowell, where Helen enjoyed a Kerouac exhibit at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, went to the Kerouac park and bought four Kerouac books and a poster at Barnes & Noble.
“I really related to ‘On the Road,”’ says Helen, who is urging her friends to read it. “I’ve always wanted to move abroad; I never thought I would stay in the same place.”
Kerouac’s novel takes readers all over the country, from New York City and New Orleans to Chicago and Denver and San Francisco, all stops on the wild and fictionalized adventures of Kerouac and buddy Neal Cassady, renamed and beloved as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.
Kerouac, not known as a friend of the businessman in his own time, has become especially good for Lowell’s economy. With the decline of the mills, tourism and the arts have become important attractions. Lowell City Manager Bernard Lynch says that when he’s trying to bring new jobs into town, Kerouac is a good name to drop.
“I won’t say that he’s our only selling point, but when we meet with a business or meet with developers looking to build housing, one of our big selling points is the culture of the city, and Kerouac is part of that,” Lynch says.
Lynch acknowledges that Kerouac is not universally admired; his popularity seemed to grow the less people were around him. Most in Lowell were too young, or lived elsewhere, and were spared firsthand memories of his drunken decline. When they think of Kerouac, they think of his books. Others knew the man.
Brendan Fleming is 81, born just a few years after Kerouac. He is a former mayor of Lowell and was a longtime city councilman. Asked to discuss Kerouac’s behavior in the 1960s, he laughs and notes that he still remembers his “exploits, shall we say.” When the council voted 7-to-1 for the Kerouac park, Fleming was the dissenter.
“I didn’t think, and I still don’t think, that this particular person would be the best example for our children,” Fleming says. “And there were other people who we could have voted for, like (Air Force commander) Hoyt Vandenberg — he came from Lowell — or Bette Davis. Kerouac is not someone about whom I want to say, ‘This is the type of person who comes from Lowell.”
The literary establishment, with some dissenters, also welcomes him. “On the Road” is widely taught and has officially been placed in the canon by the Library of America, which just released a bound edition of “On the Road,” “The Subterraneans” and other “road” novels.
According to Viking vice president and associate publisher Paul Slovak, “On the Road” has been published in 32 languages and continues to sell around 100,000 copies a year. The book has always been in print, although its fortunes fell for a while, a victim apparently of political, not literary fashion.
“Sales really dipped in the 1980s,” Slovak noted. “I was once giving a speech about Kerouac sales patterns ... and when I mentioned the low sales in the 1980s and why could that have been, (poet) Robert Creeley yelled out, ‘Slovak, those were the Reagan years!”’
Jack Kerouac, the son of French-Canadian immigrants, was born in Lowell in 1922. He was gifted in mind and body, a handsome football star who also obsessively composed stories, drew cartoons and invented a fantasy baseball league, complete with cards and dice. His favorite authors included Thomas Wolfe and Mark Twain, and he developed an early passion for jazz.
Football, not literature, was his way out of Lowell. He was accepted by Columbia University on a scholarship and in New York eventually met Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and assorted other writers and hustlers who formed the core of the “Beat Generation,” so named by Kerouac with suggestions both mystical (“beatific”) and musical (“on the beat”).
His work had appeared in school publications since the late 1930s, and his first novel, “The Town and City,” was published in 1950, an autobiographical, Wolfe-influenced story set in New York and Massachusetts that received mixed reviews and little commercial interest.
Like a man juggling so many lovers, he often had numerous books going on at once and began “On the Road” in the late 1940s. “‘On the Road’ is a sure bet,” Kerouac wrote in his journal in 1948. “It reads ‘for everybody.’ It fulfills (childhood friend) Mike Fournier’s desire, expressed last spring, that I write ‘true action’ stories. And it is vast, complex and funny.”
Kerouac was famous for his “spontaneous prose,” for supposedly finishing “On the Road” in a single caffeinated rush, a long scroll on which words were flung as if he were Jackson Pollock. But the scroll, a collector’s item that has just been released in book form, was only one of many versions of the novel, which evolved over several years and finally came together in the mid-1950s, with the help of Viking Press editor Malcolm Cowley.
“On the Road” was released in September 1957, after Ginsberg had set off an early Beat explosion with his poem, “Howl.” Kerouac’s novel was immediately praised — and immortalized — by The New York Times’ Gilbert Millstein as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ’beat.”’
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?” Kerouac writes. “It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, “On the Road” is almost visibly pregnant with a world it helped give birth to: the rock ’n’ roll world, a world of sex and drugs and exploration, of cars on the open road. Even as characters dance madly to mambo and rhapsodize over bebop, you can imagine someone placing a Chuck Berry record on a turntable and mimicking the guitarist’s duck walk.
Countless rockers cite Kerouac, from the Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who once said that the band would never have been born without “On the Road,” to Bob Dylan, who in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” itself a Keroauc-like narrative, wrote that “On the Road” had “been like a Bible for me” as a young man.
“The rock ’n’ roll generation sure picked up on Kerouac’s book, but it was definitely not a rock ’n’ roll book, and Jack was definitely not a rock ’n’ roller,” says Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, who has written often about Dylan.
“Kerouac gave something for American young people to latch onto that wasn’t in the black-and-white, Popular Front ’Which side are you on?’ ’30s mentality. You could still be politically engaged (as with the civil rights movement), but Kerouac spoke to ... a different part of the American spirit. It’s what Bob Dylan saw in Kerouac, I think.”
Kerouac himself seemed to live a ’60s lifestyle before anyone knew what to call it: He took up Eastern religion, smoked pot, dropped acid, slept around and generally seemed dedicated to the expansion, and destruction, of the senses.
But he was more of a ’50s rebel, deeply attached, like Elvis Presley, to his mother, and interested less in changing the system than in getting out of it. In one of his last published works, the essay “After Me, the Deluge,” Kerouac rejected Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and other revolutionaries said to be carrying on in his name.
“I’m not a Tax-Free, not a Hippie-Yippie — I must be a Bippie-in-the-middle,” he wrote. “No, I’d better go around and tell everybody, or let others convince me, that I’m the great white father and intellectual forebear who spawned a deluge of alienated radicals, war protesters, dropouts, hippies and even ’beats.”’
Kerouac drank himself to death, suffering a fatal internal hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Fla., in October 1969. He was 47, his last few years a blur of bar fights and bad reviews. But his passing was news enough to be reported by CBS-TV anchor Walter Cronkite and for a crowded memorial back in Lowell.
“He was haunted by Lowell,” says Douglas Brinkley, who edited the Library of America volume. “He once said that the only heroes he had known in his life were the ones he had in boyhood. He never got out of the high school mode of thinking that seeing a high school friend was more exciting than seeing a movie man. In a lot of ways, he was a homeless man, Kerouac, and the one place that has a right to consider him as one of their own is Lowell.”
Kerouac’s posthumous reputation in Lowell took off at the same time sales for “On the Road” momentarily dropped: the ’80s. “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!” — a nonprofit organization with a mission to “promote a better understanding and appreciation of Jack Kerouac’s life and literature” — was formed in 1985 and still holds an annual festival. Jack Kerouac Park, part of the Lowell National Historic Park, was dedicated in 1988.
At Lowell’s Barnes & Noble, Kerouac T-shirts can be seen in the window and his books have their own special place, a shelf of titles to the left of the cashier. Manya Callahan says she sometimes plays a wicked joke on those who look for Kerouac under “K” in the fiction section.
“I tell them that we don’t carry any Kerouac books,” she says with a laugh. “You should see the looks on their faces.”