Jack Kerouac’s hometown celebrates the centennial of his birth

Fans leave tokens at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/PATRICIA HARRIS

Jemma Stewart of Somerset, England: ‘I’m spending my first day ever in America at the Jack Kerouac grave. I didn’t study him in school. I found him by myself. I need this in my life.’

Photo: Fans leave tokens at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/PATRICIA HARRIS

12 March 2022 | AP | With additional information

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) — In the 1950s, Jack Kerouac and fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs came to define a new kind of freewheeling American prose in the midst of an otherwise staid decade.

A hundred years after his birth on March 12, 1922, Kerouac, a Lowell, Massachusetts native, is being embraced as a literary icon in his hometown.

The son of French-Canadian immigrants raised in a blue collar neighborhood in the mill town, Kerouac — born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac — is still best known for his 1957 novel “On the Road,” seen at the time as a defining work for what would be dubbed the Beat Generation.

In his hometown, a free Lowell National Historical Park exhibit will open to the public on Friday to showcase Kerouac artifacts including the famed scroll on which he wrote his first draft of “On the Road.” (see below)

The show will also include photographer John Suiter’s images depicting Kerouac’s life in Lowell, the Cascade Mountain Range and Mexico, along with photos of Kerouac and friends taken by Ginsberg – some publicly displayed for the first time, courtesy of Ginsberg’s estate.

The “On The Road” Scroll

Many of the exhibit’s artifacts come from the Kerouac archives at UMass Lowell, which is partnering with the city and the Kerouac estate to hold a yearlong celebration of his legacy.

“Few people can claim the impact on American letters and culture that belongs to Jack Kerouac, a proud product of our city’s French-Canadian community whose roots informed his prolific writings,” UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said in a statement.

Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Lori Trahan this week introduced a congressional resolution to formally mark Kerouac’s legacy.

The three have also asked that the country honor Kerouac with a commemorative stamp. The U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee is currently considering the request.

Kerouac died in 1969 at age 47 and is buried in Edson Cemetery in Lowell.


Jack Kerouac, 1956 Tom Palumbo


Jack Kerouac Centennia

Visions of Kerouac Special Exhibit
March 18th – April 15th

Lowell National Historical Park – Boott Cotton Mills Gallery –
115 John Street, Lowell, MA 01852 – 12:00 – 5:00 PM daily

Jack Kerouac, the Writer

Jack Kerouac wrote novels and poetry based on his life experiences in Lowell, New York City, and traveling about the United States. His initial influences were the American realist writers of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Thomas Wolfe, but he soon discovered a powerful form of lyrical, stream of consciousness in his novel On The Road and in subsequent work.

Kerouac’s subject matter was people. He wrote about childhood and adolescence in Lowell (The Town and the City), and he later wrote about the literary avant garde Beat poets and writers he met when he moved to New York – to attend Columbia University on a football scholarship.

Kerouac was deeply spiritual and melded his Roman Catholic upbringing with a bicoastal Zen Buddhism acquired from the likes of Alan Ginsberg and Alan Watts. Most of all he wrote about the wretchedness of the human condition which, according to him, should find solace in brotherhood, kindness and heaven.

Jack Kerouac, His Life

Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922, “at five o’clock in the afternoon of a red-all-over supper time” (Doctor Sax) and died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on October 21, 1969, at the age of 47. Kerouac’s first seventeen years were those of a typical Franco-American youth living in Lowell; his next thirty years were those of a traveling Ulysses living with everyone everywhere.

French-Canadian Roots

Kerouac’s parents were born in Quebec. They met and were married in Nashua, New Hampshire, and later moved to Lowell, where Jack, his brother Gerard, his sister, Caroline (Nin) were all born.

During this time, Lowell was a city of about 100,000 people, including 30,000 Franco-Americans.

Kerouac’s birthplace on Lupine Street in Lowell.Library of Congress

Most of these French-speaking immigrants and their families – as did the Kerouacs – lived in the Centralville, Little Canada, and Pawtucketville sections of the city.

In his teens, the Kerouac family lived in an apartment at 118 University Avenue (formerly Moody Street).

During the 1930s Great Depression, Kerouac’s father managed the Pawtucketville Social Club up the street, a local social center in the Franco-American community, and where Jack and his friends reportedly spent much time shooting pool.

Although Kerouac first gained literary notice with the 1950 publication of his autobiographical, coming of age novel, The Town and the City, it was his 1957 novel On the Road that broke new literary ground and caused him to be labeled the “Father of the Beat Generation.” He went on to write and publish more than 20 books of prose and poetry, and is considered an important 20th century author.

Education

A first-generation Franco-American, Jack Kerouac spoke French exclusively until he was seven years old.

He attended elementary school at St. Louis Parochial School at 79 Boisvert Street and the Oblate School on Merrimack Street in Little Canada.

Lowell High School in 1929NPS

Jack skipped sixth grade and entered Bartlett Junior High, a public school at 79 Wannalancit Street.

Jack then attended Lowell High School located on Kirk Street. Maggie Cassidy takes place during Jack’s senior year at Lowell High, when he was a football and track star.

Jack began writing seriously when he was 17. Among his early influences were Whitman, Saroyan, Wolfe, and Thoreau. He earned a scholarship to Columbia but dropped out his sophomore year.

In 1942, he worked briefly as a Lowell Sun sports reporter. After serving in the merchant marine during World War II, Jack moved to New York to join his family, who had moved there from Lowell.

Kerouac’s Places

The city of Lowell serves as a backdrop for many of Kerouac’s books, in which he describes various businesses, churches, haunts, and residences of Lowell.

Some of these still exist. One of them, St. Jean Baptiste Church, Kerouac described as “the ponderous chartreuse cathedral of the slums.” Jack’s funeral was held there.

One can also still see the Bienvenue Social Club and “Funeral Row,” a series of funeral homes including Amedee Archambault & Sons, the site of Kerouac’s wake.

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Lowell.Library of Congress

Nearby, at the corner of Pawtucket and School Streets, is an elegant old house built in 1875 for the industrialist Frederic A. Ayer. In 1908, the building became the Franco-American Orphanage.

Behind this building, the Oblate Fathers, a Canadian religious order, built a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes. Haunted by this grotto, Kerouac wrote in Doctor Sax, “Everything there was to remind of Death, and nothing in praise of life.”

In 1967, Jack married Stella Sampas and returned to Lowell. His mother had suffered a stroke, and his only sister had died suddenly.

While in Lowell, he wrote another novel, Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-1943. He frequented Nicky’s Bar at 112 Gorham Street, now a restaurant, and spent many hours at Pollard Memorial Library as he had years before with his sister Nin.

Jack expressed thanks in Doctor Sax for the books that were always available at the library.

Final Resting Place

Jack Kerouac’s grave is in the Sampas family plot at Edson Cemetery, which is located on Gorham Street two miles south of the Lowell Connector.

A small flush stone at Lincoln Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets is marked “Ti Jean, John L. Kerouac, Mar. 12, 1922 – 1969, – He Honored Life.”

Artifacts

The Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center at 246 Market Street features a display about Kerouac.

Memorial

The Jack Kerouac Commemorative plaza is located in Kerouac Park on Bridge Street. Dedicated in 1988, the commemorative contains excerpts from Kerouac’s writings.

The path, with its cross and series of circles, refers to Kerouac’s Roman Catholic and Buddhist beliefs and evokes his lifelong spiritual quest.

The Commemorative was designed by the artist, Ben Woitena, of Houston, Texas, following a national competition. Woitena sculptures are found at several sites in Texas, including the Houston Museum of Art, and San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Texas state capital building.

Events

Every fall, the “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!” Committee holds a three-day event in his honor.

For more information, visit https://lowellcelebrateskerouac.org/


Fans leave tokens at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/PATRICIA HARRIS
Fans leave tokens at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/PATRICIA HARRIS

Seeking Jack Kerouac’s spirit on the streets of Lowell

Patricia Harris and David Lyon GLOBE CORRESPONDENTS,September 29, 2016,

LOWELL — In Jack Kerouac Park on Bridge Street near the corner of French Street, the pretty young woman on a bench converses on her cell in a steady stream of Haitian Creole. Son of Quebec-born parents, Kerouac would have enjoyed hearing that immigrant French is as vital as ever in Lowell.

Even the trio of homeless men arguing about sports would have made him smile. They seem avatars of the West Coast boxcar bodhisattvas who populated “The Dharma Bums,” the author’s follow-up to “On the Road.”

Kerouac’s name is practically synonymous with that road trip through America where enlightenment beckoned at every next dot on the map. But Kerouac’s story began in Lowell, and ended here too.

He remains the city’s most fervent fan and a timeless tout for its big soul. In all his novels, poems, and rants, Lowell is a magical place seen through the eyes of a child. Its towering brick factories were mighty foundries, its canals a watery spider web enveloping the streets. The mighty Merrimack River represented raw power.

Jack Kerouac embraced Lowell and never let it go. It was — and remains — a requited love. He wrote of October as a month of homecomings, and every October (this year Oct. 6-10) the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival holds a series of events in his honor. They range from readings to concerts to pub crawls.

Throughout the year, the city honors its native son most concretely at Jack Kerouac Park. Granite stelae erected in 1988 bear quotations from his writings. They are love letters to his birthplace literally fixed in stone. The park makes a good place to begin exploring the Lowell that Kerouac knew, and the Lowell where his spirit lingers.

Even as old buildings assume new uses, Lowell’s past has never really vanished. At the end of Bridge where it intersects Merrimack Street stands the Lowell Sun Building, where Kerouac had his first paid writing gig. (The newspaper — and Page’s Clock out front — appear in most of his Lowell novels.)

A high school football star who went to Columbia University on a sports scholarship, he worked as a Sun sportswriter in the winter of 1941-’42. The discipline didn’t suit him, and he soon moved on. Later, the Sun also relocated; the building became senior housing in the late 1970s.

Up French Street from Kerouac Park is the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center. The “Mill Girls & Immigrants Exhibit” chronicles the growth and changing demographics of Lowell, noting that French-Canadians began to arrive in large numbers in the 1870s.

A young National Park Service ranger who grew up in Lowell and attended public schools admits that he read “Moby Dick” and “Romeo and Juliet” but no Jack Kerouac.

He has grown adept at guiding pilgrims to the glass case with relics of the author. Along with books, it holds his aluminum mess kit, his big canvas backpack, and his Underwood portable typewriter. It is like seeing one of Charlie Parker’s saxophones. This is an instrument on which Kerouac famously played his “spontaneous bop prosody.”

The yellow brick high school on Kirk Street — as heroically scaled as the nearby mills — was built in 1920 and expanded in 1922, the year Kerouac was born. This is where he aspired to be a writer and where he became a star running back.

Much of his education, by his own account, was self-directed. As he wrote in “Vanity of Duluoz,” he would skip school and hole up in the Pollard Memorial Library (401 Merrimack Street), reading encyclopedias in the morning sunlight. The first-floor spot was dedicated as Jack Kerouac Corner on his birthday in 2015.

The nearby Worthen House was one of Kerouac’s less aspirational hangouts from his adult years. The 1834 building has been a tavern since 1898 and has retained its original long wooden bar, pulley-operated fans, and pressed tin ceiling.

Ask the day bartender (who’s equally deft at grilling burgers) if she knows where Kerouac sat and her guesses alternate between the bar and one of the dark corners.

“He was kind of shy, I’ve heard.” The tavern has many beers on tap and an extensive selection of whiskeys. But it’s easier to imagine Kerouac lost in reverie, both hands wrapped around a longneck.

This neighborhood bordered by the Western, Pawtucket, and Northern canals is the Acre. It was home to Irish, Greek, and French Canadian immigrants.

Today Southeast Asian and Hispanic families have moved in. On Saturday morning, young men pop into one- and two-stool barber shops for a trim to look sharp on Saturday night.

In years past, many immigrants worshiped at Lowell’s “cathedral,” the imposing gray stone St. Jean Baptiste Church (741 Merrimack Street).

Kerouac’s childhood priest, Father Armand “Spike” Morissette, said the funeral mass for the author here on Oct. 24, 1969.

The church is being transformed into apartments, but the French Canadian past still resonates in the Acre.

On Saturday, Cote’s Market on Salem Street does a bang-up business in French Canadian-style baked beans. At 309 Pawtucket St., Archambault Funeral Home, where family, friends, and fans bade farewell to Jack Kerouac, remains an active mortuary.

Practically next door, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Way of the Cross remains a touchstone of Lowell’s spiritual life.

In his novels, Kerouac wrote of his neighbors’ devotion to the shrine, and fresh notes of thanks for answered prayers still cover the small altar.

In “Doctor Sax,” Kerouac contrasted the serenity of the Virgin with the roaring power of the Merrimack River’s Pawtucket Falls, then visible from the heights behind the cross. Walking around the corner to the O’Donnell Bridge provides much the same view from the Northern Canal gatehouse.

Across the Merrimack, Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac (as he was christened) was born on March 12, 1922, in the Centralville neighborhood on the north edge of town.

The two-family house at 9 Lupine Road is a private residence marked with a plaque. Kerouac’s final resting place is in South Lowell.

He lies with his last wife Stella in her Sampas family plot on Lincoln Avenue just beyond 7th Street in Edson Cemetery (1375 Gorham Street).

The grave is surrounded by empty beer cans, wine bottles, cigarettes, and handwritten poems that bled in the rain.

On a recent afternoon, Jemma Stewart of Somerset, England, was sitting cross-legged, writing in a notebook.

“I’m spending my first day ever in America at Kerouac’s grave,” she tells other admirers. “I didn’t study him in school. I found him by myself. I need this in my life.”

An aspiring writer, Stewart and a friend are setting out the next day on a two-month journey across America. For her, the road starts here.

James Porteous

James Porteous is an author, photographer and researcher. Clipper Media News is a daily publicatioin featuring news and views you can use.

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