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Before his 'Road' life, Kerouac slept here

The Beat Generation novelist's unassuming hometown capitalizes on his fame. How would he feel about that?

August 31, 2007|Hillel Italie | Associated Press

LOWELL, Mass. -- 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 half a 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 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 brick buildings, winding canals and cobblestone streets. You can start at the Visitors Center, where Kerouac walking tours and maps are available, noting such attractions as his 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 adorned with stray tributes.

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, 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 attract 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. 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, 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.

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.

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 mystical ("beatific") and musical ("on the beat").

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