Lowell, MA: Jack Kerouac

From Yankee Magazine September 1994 Writer Jack Kerouac died 25 years ago, down on his luck and estranged from the city of his birth, Lowell, Massachusetts. But his literary star is once more on the rise, and his hometown seems to have found a way to forgive him. Jack Kerouac was dead before I even […]

By Jay Stevens

Aug 20 2009

From Yankee Magazine September 1994

Writer Jack Kerouac died 25 years ago, down on his luck and estranged from the city of his birth, Lowell, Massachusetts. But his literary star is once more on the rise, and his hometown seems to have found a way to forgive him.

Jack Kerouac was dead before I even knew he’d lived. He died in 1969. I discovered him a year later, my junior year in high school — first The Dharma Bums, then On the Road and The Subterraneans.

The voice that came surging out of those books felt like the voice of an older brother whose urgent stories, told late at night in the stillness of a Vermont farmhouse, conjured a world of footloose adventure; a voice like the freight trains that used to blow one long blast as they sped through Claremont Junction, five miles across the valley from where I lay reading.

Eventually, I forgot about him. Then, five years ago, I read in a magazine: Visit Lowell and the Merrimack Valley this summer during its season of special events. Sandwiched between the New England Quilting Show and the Lowell Folk Festival, was the announcement: “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!”

Jack Kerouac? Who once said, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn,” a writer who ended his short life a bitter, drunken bum — this same Jack Kerouac was now the object of a hometown celebration? This I had to see.

Because Lowell is a national park, one of the sponsors of the Kerouac celebration is the United States Department of the Interior. In consort with numerous local organizations, they have assembled a variety of entertainments for Kerouac fans. There are bike tours, walking tours, an author’s luncheon, an art opening, a dance performance, a literary forum, a writer’s workshop, a night of jazz and poetry, and a bus tour.

My bus tour turned out to be an inspired choice, because its leaders were Roger Brunelle and Reggie Ouellette.

Roger was a Lowell schoolteacher. Reggie worked for the city of Lowell in the Division of Planning and Development. He was born two doors down from where Jack Kerouac lived in the Franco-American section of a neighborhood known as Centralville.

Reggie had the French-Canadian equivalent of the blarney. “I see some of you are looking at my pin,” he cried, when the dozen of us who’d signed up had shuffled into place on the sidewalk in front of St. Louis Church. He pulled off his beret and held it aloft so all of us could see the large white pin. It was decorated with flowers and a big K.

“This pin was a gift from the Kerouac Club of Quebec. They read him up there as a French-Canadian writer, and it’s really because of them that Roger and I are here today.”

About nine years ago the Kerouac Club of Quebec contacted the Catholic diocese of Lowell and asked if someone could show them Jack’s Lowell. The diocese tapped Roger, who solicited Reggie. Using old phone books plus copies of Kerouac’s novels, they put together two tours. The Classic Jack follows the writer’s life from birth through many moves to his final resting place. On my visit they were also premiering an offshoot of the Classic Jack tour, something they called “The Mystic Jack Experience” — “Relive the dream of Gerard and the ride to heaven,” they promised.

“The trip we are about to take is very, very close to the womb,” Roger said as we motored through downtown Lowell. “It’s based on Jack’s favorite book, Visions of Gerard.”

Written when Jack was 34, the book describes in painful detail the few months surrounding the death of his beloved older brother, Gerard. The centerpiece of the book is a vision of heaven Gerard receives while daydreaming in his third-grade classroom. Soon, Roger assured us, we would be standing in that very classroom.

“This whole area was a truly close-knit French community with that peculiar medieval Gallic closed-in flavor that you can’t find anymore, even in France,” Reggie said. “Everything was French here, French stores, French tailor — my father was the tailor — French barbershops. Right over there is the Centralville Social Club, one of Jack’s hangouts. A very, very famous hangout for French people.”

Kerouac was born to Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac on March 22, 1922, on Lupine Road in a shabby two-story house that wasn’t included on today’s tour since it would be featured on tomorrow’s Classic Jack. Our destination was Beaulieu (pronounced “Bull – yer”) Street — “the little street that bears the great burden of Gerard’s dying,” Kerouac wrote.

On Beaulieu Street we gathered in front of the small house where Gerard died at the age of nine. Roger read from Visions of Gerard. When he finished, Reggie pointed to a house two doors away and said, “Three years after Gerard died, I was born right there.

“I had older brothers and sisters who knew Jack and Gerard very well. Mrs. Kerouac used to invite my older brother, who was seven at the time, inside to play with Gerard. My brother was the only one she would invite in, so he got to know Gerard very well. This was probably why I got interested in reading Jack’s books.”

Long before they built a permanent church here, they put up a school, importing a community of nuns from Nicolette, Canada, the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin — “like great black angels with huge fluttering wings beating over us and swooping down on us whenever we dared look them in the eye and ask a stupid question.”

The school was at the end of Beaulieu Street. As we arrived on its steps, one of those same black angels swooped down to let us in. “The nuns were powerful because they had corporal punishment,” Reggie whispered in a voice that was probably loud enough for the young nun who was guiding us to hear. “As you can read in Jack’s books, if you didn’t remember six times seven, they’d hit you with a ruler. We all came here. When you look at Jack, you can see he had strong religious beginnings. God is there, Lowell is there, St. Louis School is there.”

We followed the nun into a third-grade classroom where some 65 years ago, Gerard Kerouac experienced a vision of heaven that his younger brother would later memorialize.

“Now I believe I can say this fairly surely, I think that crucifix up there is the one Gerard was actually looking at when it happened.”

Out came the cameras: snap! snap!

During the long drunk of his final years, it was not uncommon for Kerouac to claim that it was really Gerard who’d written his books; that Jack, or Ti-Jean as his family called him, had been merely a channel. And once, on a radio show, when the subject of Gerard’s death had come up, Kerouac had murmured that just before Gerard died “nine nuns filed into his room and said, ‘Gerard, repeat what you told us about Heaven.’ “

It’s difficult to separate Lowell’s decision to honor Kerouac from the larger rehabilitation that Lowell itself has undergone. Today tourists to the Lowell National Historical Park fill little green tour buses and snap photographs of the gigantic gear that has been resurrected as a kind of signature sculpture. But they have not brought profitability to downtown Lowell.

“Everyone wants to leave,” a girl who worked in a gift shop told me. “There’s nothing here.”

I asked her if she’d ever heard of Jack Kerouac.

“Oh yeah,” she exclaimed, giggling.

“What have you heard? He’s a world-famous writer?”

She giggled again. “I heard he was a degenerate. I really don’t know much about him. None of my friends knows who he is.”

This seemed to be a common Lowell line on Kerouac at the time. The owner of a used-book store gave me a sour look after I bought a Kerouac button and grunted, “He was a boozer. People here didn’t think much of his lifestyle. He was an original writer, maybe, but people were embarrassed about him.”

But the boozer had his champions, foremost among them Paul Marion, a poet who was also the cultural-affairs director of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. It took years of arguing that if Lowell could rehabilitate its stifling sweatshops and turn the mill girls into local heroines, then surely a spot could be found for the city’s most famous writer. At last the city council designated a section of the new Eastern Canal Park for a monument.

It is possible to divide Jack Kerouac’s novels into two piles. In one pile, by far the largest, are his true-story novels about the Beat generation. These are the books that most people associate with Kerouac, the ones that have secured his literary reputation. The other pile consists of four relatively obscure books: Dr. Sax, which is about Kerouac’s childhood and teenage years; Maggie Cassidy, about his first love affair; Visions of Gerard, about the death of his brother; and Vanity of Duluoz, about his high school athletic exploits. In these books young Jack scores the touchdowns, chases the innocent Catholic girls of his adolescence, and roams the streets with a gang of uncomplicated guys.

This is the Kerouac that Lowell remembers.

The next day, the crowd for the Classic Jack is so large that the little tour bus has to be scrapped in favor of a larger city bus. The early stages of the Classic Jack seem to be one nondescript house after another. Between 1925 and 1930, Jack’s father moved the family five times. I can feel Kerouac aging as we pass from house to house, can sense the strands twisting to become the rope of his talent. In the Lowell novels, Kerouac portrays himself as a wild, rambunctious kid, but that’s not the way friends remember him. They thought of him principally as an excellent athlete.

At a symposium held at Salem State College after his death and attended by some of Jack’s fellow Beat writers, one of his childhood friends stood up and said, “Jack Kerouac, when I knew him, was a clean-cut kid. But when he left Lowell and took up with you guys, you screwed him all up with booze, drugs, and all that Beat bullshit.”

A few days later a letter appeared in the Lowell Sun. “After Jack’s death, if you read about him and did not know him as we do,” it said, “you would picture him as a drunken bum who had a way with words and could write books. . . .We want people to know that for half of his life Kerouac was a kind, hardworking, good-natured friend.”

He died in Florida, on October 21, 1969. The funeral was held at St. Jean Baptiste church, which was unusual because it wasn’t one of the parishes where the Kerouacs had lived. It took place there, Reggie surmises, because the priests of Jack’s original parishes were too uptight to bury such a great sinner.

“In St. Jean Baptiste we had a great priest, Father Spike Morissette. He has never said anything against Jack. If you go into the Rainbow Cafe, there’s a room there called ‘the Jack Kerouac Room’ and in the back there’s a picture of a smiling priest. That’s Father Spike. And underneath it says, ‘Jack’s priest.’ ”

Kerouac’s grave was instantly recognizable — it is a simple square stone set in the ground. Upon it are the words, “Ti-Jean, John L. Kerouac, March 12, 1922-October 21, 1969 — He Honored Life.”

Around it lay empty beer bottles, a Bacardi rum bottle, a hubcap with some money and pebbles in it, a plastic cigarette lighter, a plastic oil-additive container, and — the most provocative offering — a small American flag, the kind a little kid might wave at a Fourth of July parade, one end spearing a piece of paper to the turf, the other supporting a tattered porkpie hat.

Reggie had asked Roger to prepare something appropriate for the graveside, but Roger said he didn’t feel like reading anything. Reggie looked surprised. “You do one if you want to,” Roger said. But Reggie was equally unprepared. The Classic Jack tour was threatening to climax in roughly the same manner as Jack, with a shrug and a mumble.

“Does anyone have anything to say?” Roger asked. He noticed the flag. “Somebody wrote something over here, maybe I should read this.” Gingerly he disengaged the paper and scrutinized it. It was, he announced, a poem from someone called “Mojo.” He read it out loud.

To Jack,
A man whose life did not lack
The luster of the wrong side of the tracks.
Oh Jack,
They sing of you and smoke crack.
We wait for the day you will come back,
and the negative feelings we will not hack

Wordlessly Roger re-impaled the poem. “They are forever cleaning up this place,” Reggie said. “I’m sure they’ve got quite a collection somewhere.”

We wait for the day you will come back. This is not such a far-fetched sentiment when a writer’s involved. The body may not resurrect, but the books can. Someone in the back of the crowd asked whether we could expect any more books from Jack. Were any unpublished masterpieces about to see the light?

The question launched Roger into a story that he’d heard from a person who was actually in the room with Kerouac when he died, a story that had Jack declaring to an assembly of friends that some of his work was way ahead of its time, that people weren’t ready for it, and wouldn’t be for maybe 20 years, and to illustrate this claim he’d reportedly thrust his hand into a drawer and pulled out reams of manuscript.

“The people who were there,” Roger said, “say the drawer was full of manuscripts. And a lot of the stuff was written in Lowell French.”

At which point Reggie boomed:

“It’s been 20 years, Jack! We’re ready for you!”

Timeline of Lowell History
Poet Paul Marion’s Lowell
Lowell, MA: Where to Go