Off the Road, at Last
It’s time to add Kerouac to our pantheon of great authors.
New Englanders have long revered sober, canonical writers like Alcott, Hawthorne, Frost, Thoreau, and Updike. Which may be why we’ve tended to ignore Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation icon and poet, and let San Francisco and New York claim him as their own. Though Kerouac was born in the blue-collar Lowell neighborhood of Centralville, today one of the only remembrances of him in that city is the small and modest Kerouac Park, which sits two blocks off the main drag, Merrimack Street. Kerouac would have turned 90 this month, so as a posthumous birthday present, it’s time we put him in the pantheon of our region’s great authors.
Why isn’t he there already? Maybe it’s because we like our writing pristine to the point of prim. Kerouac’s was messy, decadent, and urbane, and he wrote about messed-up, indulgent people — or “fornicators and masturbators,” as a Lowell housewife once complained to his face. But the main reason is that most of us know only one of his novels, On the Road, which ignored New England. Instead, it described road trips across the U.S. during the late 1940s, as Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, sought a new way to live that was wild, free, and poetic. On the Road made Kerouac a worldwide pop-culture figure. It was translated into dozens of languages, and has inspired generations of free thinkers ever since.
Famous as it is, On the Road represents just a fragment of Kerouac’s career. His real life’s work was a series of autobiographical novels — more than a dozen in total — collectively titled The Duluoz Legend. Writing about New England, Kerouac is less the dissolute poet of fame than a simple man reflecting on his insecure youth. He chronicles the death of his nine-year-old brother from rheumatic fever; the 1936 flood that devastated the Merrimack River Valley; high school football games and track meets; and carousing in Scollay Square, Boston’s old red-light district. These memories from the 1930s and 1940s inform the books about his later days, when he’d moved far away. They speak more about modern New England life than Thoreau’s ruminations at Walden Pond. Kerouac’s work also establishes him as the region’s foremost French-Canadian writer, detailing the life of a community long overshadowed by Italians, Irish, and WASPy Brahmins.
Lowell is honoring Kerouac’s birthday with a weekend of events (March 8-11, lowellcelebrateskerouac.org), but let’s expand that celebration statewide. We’re declaring March Jack Kerouac Month: Pick up a copy of ?The Town and the City — his first novel, covering life in Massachusetts — grab a bottle of wine, and dig in.