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Jack Kerouac's Lowell, Massachusetts

1 August 2014

Adrian Mourby visits Lowell, Massachusetts, the birthplace of one of America’s most famous 20th century writers, Jack Kerouac – and the town the author once described as “the most interesting place in the United States”

Dawn comes quietly to Lowell, illuminating the huge rooftop sign over the Lowell Sun building. Jack Kerouac, the author who gave voice to America’s mid-20th century Beat Generation, worked here 75 years ago. Today it stands huge and empty. 

First light also picks out the large clock hanging outside Lowell High School. For four years Jack was a student in this yellow brick, Art Deco educational palace. He used to smoke and meet girls beneath its “boxlike clock”. Dawn also casts angular shadows as it strikes the struts of the red metal bridge linking the centre of Lowell with Jack’s French-speaking suburb of Pawtucketville on the other side of the Merrimack River.

Dawn these days is particularly quiet in Lowell because few cars disturb the peace of the sleeping industrial giant that was Jack Kerouac’s hometown. Even when Jack was a boy, Lowell was in decline. By the 1950s, when he headed out “on the road”, the city was so poor it couldn’t afford to demolish its old buildings. But this has made Lowell special today. 

It doesn’t look like all the other cookie-cutter American cities with an Athenian-style city hall and identikit shopping malls. The nearest Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are a mile out of town. Lowell is different. For its most famous son, the man who criss-crossed America in the 1950s questing for something always beyond the horizon, Lowell remained the most interesting place he knew. 

The author of On The Road set many of his early novels in this Massachusetts industrial town just as it breathed its last gasp. To Kerouac, Lowell was a “whole intact Shakespearean universe in itself”. Jean-Louis Kérouac (known as Ti’Jean by his family) was born and raised here and, when he could, he came back to Lowell every October. 

“Everyone goes home in October,” he wrote in On The Road. Eventually he came back to live out his last years here, drinking noisily in Nicky’s Bar, and marrying the owner’s sister. He died in Florida aged only 47, but he was buried in Lowell. Nineteen years later, in 1988, this city-town decided to erect a memorial to its most famous son. 

And that’s where I start my journey, after a cup of coffee on Market Street. The Jack Kerouac Commemorative stands on the site of a demolished warehouse, opposite a row of redbrick terraced houses built for Lowell’s millworkers. It’s early morning and the sunbeams piercing the narrow streets of Lowell are bouncing light off the pink granite columns erected in Jack’s honour. 

Roger Brunelle, a sprightly octogenarian from the same French Canadian Lowell background as Jack himself, joins me, pointing out one of the four triangular columns that gives Jack’s name and dates and nothing more. “When Ben Woitena designed this park there was a picture of Jack underneath those dates,” says Roger. “But Stella [Jack’s wife] said “That’s not my Jack” so they erased it. Stella was his third wife and I think it works better with just his name.” 

Roger was a Latin teacher in Lowell, and 10 years younger than his hero. Jack had left Lowell and headed out on the road by the time Roger might have made his acquaintance, but Roger has talked to just about everyone who did know Jack. Most of them are dead now, but Roger Brunelle has everything in his mind and on file cards that he keeps in the pocket of his jeans. 

Distinctively-dressed in a black T shirt with its Latin logo telling us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, Roger is regularly sought out by people who come to Lowell in search of Kerouac. “You know, Jack only spoke French at home. Like my family. There was a very big Quebequois community here in Lowell. Industry made this an immigrant town. We had Poles and Greeks and Irish and Lithuanians. And the Irish were paid 50 cents for every Canadian they brought down here. And Jack’s father moved here to produce a French-language newspaper for them.” 

I’ve already seen where Jack was born over in Pawtucketville, a simple wooden house with verandas top and bottom and two front doors side by side, one for the family who lived downstairs and one for the family upstairs. Jack’s parents started off down below, but he was born after they moved up. According to Roger, upstairs was always considered better as heat rises and in New England’s winters you needed all the heat you could get. 

I also saw Jack’s elementary school, Ecole de St Louis, where he skipped a grade because he was so bright. “And yet with all the teachers and nuns I spoke to, everyone could remember the name but not the face. Jack was a wall flower,” Roger informs me. “He was very bright but he was shy, and I think he found life a sad business. And of course he was religious, not in the Catholic sense of his upbringing, but in a questing sense. That’s why you’ll see this park is laid out like a mandala with the four pillars forming a cross.” 

Roger tends to blur the edges between his life and Jack’s, but the two men do have a lot in common. Lowell called them both back. Roger would have liked to have lived in Paris, but he’s become a Lowell fixture, just like Jack. “My duty on earth,” says Roger, looking at his cards. “That’s what Jack called his writing. And he called Lowell, ‘My Lowell’, too”. 

After my meeting with Roger, I take some time off on my own. There is no official Jack Kerouac route through Lowell, but a map from the National Park Center shows you the major sites associated with the man who reinvented America with his words. Yet Lowell had a history before Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road. 

Charles Dickens came to Lowell in 1842 and commended its cotton factories for creating enlightened housing for their workers. The painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born here in 1834 (his home is now an art gallery). The first Unionist soldiers killed in the Civil War were from Lowell, as was the movie star Bette Davis. 

Lowell was a cotton town, and hugely important in the Massachusetts economy until America’s Depression ripped its industrial heart out. In a radio interview, in 1962, Kerouac said that Lowell was the most interesting place in the United States. As I pass the Lowell 5 Cent Saving Bank and St Joseph The Worker Shrine, I wonder how serious he was. 

According to Paul Marion, who edited Kerouac’s early work and teaches at the University Of Massachusetts Lowell, the remark was made “not without some humour”. I had spoken to Paul on the telephone when planning my visit. “But in all seriousness I believe Kerouac saw in Lowell the universal human condition, and he translated that into his stories about growing up in Lowell. 

Jack saw the entire social pageant, high and low, in the daily drama of Lowell, and through the power of his fiction he made Lowell a place that stood for one aspect of the American experience, that urban, multi-ethnic, working-class-with-aspirations-type community that was familiar to so many people in the middle of the 20th century.” 

Reaching Jack’s old school, which must have seemed huge in the 1930s when he attended, I see the four-faced clock prominently displayed over the entrance. It’s a very long building indeed. “Inconceivably lost, the corridors of that long school,” Jack wrote. “I played hooky two times a week on average.” Across the Merrimack Canal I come to the New City Hall and the Pollard Memorial Library, where Jack determined to read every book in stock. 

“Some old bums gathering, smoking butts at the door... waiting for nine o’clock opening time,” he recalled. Stella Cunha from the tourist board, who meets me here, admits that despite Jack’s fame, Lowell developed a bad reputation in the second half of the 20th century. “Lowell certainly went through some bad times after its industry collapsed. We had 40 per cent unemployment, the highest in the USA , and a reputation for drugs and violence. And soldiers from Fort Devens would come to town looking for prostitutes. I remember saying to someone that I was born in Lowell and he said, ‘Why would you tell people you came from Lowell?’ It was that bad.” 

But this library would inspire a young man with literary aspirations. Two sets of double-doors open on to a wood-panelled reading room with chandeliers. “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page,” he recorded “And I could do anything I wanted.” 

From here I can now head west to St Jean Baptsite Church, for Jack always “the ponderous chartreuse cathedral of the slums”, but instead I track back south across the railway lines to the site of the YMCA – now demolished. When he should have been in school, Jack divided his time between the Memorial Library and the YMCA. 

“He was unusual for his broad interests,” Paul Marion had told me. “He was the intellectual-athlete, who could shift from grinding runs as a halfback on the football field to reading the poems of Walt Whitman. He was always a voracious reader of all things, from newspaper sports stories and serialised magazines for young readers to the books in the Lowell public library.” 

Despite his absences from school – more than 40 days in his final year – Jack graduated with honours. He worked briefly for the Lowell Sun, served an equally brief period in the merchant marine during the Second World War and then headed to New York and literary fame. “What’s clear is that he had a dream of being a writer from an early age,” says Paul Marion. “Most people who knew him growing up or even later described him as a naturally shy person, but one who was always on, observing and soaking in everything around him.” 

According to another Roger, Roger Ouellette, who was a childhood friend of Jack’s older brother, Gerard, both Kerouac boys were natural dramatists. “I was told to not return to play with Gerard, because it offended his younger brother, Jean-Louis, who was jealous of me,” he says. “Gerard was a brilliant little boy who was a great storyteller: that’s where Jack got it...” 

The sun is higher in the sky now as I retrace my steps past Lowell High School to the Patrick J Mogan Cultural Center, where the typewriter on which Jack pounded out On The Road in 1951 is displayed among a few other artefacts. It’s a classic black skeletal Underwood with the keys like little white dishes, although I notice the ‘h’ and ‘j’ are badly discoloured. 

Jack left a lot to Lowell, including an archive of his own papers that Paul Marion is still working through. Despite his celebrity and restlessness he was repeatedly drawn back to this empty city with its huge red brick mills. George Apostolos, a best friend whom Kerouac fictionalised as GJ, told Roger Brunelle that Jack found those initial return trips disappointing. 

“He kept coming back to Lowell looking for something, trying to find home again. The last time he came to Lowell in 1954 he wanted to be a big kid again and play with the boys for a few days. But the others had grown up, had responsibilities, and Kerouac went away disappointed.” Chicki Dagoumas, another Greek friend, recalled Jack in later years, after he’d married and moved back to Lowell, drinking heavily at the Sack Club on Market Street. 

Jack also drank at Nicky’s strip joint on Gorham Street, and it was the owner’s sister, Stella Sampas, who became his third wife. Nicky’s is now Ricardo’s Cafe Trattoria and, by the looks of it, a much more salubrious place these days. From here I want to head to the Kerouac grave, but first I walk to “Funeral Row”, Jack’s nickname for the Pawtucket Street on which stand four funeral homes, three Irish and one French, Archambault & Sons, which would go on to be the site of Kerouac’s wake in 1969. He died aged only 47 as a result of long-term alcohol abuse. 

Nearby stands the Lourdes replica grotto built by monks from Canada. This is the shrine Jack described as offering “nothing in praise of life”. In fact it’s worse, flanked by grisly Stages of the Cross. By early afternoon I make it to Edson Cemetery and the simple stone that records Ti’Jean’s dates and adds the epitaph “He Honored Life”. And there is Roger Brunelle again, with an American couple who’ve brought a young guest from Scotland to see the grave. He’s explaining that Jack was not buried in the Catholic Cemetery across town because Stella’s family already owned a plot here. In fact she was buried with him here in 1990. 

I wait while Roger reads out some lines from one of his file cards. As our little vigil ends Roger catches up with me. ”You know people say this isn’t Jack’s town anymore. But that’s not so,” he insists. “You could drop two bombs here and there’d still be enough left of Lowell to find Jack.” 

Words: Adrian Mourby / Images: Jarrod McCabe