Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?Jack Kerouac, On the Road
What a long, strange trip it’s been…The Grateful Dead, Truckin’
Lowell is a former mill town to the north of Boston. It is named after Francis Cabot Lowell, who developed the first American textile mill in 1814. It is located on the northern border of Massachusetts and the effective boundaries of the Boston metropolitan area now go beyond it into southern New Hampshire. Today, Lowell, like many others in the region, has gradually shifted from a defunct mill economy to one focused on technology, services and suburbia. In the 1930sand 40s, though, Lowell was a blue-collar town and a good part of its population came from the north, from Quebec, in Canada. Jack Kerouac’s parents were among them.
While in Lowell, I had breakfast at the Club Diner, which has been in operation since 1933. Dotty, the waitress/cook, liked good thoughts and good people. Nearby Worcester is said to be the home of the first diner in America. The old mill town, where Jack Kerouac was born and brought up, has been turned, in large part, into a historical center and the Diner seemed to attract a lot of tourists and kids off of school buses.
At the time, the town didn’t exactly know what to do with the memory of Jack Kerouac. It recognized his fame, but his image is neither one that could represent the old blue collar town nor its new technology and history-oriented profile. He is more a descendant of the visionary, restless Yankee than the hardworking, rational Yankee that Lowell seemed to see in itself. After all, as William Burroughs, Jack’s poet-friend ‘Old Bull Lee’ in On The Road, later claimed, “Woodstock [the great ‘rock concert] rises from its pages” and “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levis”. The title of the book was a take-off on Neal Cassady’s phrase for being high, “going on the road”.
There is a Kerouac Park in Lowell, but it reminded me of the memorial to the massacre at Kent State in Ohio. The park memorializes someone who is a bit of an embarrassment, but who is too famous, or infamous, not to do so. It is just off the main street in Lowell and was dedicated in 1988, but is not obvious and a little unkempt. It is a sculpture with a number of pillars containing quotes from Kerouac’s works where he refers to Lowell (mostly) or to himself. The pillars sit on a base that incorporates both the Catholic cross and the Buddhist circle. On one of the pillars, Kerouac refers to himself as a crazy, Catholic mystic. He was, as he put it “elsewhere, waiting for God to show His face”.
Douglas Brinkley, taking some students across America to visit cultural symbols and people, observed about Kerouac and Lowell:
On this trip we also visited Thoreau’s Walden Pond, but it was the Merrimack River in pre-Christmas twilight condensing toward darkness that caused us to shudder, to feel the shroud presence of Dr. Sax, from Kerouac’s eponymous novel, whose mysterious spirit still seems to pervade Lowell, to understand at last that On The Road was not a novel, but a religious poem for America, a gift to us all.
The Kerouac family was part of the wave of immigrants that came to Lowell to take the places of the local “mill girls” in the 1850s and beyond. The family came south from Quebec along with thousands of others who were forced off their farms by population pressure and a lack of good land, not unlike the girls coming from marginal New England farms who preceded them.
Jack, born in 1922, was a good football player, good enough to get a scholarship to play at Columbia, in New York City. A knee injury soon put an end to his athletics and he began a life of drifting and trying to be a writer.
He fell in with a group of poets, novelists and assorted others during and after World War II, who became the core of the “Beat” Generation, a group having a “weariness with all the conventions of the world”. He published a long novel about his upbringing in Lowell and New York in 1950 that did respectably enough in sales to keep him encouraged. He wrote a number of other autobiographical novels, turned away from his ‘Beat’ friends and drank himself to death at the early age of 44. Yet that isn’t the whole story, as a radio reporter once built a career in telling us.
Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, On The Road, first came out in 1957, though the events that inspired it took place a decade or so earlier. I first read it in college in northern Michigan about 1960. It had an amazing effect on me, as it did on millions of others around my age then. There I was, on my own for the first time in my life, at a remote engineering school where social relations could only be called crude and this book comes along and justifies a life of travel, freedom and irresponsibility.
I probably wouldn’t have behaved any differently and still would have gone out on drinking bouts on the shores of Lake Superior and roared down to Wisconsin to chase the girls at Oshkosh State Teacher’s College or over to Hurley WI, made famous (to us) as the place where Chicago gangsters unloaded their booze from Canada during Prohibition and still had 100 bars for 1000 people in the town, but Kerouac gave it a romance that could never be taken away.
Kerouac, like Elvis Presley, apparently never saw himself as a social revolutionary. He was irritated at being blamed for the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the 1960s. Yet, it is said that Bob Dylan cherished his copy (of On The Road) like a bible and said “it blew my mind” as a teenager in northern Minnesota. John Lennon, Van Morrison, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen all were influenced by it. Listen to Springsteen’s song about he and his buddy, Wayne, going down to Darlington County from New York City, and you can see Cassady and Kerouac in the car.
Kerouac documented his restlessness as Sal Paradise, whose 5 near-penniless travels with his friend Dean Moriarty (in real life, Neal Cassady) between New York, Denver and San Francisco and back between 1947 and 1951. They were not taken in a search for a new home or a new life, though both romanticized about it. Freedom meant leaving somewhere, especially to Cassady, whose character, Dean, as one critic puts it, “spends the book running away from messes he makes of his life”, while Sal tries to figure out how to live amidst the mess handed him. Both of these impulses are amazingly powerful when you are 18 and away from home for the first time.
Visit The Yankee Road to read more or find a copy of Volume 1 or 2. The third and final volume of the road book trilogy will be released early 2022.