In “Walking through Lowell with Jack Kerouac,” I described my rambles through the city while following the Bay Circuit Trail and visiting landmarks related to the life and work of its notorious literary native son. Though I mentioned the “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac” festival held in that city each October, the month of his death in 1969 at age 47, I neglected to note that 2022 is the centennial of the writer’s birth in Lowell on March 12, 1922. The city, the Lowell National Historical Park, Kerouac’s estate, and a well-organized community of Kerouac fans and scholars are pulling out all the stops by expanding the celebration throughout the year.
Kerouac@100, as the event is called, reflects how Kerouac’s somewhat wobbly literary and personal reputation has evolved in his hometown to become a focus of Lowell’s cultural heritage and tourist economy. Spanning the months between his March birthday and the October day of his death, the centennial program includes exhibits, concerts, lectures, panel discussions, tours, poetry readings, and films.
A highlight of the centennial is a display of a 24-foot section of the legendary 120-foot paper scroll on which Kerouac during a three-week writing binge typed the final draft of his best-known novel, On the Road (1957). The exhibit, which opened on March 18, will be on display until April 15 at Boott Cotton Mills Gallery at the Lowell National Historical Park. Described by the National Park Service as “one of the most extraordinary and highly valued manuscripts in American literary history,” it is on loan from Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, from his “renowned collection which includes historic and iconic artifacts from rock music, American history and pop culture.” Irsay reportedly paid $2.43-million for the scroll.
Culturally speaking, it is particularly apt that Irsay is custodian of this unique artifact. His father, Robert Irsay, will never be forgiven in Baltimore for moving the Colts “in the dead of the night” to Indianapolis in 1984. For his part as a football icon, Kerouac was a star running back at Lowell High School, the Horace Mann School in New York City, then briefly at Columbia University (from which he dropped out). Biographers and memoirists have speculated that Kerouac’s alcoholism, depression, erratic behavior, and early death may have been related to brain injuries incurred during his short but intense football career.
The Jack Kerouac Estate and the organizations comprising Kerouac@100 have been working to create a more permanent memorial presence for the writer’s legacy in Lowell. A Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities already exists at UMass Lowell. The newly created Jack Kerouac Foundation hopes to establish in the city a museum and performance center in the writer’s name.
There can be a fine line between the purposes of sedate institutions like museums and universities and those of tourist-bait theme parks. But Kerouac is quintessentially a reflection of the culture of his American era. There already exists a Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, affiliated with Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, which was founded at the urging of his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the self-styled “Outrider” poet Anne Waldman. Lowell deserves and can justify establishment of a living cultural memorial to a writer whose own unique literary road began and ended in that city.
Whether or not you’re interested in Jack Kerouac, the Lowell National Historical Park provides plenty of food for thought about the economic, social, and cultural history of industrial New England. It’s worth a visit. If you are interested in Kerouac, consider making a stop at his gravesite at the Edson Cemetery. You will likely find that other visitors have stopped by quite recently.
On the way to the cemetery, walking or driving along Gorham Street, you will pass through the urban ghost village of Spaghettiville, former neighborhood of the Prince Spaghetti Company, which closed in 1997.♦