On the Road in Jack Kerouac’s Hometown

Last summer, as part of a longer circuit of New England and Québec, my girlfriend and I decided to spend a couple days in Lowell, Massachusetts, a riparian city of just over 100,000 north of Boston. Home to numerous textile mills, some dating back to the 1820s, Lowell is known chiefly as beleaguered emblem of the American Industrial Revolution. However, what brought us to Lowell—along with many other literary tourists each year—is Beat icon Jack Kerouac. Not only is Lowell the city in which Kerouac was born, raised, and now eternally rests, it also serves as the setting for some of his best-loved novels, including Dr. Sax and Maggie Cassidy.

In Lowell, Kerouac’s legacy looms large. His books are found everywhere and, although there does not yet exist a Kerouac museum per se (though such an institution has its advocates), random glass displays of Kerouac artifacts—typewriter, socks,  rucksack, etc.— pervade the city, usually housed unassumingly in historical museums or city buildings.  In 2007, the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, part of the Lowell National Historic Park, even showcased the full 120-foot scroll manuscript of On the Road.

On our first evening, while sauntering around downtown we chanced upon the Kerouac Commemorative Park, a meditative little lot wherein stand a series of burnished stone monoliths engraved with excerpts from Kerouac’s books. The park, which was dedicated in 1988, pays homage to both Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing and later fascination with Zen Buddhism.

The following morning, we journeyed across the Merrimack River to find the house on Lupine Road where Kerouac was born. With the help of our GPS we managed to find the house without incident. Unfortunately, despite being distinguished by a small plaque, the house was very much inhabited (as evidenced by the satellite dish on the roof). So taken, the prospect of hopping out of our car and leisurely exploring the property didn’t strike us as all too attractive, nor did the neighbourhood seem overwhelmingly inviting to a couple of Canadian tourists. We did manage, however, to take a few snapshots from the safety of our vehicle before gunning it back across the river.

Later that same day, we braved the summer heat and drove to Edson Cemetery where Kerouac is buried (though I have some hesitations when it comes to graveyard tourism, I assure you our intentions were pure). With only a plot number, it took us some time to locate the modest flat grave marker, whose epitaph simply reads “He Honored Life”—a movingly succinct summation of the man and his work.

Altogether, I was impressed by the extent to which Lowell works to preserve Kerouac’s memory, although I suppose it’s only sensible given how much of a tourist draw Kerouac seems to be. Every October, an independent organization called Lowell Celebrates Kerouac hosts the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival, a week-long event featuring art exhibitions, walking tours, readings, poetry competitions, and, of course, jazz music.