Jack Kerouac's back: hometown exhibition shows writer’s homely side

Items that 'tell the story of Kerouac's life', from knick-knacks on his desk to records and cat carriers, go on show in Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts, where writer was born

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 October, 2015, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 October, 2015, 3:57pm

The eclectic bric-a-brac that comforted and inspired writer Jack Kerouac  is going on the road.

“Kerouac Retrieved”,  an exhibition of the clutter that surrounded Kerouac at the simple wooden desk in the US state of Florida where he wrote many of his works, opens on Thursday in the author’s hometown of Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts.  

It’s a hotchpotch of personal items: family photos, Christian and Buddhist figurines, a Frank Sinatra album, cat carriers he fashioned by hand. Kerouac experts at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, which is hosting the show,  say the items help  humanise the Beat Generation icon who wrote On the Road,  The Dharma Bums  and other celebrated works.

“Actually touching something he touched – it’s really an uncanny experience,” said Michael Millner,  a UMass-Lowell professor who runs the school’s Jack and Stella Kerouac  Centre for Public Humanities.  

An exhibition wall features a  stencilled quote from Beat Spotlight,  Kerouac’s last, unfinished  book: “... There was nothing nobler for me to do with my lifetime than to dedicate it to telling true stories about life as I had seen it and lived it.”

Today’s hipsters are discovering Kerouac – not just because he  favoured flannel check shirts and Levis, but for his freewheeling, freethinking prose and his pursuit of what Kerouac scholar Todd Tietchen calls “a principled state of marginality”.

On a period typewriter tucked in a corner, visitors are invited to peck out their impressions.

“Typing is now an old thing,” wrote one. “But your writing is not.”

Millner and Tietchen  arranged to have the items brought to Lowell from the novelist’s bungalow in St. Petersburg, Florida – the last place he lived before essentially drinking himself to death at age 47  in 1969.  

Kerouac was born in gritty, industrial Lowell  in 1922.  Though most of his works were written elsewhere, they’re peppered with references to his hometown. At the time of his death, Kerouac even kept a Lowell telephone directory on his desk.

It’s the other trinkets, though, that capture the imagination.

There’s the little plastic bride and groom that topped his wedding cake. The tiny model of a Triumph motorcycle – a curious  knick-knack for someone who never got a driver’s  licence. The whimsical fisherman and sea captain salt and pepper shakers. The records (Sinatra’s Someone to Watch Over Me  and music by Cole Porter and Tchaikovsky). The incense burner.

“These things give us a sense of who Kerouac was,” said Tietchen. “People think of him as being on the road, aimless, shiftless. But he was also a domestic person, a cat lover. These items tell the story of his life.”

For decades, Lowell’s most famous son was underappreciated in his hometown. That changed in the 1990s, when John Sampas,  Kerouac’s brother-in-law  and literary executor,   laboured to make the writer’s works and personal effects more accessible. New manuscripts were published; older ones republished.

“Now there’s a real celebration of his legacy. It’s a doorway into the history of the city,” Millner said.

“Bringing his belongings to UMass-Lowell is a little like bringing Jack Kerouac back to his hometown,” said university chancellor Jacquie Moloney.