UMass Lowell Connector Logo

Lowell remembers Kerouac with annual festival

Katrina Desrosiers
Connector Editor

It took a long time for Lowell to honor Jack Kerouac as a great writer, but now every year Lowell Celebrates Kerouac through an annual festival.

As part of LCK, on Oct. 10 Kerouac expert Bill Walsh led a historic walk starting at the Kerouac Commemorative Park. The event’s aim was to connect the dots of the writer’s life in Lowell.

Kerouac has published over 20 books of prose and poetry. Yet, he was not always highly regarded as a writer because of his actions and perceived immaturity; Walsh said he was criticized because he drank a lot. “That doesn’t mean it takes away from the work he produced over the years…When you read Kerouac, he’s meant to be read aloud,” said Walsh.

To honor and celebrate Kerouac’s publications, the city established the Kerouac Commemorative in Downtown Lowell located behind the Massachusetts Mill buildings where Walsh said Kerouac’s father used to own a print shop. At the Commemorative, there lies a mandala of Kerouac’s legacy. The memorial has pillars displaying excerpts from his works in the shape of a cross, and Walsh said they are symbols of Kerouac’s Roman Catholic and Buddhism beliefs. The cross is surrounded by a circle of benches, creating a true mandala.

“[The Commemorative] was finally dedicated to Kerouac in 1988. Before that, many people considered him to be a drunken, nasty bum. He was only 47 years old when he died, and this year marks 47 years since his death in 1969,” Walsh said.

LCK hosts many events year round as well as the festival every October centered on Kerouac to keep his legacy alive, said Walsh. This October alone, he led three walking tours throughout Lowell educating his audience on the beat writers’ life.

The tour highlighted each of Kerouac’s homes in the city as well as schools and churches he attended as a young child and other important landmarks.

“By the time Jack got out of high school, he had lived in 11 homes,” said Walsh. Kerouac lived in various parts of Lowell’s Centralville and Pawtucketville. Walsh said Kerouac’s parents moved from Quebec, Canada before he was born, and he did not learn English until he was six years old at the St. Louis Elementary School in Centralville.

“Naturally, people will go places where they understand the culture, the food, their faith and so on,” Walsh said.

When Kerouac was in elementary school, 70 percent of Centralville was Franco-American, said Walsh. Sections of the neighborhood were known as “Little Canada.” Walsh also said that most of Kerouac’s classes were taught in French and students would say the pledge to both the Quebec and American Flags.

The majority of Kerouac’s works are based off of his previous experiences in Lowell and on the road–he saw himself pictured by other people and then wrote about it, said Walsh.

Visitor Greg Robinson is one person who said he found himself by reading Kerouac when he lived in Australia in the 1960s. “I felt I was very alone, like I was the only person. Then I read Kerouac and realized I wasn’t. There were millions and millions of people just like me,” said Robinson.

Depending on where Kerouac readers come from, they experience and interpret his works differently. For example, “Visions of Gerard,” Walsh’s favorite book, is about Kerouac’s younger brother Gerard Kerouac who died when Jack Kerouac was four years old. Walsh said he enjoys reading his works centered on the writer’s experiences in Lowell rather than works from his travels, which could be because Walsh has lived in Lowell for the majority of his life.

However, Robinson said that he enjoys reading Kerouac’s prose and poems about his experiences travelling more than the Lowell experiences. “[‘On the Road’] is a very difficult book to read, but it’s such an exciting book.”

He said he read “On the Road” on a scroll without any periods in the text and later re-read a bound copy. “I like the road books. Nothing will change; I’ll go to the grave with them,” said Robinson.

Kerouac leaves his audience to interpret his writing however they feel, said Maggie Ritchie, freshman business major. Ritchie said she appreciated “his perspective on living life”: “I think it’s kind of unique because a lot of writers over analyze things… I like that he is really simple and straightforward.”

The Kerouac Commemorative Park is open to the public for reading, reflecting on and remembering his legacy. “In effect, Kerouac changed my life,” said Robinson. “He was quite a significant thing for me.”

Related posts