So far as I’ve been able to learn, Jack Kerouac came to Gloucester only once. Charles Olson told me the story, for it was Olson, the poet, that novelist Kerouac paid a call to one night in late October of 1968.
There was much talk of Kerouac that fall. Jack had just published what would be his last full-length novel, the haunting Vanity of Duluoz, which picked up the story of his life—he preferred to call it “the legend of Duluoz” and compared himself to Marcel Proust, claiming that his own work comprised “one vast book like Proust’s, except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed”—from the years between his football star days at Lowell High School and his even briefer stint as a scholarship student and football whiz kid at Columbia College under coach Lou Little; and those spent roaming the country he’d already written about in his bestselling novel On the Road.
Harvey Brown, the publisher of Frontier Press books in West Newbury, had obtained an advance copy of Vanity of Duluoz, and had immediately gotten on the phone to read parts of it to Olson in Gloucester. Olson told me he was pleased Kerouac was again writing about what was closest to him, his origins and his life in Lowell—and he was doing it in Lowell, where he’d returned a few years before, at the age of 45, to marry Stella Sampas, the sister of his late best friend Sammy, and set up housekeeping again in a home he’d bought for his wife and his mother on Sanders Avenue, across the river from Pawtucketville, in the southwest part of Lowell. Olson also told me that he believed Kerouac was writing some of the most important prose in America.
Although Kerouac is best known for his “Beat” or “Road” novels, books like On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Desolate Angels, which constitute a prose chronicle of the lives of some members of what the Media, after Kerouac, had come to call “The Beat Generation,” his biographer Ann Charters reports that his own books which were dearest to him were all set in Lowell, Massachusetts, the city of textile mills on the banks of the Merrimack River.
Since Kerouac’s death more attention has come to be focused on the Lowell novels, Visions of Gerard, Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy. And it is to these books that I would call the attention of new readers of Kerouac; for I know of few books in American literature where what it feels like to grew up in a small town or city in the 1930s and 40s, among an immigrant population, in working class neighborhoods, is as accurately and movingly rendered, as Kerouac has managed to do, particularly in a manner that differs radically from previous native writing.
Rather than the usual American realism or naturalism, in the Lowell novels you have instead a Proustian sense of the recapturing of lost time, often the most delicate sensation of how the intermingling of memory and dream, intuition and recollection, gives a deeper and far more penetrating vision of a time, place, person or thing than any cinematic or purely photographic depiction. As far back as the 1940s, Kerouac had a deadly serious notion about the kind of writer he wanted to become, telling his father, Ann Charters writes, that he planned “a lifetime of writing about what I’d seen with my own eyes, told in my own words. . .and put it all together as a contemporary record for future times to see what really happened and what people really thought.”
Doctor Sax recounts the story of a young man’s coming of age, his loss of innocence and his initiation into the mysteries of good and evil, death and rebirth, against a symbolic backdrop of Depression-era Lowell and the Great Flood of 1936. Maggie Cassidy, is a tender, almost wistful recollection of a high school romance. In both, it is not only the actual events that Kerouac’s prose recreates and enacts, but also the atmosphere surrounding them—including the slang that was spoken, the songs sung, the radio programs listened to, the magazines read and the products consumed—animating them as they filter through the consciousness of his narrator-protagonist. “The whole thing,” as Kerouac wrote, “seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness, seen through the keyhole of his eye.”
To get back to Olson’s—and my—story, I’d gone over to Charles’s at 28 Fort Square a couple of days after the Kerouac visit to help him celebrate the publication of a major book of his own, the second volume of The Maximus Poems, which had just been released by Cape Goliard Press in London. The first thing Olson said to me after I told him I’d been up all night reading the new “Maxies,” as he called his Gloucester epic, was “You missed your man.”
“Kerouac was here.”
“Jack came to Gloucester and I missed him?”
I was crushed, and disappointed, for I’d long wanted to tell Kerouac in person just how much his books meant to me. Harvey Brown and I had talked about going to visit him in Lowell, but Kerouac had moved yet again before we could act on our plan. To console me—and also because he relished telling it—0lson told me the story of the visit.
He’d been in his kitchen. It was a mild October evening and he had either the windows or the kitchen door open. He heard someone calling his name—“Olson! Charles Olson!”—in a kind of drunken singsong voice. He went to the door, stepped out upon that back porch from which you could see the whole city of Gloucester, eerily that night under the spell cast by the mercury vapor street lamps the poet so hated—“they destroy the color of color in human faces,” he had written his “Scream to the Editor” of the Gloucester Times.
Olson made out three figures in the gloom at the foot of the long staircase to his second floor apartment, and the one who’d called his name was now shouting, “The red carpet treatment. I expect the red carpet!”
Olson immediately recognized Jack Kerouac (whether or not they’d ever met before he never told me), disappeared into his kitchen and returned with the first thing he’d grabbed, which turned out to be some pages from the Boston Globe’s Sunday magazine section. Down the steps the massive poet plunged, and he slipped the pages under Kerouac’s knees, while the novelist proceeded to negotiate the stairway on hands and knees, Olson alternatingly removing the paper and slipping it back under Kerouac’s knees, until they’d made their way laboriously to the top of the stairs and across the porch to Olson’s kitchen door, whereupon Kerouac entered, slumped down into a kitchen chair and asked for a drink.
I can’t remember Charles telling me what they talked about, or if they ever did talk. At some point Kerouac, who was already drunk (he’d written earlier that year in Vanity of Duluoz, “If I myself, for instance, were to try to follow Jesus’ example I’d have first to give up my kind of drinking, which prevents me from thinking too much, like I’m doing now in awful pain this morning, and so I’d go insane and go on public debt and be a pain to everybody in the blessed ‘community’ or ‘society.’ And I’d be furthermore bored to death. . .”) either passed out or was assisted back to the car by the two men who had come with him. They turned out to be his Greek-American brothers-in-law from Lowell; and Olson, who knew a slew of Greeks between Gloucester and Washington, D.C., reported spending the rest of the night absorbed in animated discussion with them, while Jack slept off his liquor downstairs in the car.
It wasn’t until long after the Kerouac caravan had set off for Lowell that Olson noticed the Boston Globe magazine pages he’d red-carpeted Kerouac with lying on the floor of his kitchen, and, picking them up idly, found that Kerouac had come up Olson’s steps on hands and knees pressing down upon the very article that Kerouac himself had just written. In it, Kerouac, who had for ten years been trying to get rid of the “Beat Generation” label, which he felt had kept his books from the serious critical attention accorded other writers whose books weren’t nearly as innovative and truthful as he believed his to be, disavowed any kinship with the current generation of “Hippies” and student rebels, he, as an “Apostle of the Beat,” had been accused by the Media of fathering. He had—prophetically—entitled his article “After Me, the Deluge,” but the magazine editors had re-titled it, “I’m a Bippy in the Middle.” The compound irony hit home for many of us.
Shortly after his visit to Olson, Kerouac moved from Lowell to St. Petersburg, Florida so that his ailing mother could be in a warmer climate. A year later he was dead, as the newspapers reported, “of a massive gastric hemorrhage,” and his wife Stella insisted, of loneliness.
Two months later Olson died, in New York Hospital, of cancer of the liver. Both men died away from the places that had nourished and sustained them, and which figured centrally in their works as well as in their lives.
Allen Ginsburg spoke to friends at Olson’s funeral in Gloucester of a sense of “an ending of something,” and of an uncanny feeling he’d had of having come almost directly from burying Kerouac in Lowell to inter Olson in Gloucester, though the two funerals were about two and a half months apart. Later, in an “Eclogue,” he wrote: “Kerouac...Olson, ash and earth.”
And many of us did have a sense then, under the terrible strain of those Vietnam years, of an ending of something, of a dream maybe, a promise, that we all had, of a possibility, an idea of America, which Kerouac and Olson, each in his own way, had reminded us of; had, in their work and in their visions, held us and our country to.
I went home from Olson’s funeral to write in my journal:
“And now it seems I am back where I began. The two American writers I most loved and respected are dead: Olson of cancer, Kerouac of drink. With their deaths a force seems to have gone out of my own life, a pungency from the very air of New England. Reading Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy, Kerouac’s two neglected Lowell novels, had freed me of the old prose stance and taught me the possibilities of a lyric repossession of the authentic past, while Olson pointed me into the future with the tool of mythology as epistemology not art-form, and the fix of self.
“It was a good feeling to sit up here on Thomas Riggs’ hill in Riverdale, knowing that Charles was down in his house at the Fort overlooking the harbor and that Jack might well have been working away in his bedroom in Lowell not far from the woods where Thoreau had lived and walked. I often thought of us as ‘spies of all the gods,’ in Allen Ginsberg’s phrase, a kind of Massachusetts brotherhood of the Craft, though we were never together in the same room and I never did get to meet Jack.”
(This is the text of a talk I gave on March 12, 2012 at the Gloucester Writers Center, to celebrate Kerouac's 90th birthday.)