Lowell, Massachusetts is a small industrial city on the Merrimack River north of Boston. It was an important textile manufacturing center in the late 19th Century, and Charles Dickens, on a tour of American industrial sites, wrote approvingly of living conditions there.
But Lowell’s economy declined significantly by the time Jack Kerouac was born there in 1922. He was raised in a highly insular and Catholic French Canadian community where a dialect of French known as joual was spoken more often than English.
You can see a few glimpses of Lowell, including Jack Kerouac’s grave, in Bob Dylan’s film ‘Renaldo and Clara.’ In recent years the town has become commendably proud of it’s famous literary son. There is a monument to Kerouac downtown, and a festival celebrating his memory every October. Much of this is due to the work of an enthusiastic contingent of Kerouac aficionados who live in the area.
The American Impressionist painter James McNeil Whistler — another one with a thing about his mother — was also from Lowell.
I’ve only paid brief visits to Lowell, and the town still has a certain faraway sense to me, with places named Pawtucketville and Dracut and streets called Textile Avenue and Moody Street. In 1994 I exchanged emails with a former Lowell townie named Ken Weeks who wrote me the following:
“I never have managed to find Jack’s grave in Edson Cemetery, but his family’s house over the Textile Lunch was pretty easy to find, since the Lowell Tech school on the corner is now U Mass Lowell, and fairly well marked. Darn, it’s something like Mammoth Street now, rather than Textile. The bridge at the bottom of the hill is still there where child Jack watched a man carrying a watermelon keel over and die. The Pawtucketville Social Club where Leo Kerouac worked is still there. Jack’s house is a ram-shackle old 3-story tenement, it’s a wonder it still stands. Astro’s Pizza has a little picture of Jack and a local photographer hung up high on the ceiling – the guy behind the counter pointed it out to me. Jack and his family lived upstairs, on the second floor. Pawtucketville is on the outskirts of Lowell proper, on the other side of the river. Go on up the hill and you end up in Dracut, where Jack played ball for the Dracut Tigers.
“The French Canadian community in the Northeast was very insular – like many other ethnic groups they settled in concentrations of their own kind, spoke French whenever possible, and vested supreme authority not in the state, but in the church. So Jack’s stories of early religious devotion and the church’s heavy influence on his life really ring a bell with me. My grandfather was a dissenter – he was excommunicated by the local priest when he refused to bow to church authority. So while I wasn’t brought up French-Canadian-Catholic myself, I know 2nd-hand just how uptight and authoritarian that little community could be!
“When I visited last year – to pay an important spiritual debt that I felt I owed Jack – I stood outside Astro’s, leaned up against the wall, smoked a cigarette and just meditated a bit. Earlier that year I had walked back drunk through Chinatown in San Francisco, after spending the evening reading at City Lights and getting loaded at Vesuvio’s across the alley … an alley named Jack Kerouac Street, by the way. I wanted to kind of bring that back to Lowell, tell Jack about it. 2 AM, rain-soaked streets but the rain had stopped, not a soul in Chinatown but the blinking flashing clicking neons reflecting off the puddles, the cable whirring under California Street … it was so beautiful, so much like he must have experienced it. Just had to go tell him.
“In the window of Astro’s was a sign. ‘Apartment for Rent’. Didn’t say which floor…my gosh. Think of the ghosts….”