We found the scroll hard to read, a hundred and twenty feet of yellowed tracing paper, like the kind we learned to type on only much longer, scotched taped together to make one seemingly endless piece.
“It’s all one paragraph,” we say to each other. “Single spaced with no mistakes.”
“We’ll almost none,” we note, walking along, reading what we can of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, the beat poet and artist who banged out this opus in three weeks during 1951, just a short year after the 1950 census recently released by the National Archives. When I read in the Globe about this exhibit here in Lowell, his birthplace, I feel strangely compelled to come see it. As if being in the room with the artifact might in some way ignite kinship artistry in me.
“You can see some pencil marks, a few corrections here and there,” we discuss. “But for the most part, he wrote it as is.”
Kerouac’s book surely assigned to me back in high school or freshman year college, but I can’t be certain I actually read it. We’d have discussed it in class, but I would not have been able grasp the hundreds of pages of stream of consciousness prose. The jazz of his writing lost on me, I too young to fathom the decade of the sixties we’d all just lived through, sentiments he previewed in On the Road, a cultural coming of age and change in national temperament.
“Road trip!” I’d announcd earlier in the day, remembering the exhibit’s limited run at the Boott Mills Factory and Museum some forty-five minutes north of Boston.
“Do I have to?” Nicole’s cry.
“Yes, you’re learning to write,” I offer. As am I.
“Just don’t say museum,” Nicole whines, like anyone her age might.
“It’s an exhibit,” I invent, knowing instinctually that being in the room with Jack Kerouac’s manuscript will spark a different response. This not a road trip of the scale depicted in this novel, but our chance to get out and explore the Boston not as well-known as the Freedom Trail’s greatest hits.
“I don’t know much about Lowell,” I say when pointing our Odyssey north up Route 3. Mary tells us a bit about the area remembering her early childhood in Merrimack.
“We’d come to Lowell and Andover for a variety of things,” she explains. “The feeling not much different from my home town. I had to get out.” As did Kerouac.
Mary the fish out of water. The kid who would have read the entire book, had her teachers assigned books to read.
“I never understood why they didn’t, give us more to do. Instead, they assigned excerpts, which is ridiculous. You wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with me.” She says describing her high-school persona. “Few did.” She too a bit of an outsider.
I try to imagine what it would be like to sit down for three weeks and just type, stream of consciousness. We owe so much to this singular expression, which changed the face of literature in one grand daring effort, not only through the sentiments he expressed, but in the free flowing style that spurred a whole generation of thinking. Say what you feel. Be who you are. Middle finger to the man.
We live an achievement culture and suffer constant measure of our self-worth against stated norms. Standing here today, the scroll and the man again present an alternative. Let it be. Experience life not as prescribed, but as it comes. Be more like the jazz music Kerouac emulates in is work — notes driven by spirit, words formed of the soul. I can sense the man here in the room filled with pictures, artifacts, quotes, and excerpts of his work. Many of his books written while he lived in his native city of Lowell, an immigrant’s textile worker community once burgeoning, and now revitalized after some very desperate years.
“Beat has a surprising definition, not of musical origin, but more the beaten down,” Mary says of Kerouac’s role in defining the coming generation.
A complicated man, we learn Kerouac idolizes African Americans in his work, but often denigrates women. His history not without controversy, his life ending at forty seven due to years of severe alcoholism. My interest in this man coincides similar interest in the recent release of the 1950 census, which depicts a largely homogeneous society foreign to the mix of culture we are today. Two generations ago, Kerouac sat down to write about a new way of living — this census lists facts and figures of a completely different age, one on the verge of great disruption.
An open journal invites visitors to share our own ‘on the road’ stories. I take a minutes to reflect, turn to blank page and write.
“I’ve never been on the road in the way Kerouac chronicles. Too afraid.” My truth exposed.
How do people just set out, with no agenda, no plan, just the cotton shirts these mills once manufactured on their backs? My friend and author James Parker just returning from a road trip back from LA, to retrieve his son’s car and belongings after a pandemic-stalled college experience.
“I got lost so many times,” he laughs. “Didn’t have a GPS or map. Just scribbled some notes the night before, and felt my way back across the country.”
“As if,” I think.
“Made it to Graceland, and a NASCAR race,” he described. “You have no idea how loud it is. I’m definitely going to write about it.”
I’m unable to conceive of such a trip. Of letting go in such a way. Another friend currently traveling in the middle east, his Instagram posts tagged from Morocco, Portugal, and Istanbul.
Sitting at a typewriter to bang out a hundred thousand words, I can kind of imagine. Hitchhiking across country without a plan, not so much. I’d be anxious about comfort, worried about safety, and certainly bit lost as to what to do.
Still so much still to learn about this way of living, but so glad to have made it up to Lowell for this exhibit. Yes, I might have once held On the Road in my hands, might even have a copy buried in a box somewhere at home, yet I can be sure never to have properly taken in his voice. Bending over the scroll, I look to find that voice, all the while straining to find my own.