University, Literary Estate, City and Park to Celebrate Famed Beat Writer’s Centennial

Banners with Jack Kerouac quotes that will be displayed in downtown Lowell for his centennial Image by Nicole Anguish/Daykamp Creative
Banners with Jack Kerouac quotes for Kerouac@100, a citywide celebration of the Beat writer's birth 100 years ago.

By Katharine Webster

“What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road.”

For Beat writer Jack Kerouac, author of the legendary novel “On the Road,” the road began and ended in Lowell.

Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922, into a French-speaking family in Lowell. After he died in Florida in 1969 from complications of alcoholism, his funeral was held at the St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church, and he lies buried in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.

This year, his native city, the university and Kerouac’s estate are collaborating on Kerouac@100, a wide-ranging series of events to celebrate the centennial of his birth. It will kick off in mid-March with an exhibit of Kerouac memorabilia, much of it drawn from the university’s Kerouac archive, at Lowell National Historical Park.

The exhibit, which will run through April, will also include the original scroll of his best-known work, “On the Road,” on loan from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, and photos of Kerouac and his friends by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of Ginsberg’s estate. The scroll last visited Lowell in 2007, but some of Ginsberg’s photos have never been displayed publicly before.

Photos and books in UMass Lowell's Jack Kerouac Archives Image by Katharine Webster
Some of Kerouac's photos and books in the Center for Lowell History's Jack Kerouac Archive.

English Prof. Michael Millner, head of the university’s Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for Public Humanities and a member of the Kerouac@100 planning committee, says there’s much more in the offing, too: a youth poetry slam, banners featuring Kerouac quotes that will be displayed around downtown Lowell, lectures, musical events, a sprucing-up of the city’s Kerouac Park and the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival in the fall.

“We’re planning a whole year of celebrations,” says Millner, who is also serving as vice president of the newly established Jack Kerouac Foundation, which aims to create a Kerouac museum and performance center in Lowell, potentially in the now-closed St. Jean Baptiste Church.

Millner is especially enthusiastic about the upcoming public display of the original scroll of “On the Road,” which is based on Kerouac’s cross-country travels with Neal Cassady, Ginsberg and other friends. Kerouac typed the final version on a 120-foot-long roll of paper over three weeks in 1951, in a fever of mystical inspiration fueled by coffee, amphetamines and bebop jazz. There were no paragraph breaks.

“In some ways, it’s better than the published version, because it gives you a sense of what Kerouac was intending to do artistically, which was very different from what anyone had tried to do before,” Millner says. “He was attempting to capture the sense of the moment by writing in a more spontaneous way,” a method Kerouac referred to as “spontaneous bop prosody.”

At first, Kerouac insisted the scroll be published word for word, Millner says. In a 1997 BBC interview, Robert Giroux of Harcourt, Brace & Co., the editor of Kerouac’s first published novel, “The Town and the City,” said Kerouac told him, “‘There’ll be no editing of this manuscript. This manuscript has been dictated by the Holy Ghost.’”

Giroux turned it down, as did several other publishers who feared they’d face an obscenity prosecution because the book included explicit gay sex scenes. Six years later, in 1957, The Viking Press published an edited version.

UMass Lowell libraries archivist and head of special collections Anthony "Tony" Sampas, library special collections assistant Carisa Kolias, and history student Brianne Puls in the Kerouac Archives Image by Katharine Webster
Anthony Sampas, archivist and head of special collections, Carisa Kolias, special collections assistant, and history major Brianne Puls in the John Sampas Collection.

Kerouac rocketed to fame. He was hailed as the first writer to express the Beat Generation’s restless rebellion against post-World War II conformity. He later became an icon of the 1960s counterculture, although he considered himself a Catholic – and later, Buddhist – struggling toward visions of the eternal.

Though he has been dead for more than half a century, Kerouac’s legacy endures, with writers and musicians from Hunter S. Thompson to Patti Smith and Bob Dylan citing him as a major influence.

While “On the Road” makes no mention of Lowell, many of Kerouac’s other works are set in a fictional version of his hometown, including “The Town and the City” and an early novella, “The Haunted Life,” which was edited and published for the first time by UML English Department Chair Todd Tietchen in 2014, with support from Kerouac’s literary estate. “Doctor Sax,” “Visions of Gerard” and “Maggie Cassidy” also draw on Kerouac’s past in Lowell.

“How Lowell continues to haunt me so, it’s a whole intact Shakespearean universe in itself,” Kerouac wrote in his “Book of Dreams.”

University faculty, especially Millner, Tietchen and former English Department Chair Anthony Szczesiul, have worked closely with Kerouac’s estate and literary executors, including Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas – the youngest brother of Kerouac’s third wife, Stella Sampas – and his nephew, Jim Sampas, who is heading up the new Jack Kerouac Foundation.

John Sampas sold off most of Kerouac’s original manuscripts, but “he kept copies of everything that passed through his hands,” Millner says, including the “On the Road” scroll.

When John Sampas died in 2017, his adopted son, John Shen-Sampas, donated that collection of papers to the university, where John’s nephew (and Jim’s brother) Anthony Sampas is archivist and head of special projects for the university libraries. Visions of Kerouac: The John Sampas Collection – 102 banker’s boxes worth of paper and memorabilia – is now housed at the university’s Center for Lowell History, where scholars and students can arrange to do research. Some material is also available digitally.

UMass Lowell history major Brianne Puls working in the John Sampas Collection at the Center for Lowell History Image by Katharine Webster
Puls has a part-time job cataloguing Kerouac's letters and papers.

Millner, recently named UML’s Nancy Donahue Professor in the Arts, is using a $40,000 grant that comes with the two-year position to help fund the Kerouac@100 exhibit at the national park and to pay students and recent alumni who are organizing and indexing the John Sampas Collection, under the guidance of Anthony Sampas and with support from University Libraries Director Allison Estell.

One of those students is Brianne Puls, a senior history major with a minor in English literature. She took Millner’s class on American literature the same semester she took an archiving class with History Department Chair Christopher Carlsmith – and then applied for a part-time archivist job in the Kerouac Archive last summer.

Puls says she’s gaining valuable archival experience while learning some of the “secrets of history,” as she goes through copies of Kerouac’s correspondence and journals. While others worship Kerouac as an iconic writer, she gets to see more of Kerouac the imperfect man, she says.

“Sometimes he got down on all fours and talked to his cats,” Puls says. “I came across a letter the other day that says, ‘Mankind is misleading, but my cats are genuine.’

“We see his struggle with alcoholism, and how he’d try to get sober. But when one of his cats died, he went right back into it.”

Kerouac’s writing desk, his homemade cat carriers and other possessions from his last home in Florida are also on permanent display at the university’s Allen House on South Campus.