Next Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Jack Kerouac Commemorative in Kerouac Park on Bridge and French streets. On the dedication day, some 200 people gathered for the celebration, joined by journalists from the Sun, Boston Globe, New York Times, New Yorker magazine, CBS-News TV, and international media outlets. Since 1988, the Kerouac Commemorative has become a destination for literary pilgrims of all kinds, from locals across the river in Centralville to travelers from Ohio, Japan, and many other places. Every October, organizers of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival meet at the park to remember the author and his writer-friends. Now, in this anniversary year, the City of Lowell and its partners intend to make improvements at the park and produce more events to increase the vibrancy of this special place. The drawing of the sculpture and park below is by Janet Lambert-Moore, well-known Lowell artist.
The City is seeking $25,000 in donations to match a grant from MassDevelopment, a state agency, which would yield $50,000 for improvements. Follow this link to make an online donation. Checks for Kerouac Park can also be made out to the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and sent to the City of Lowell Cultural Affairs Office, JFK Civic Center, 50 Arcand Drive, Lowell, MA 01852. Please consider donating. The deadline is June 30.
Following is an essay of mine that appeared in the Sun a few days before the dedication. The first name of the park was Eastern Canal Park, later changed to Kerouac Park by the City Council. —PM
Honoring Jack Kerouac
On Saturday, June 25, a large crowd is expected to gather on the fresh green lawn of Eastern Canal Park downtown to hear speeches and readings that will mark the dedication of the Jack Kerouac Commemorative. By their presence, people will be saying that they are pleased and satisfied to see a permanent remembrance of the author Jack Kerouac. They will be voting with their feet. His family, friends, and fellow artists, along with admirers, the influenced, and the curious will be in the city.
The Jack Kerouac Commemorative, created by Ben Woitena, a sculptor from Texas, breaks new ground in the way we publicly recognize the achievements of American writers. Those who have worked on the project have not seen anything like it anywhere. Typically, a birthplace is preserved or a street is renamed for an author. The Kerouac sculpture is carved into the landscape of Eastern Canal Park, designed by Brown & Rowe landscape architects of Boston. Eight triangular columns of polished granite are inscribed with excerpts from ten of Kerouac’s books. The opening paragraphs from his five novels set in Lowell and On the Road are on the perimeter of a plaza, while chunks of text more metaphysical in nature appear on the stone panels towards the center of the space. The pavement and granite benches form circle and cross patterns. The literature is presented in the open air, sandblasted into the reddish-brown granite. The sculpture is a portrait in language. For an artist who so loved the American landscape, it is appropriate that the Kerouac Commemorative is of the American earth. The granite was quarried in South Dakota; the stones were cut in Minnesota; West Virginian graphic designers worked on the text; and the sculptor is a Texan who studied art in Southern California.
Lowell was a wellspring of experience for Kerouac. He came back to this place, these people, time and again for his writing and personal sustenance. It is right that his Lowell books are so large a part of the new sculpture. Pawtucketville, Centralville, South Common—the words are there. But the world is also there on the granite panels: baseball, Hemingway, freedom, Homer’s Iliad, Los Angeles, Buddha, God, New York, the road.
In the 1950’s, Jack Kerouac added a new voice to the country’s literary mix. His language was American speech, delivered in a rush and rhythm that sent readers into a spin. He wrote about worlds that were not usually found in mainstream novels, be it the ethnic, working-class culture of Lowell in the first half of this century or young artists, railroaders, street people, jazz men, and adventurers on the fringes of society. His books continue to speak to people seeking answers to the big questions, like “What are we all doing here?” His writing is direct and honest, full of passion and excitement.
Readers want to know Jack Kerouac; they come to Lowell to touch a part of what he was. They want to see the places he described in gutsy, lyrical prose. Much of Kerouac’s Lowell remains; the Lowell High School of Maggie Cassidy; the river of Doctor Sax; the St. Louis de France church of Visions of Gerard. Much is gone as well, but visitors fill in the gaps. Many pilgrims stop at his grave in Edson Cemetery—some leave a rose or a wine bottle.
Kerouac wrote more than twenty books of prose, poetry, dreams, scriptures, and essays. Aside from imagination and intelligence, it takes tremendous concentration to write a book. Kerouac didn’t spend his life on the road or at a party. He had good times and bad times, but he also had working time, and plenty of it.
The Kerouac Commemorative is now part of the Lowell streetscape. The sculptor hopes it will be a space for reflection, rest, and play. It can be thought of as a secular sacred place that embodies the breath of a man who was on a spiritual quest. One realizes that after reading the words on site. Kerouac’s characters seek truth, joy, and the ultimate ground of being—at times through contemplation on mountaintops, at other times through reckless physical indulgence. And sometimes his characters are sweetly even.
The new sculpture takes its place with others downtown as the city’s public art collection grows and begins to link up in series of visual commentaries on the Lowell experience—an urban, industrial culture that is very much the experience of our time. Kerouac was a writer of his time. His fiction foreshadowed major cultural shifts that altered our society in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. He never denied his roots and branched farther than he might have guessed. The painter James McNeill Whistler, who did not claim Lowell as his native town, but whom we wisely claim for his genius, has his birthplace preserved as an art museum. It’s about time Jack Kerouac had his day.
—Paul Marion, June 23, 1988