Russell Banks at the Kerouac Literary Festival

Russell Banks

This past Thursday night I attended one of the opening events of the Kerouac Literary Festival at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center (formerly known as the Doubletree Hotel). Novelist Russell Banks, the author of a dozen major books and a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was the featured speaker. The evening’s activities opened with remarks by UML Executive Vice Chancellor Jackie Moloney, who spoke of the college’s commitment to the arts and humanities, as evidenced by the tangible support for this literary festival and by the 500 students now housed in the ICC which was partly an effort to connect them with downtown Lowell and its arts and culture scene. A good amount of the resident students were in the audience Thursday night. Mr. Banks was introduced by Andre Dubus, a star of UML’s English Department and a noted author in his own right.

Russell Banks was amusing, informative, and thought-provoking. The autobiographical sketch he provided at the beginning of his remarks created his connection with Kerouac. Banks grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts in relative poverty. Talent in football and academics earned him a full scholarship to Colgate in the fall of 1958, just as Kerouac’s “On the Road” was published. The 18-year old Banks was inspired by Kerouac’s geographic wanderings and so left school after six weeks and hitchhiked to Florida. He had a vague idea of travelling on to Cuba to help Castro who was then seen as a Robin Hood-like figure fighting the corupt Batista government. By the time Banks got to Florida, however, Castro had taken over Cuba. Banks settlled in Miami with notions of becoming an artist.

Banks became a writer. He explained that most aspirants in that field latch on to an established writer, not to mimic that writer’s books, but to mimic that writer’s life. For Banks, the role model was Hemingway – he lived in Florida, the Carribean, travelled to Africa. But then one night, Kerouac literally showed up at Banks’ front door. Teaching at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1968, Banks lived in a large house set out in the country. One night an acquaintance phoned to say the Jack Kerouac had stopped at Chapel Hill on his way to Floriday to pay homage to one of his favorite writers, Thomas Wolfe and was “looking for a place to party.” Banks consented and soon the author of On the Road and forty others were partying and crashing at his home. Kerouac departed the next morning and died soon thereafter at age 47.

Banks called this encounter with Kerouac “an extraordinary encounter in my life,” one that shifted him back to a type of writing he called “transcendental realism” which featured “spiritual, transcendent themes that rested in realistic observation of everyday life.” Banks acknowledged the deeper connections he held with Kerouac: Both were raised in poor French-Canadian families in the northeast; both won scholarships to prestigious colleges but then abandoned school to gain real experience. Banks said Kerouac was very audacious. He was just a working class kid but he saw himself as the inheritor of the tradition of great American writers such as Melville and Hawthorne. According to Banks, “You have to have that crazed, stupefying ambition to even try that.”

Banks then proceeded to read several passages from a screenplay for “On the Road” that he wrote several years ago for Francis Ford Coppola who purchased the movie rights for the book years ago. The effort by Banks was the third version, was ultimately rejected, and now a fourth screenplay of the book is in production and should be released as a major motion picture in the next few years. Banks saw On the Road as a transitionary novel that bridged the gap between post-World War Two America and the “upheaval of the 1960s.”

Regrettably, I was unfamiliar with Mr. Banks’ work – my reading runs towards nonfiction – but authors usually have something interesting to say and with an otherwise busy weekend, spending 90 minutes in the old “junior ballroom” was my best chance of taking in some of the Festival. The big room was filled with a big crowd – more people than I’d expected – and the Q & A section disclosed that many were avid fans. I came away a fan, as well. On my next trip to Barnes and Noble, I’ll pick up one of his books.