Kerouac’s Lowell: A Life on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Photographs & Text by John Suiter
Kerouac’s Grave / Edson Cemetery, South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1988 © John Suiter
Kerouac died of a gastric hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Florida, in October 1969. On the West Coast, a reporter for the Berkeley Barb expressed bemused surprise that Kerouac had been caught dead in such an unhip place—”the old folks capital of the world.” Indeed, Kerouac had fallen off the cultural radar in the late 60s, his powers drowned in a river of whiskey and his reputation eclipsed by Pynchon, Mailer, Vonnegut, Kesey and Tom—not Thomas—Wolfe. But Death would be very kind, if not to Jack himself, then certainly to his literary afterlife. “Dead he will be money in the pockets of various publishers,” noted the Barb obit with some prescience, but little guessing the vastness and longevity of Jack’s posthumous readership. “New paperback editions of his more obscure novels will be run off. It’s going to be cool to know your Kerouac.”
…..By the summer of 1970, the youthful hitchhiking rebellion that Kerouac had foretold in The Dharma Bums—“the Rucksack Revolution”—was visibly burgeoning. Every turnpike ramp in the country seemed to be lined with hitchers, many of them with copies of On the Road and The Dharma Bums stashed in their packs.
…..In the East, some wended their way up to Lowell, becoming pilgrims at his grave, often leaving notes, mementos, or an empty wine bottle or half-pint of whiskey in salute. Then, in 1975, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, in Lowell on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour, made a trip to Kerouac’s grave, famously recorded in the film Renaldo and Clara. While Ginsberg rambles on about the famous graves he’s visited, Dylan is noticeably quiet as he ponders Kerouac’s brief dates and the “He honored life” coda etched in the granite. “Is this what’s going to happen to you?” asked Ginsberg, indicating Jack’s slab. “No,” said Dylan, then just thirty-four. “I wanna be in an unmarked grave.”
…..Every year the number of pilgrims to Edson Cemetery increased. By 1988, so many visitors paid homage that the groundskeepers would rake up a small barrelful of mementos from around the gravesite every Monday morning. The photograph seen here was taken the morning after a Kerouac-tribute poetry reading at Lowell’s Smith Baker Center. Note the IOU from Gregory Corso.