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A Tribute to Jack Kerouac

by Jen Ratliff on 2023-11-14T08:59:00-05:00 | 0 Comments


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Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, known as Jack Kerouac, was a novelist and poet of French-Canadian ancestry. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922 and spent much of his life there. Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City was published in 1950, gaining widespread acclaim. He was linked with the Beat Generation, a literary movement, marked by the post-World War II era, where writers of the Silent Generation explored and often criticized American culture and politics. In 1957, his second novel, On the Road, cemented his legacy as “Father of the Beats,” a label that he rejected.

In 1973, Salem State College English Professor John “Jay” W. P. McHale, who grew up in Lowell, organized a symposium for Jack Kerouac as part of the college’s fourth annual Arts Festival. At the time, McHale was teaching a course on “Jack Kerouac and the Beat Writers.” Kerouac passed away a few years prior in 1969, suffering from an esophageal hemorrhage, which was complicated due to cirrhosis. He was 47 years old.

The Jack Kerouac tribute began on the afternoon of April 4th with a screening of the thirty-minute film “Pull My Daisy” by Robert Frank. The film’s screenplay and narration were by the late novelist.

That evening, Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso read poetry in the college’s auditorium. Larry Kiley accompanied the reading on guitar. The poetry was a mix of their own writing which was inspired by their honored friend and some of their favorites written by him. The poets and their audience chuckled over the previously controversial words and themes of their older poems. Leo de Natale, reporter for The Beverly Times wrote, “Twenty years ago, the three were Bohemians, the beatniks. Today, they are men in their forties lost in the shuffle of an age of acceptance.” de Natale continued that the two “spoke fondly of their departed friend Kerouac. He was one of them. A lost confused man searching for happiness he could never find.” In an elegy to Kerouac, Corso stated: “Ours was a time of prophecy, Jack. No wonder we found America rootless because we are the roots themselves.”

The following morning, Kerouac memorabilia was displayed on campus, including sketches and oiling paintings by Jack titled the “Northport Tapes.” Audio recordings of interviews and book readings were also available for listening in lecture Rooms A and B of the Ellison Campus Center, then known as the Student Union building. Aaron Latham provided video clips from the Steve Allen Show, which featured an interview with the novelist shortly after On the Road was published.

The Jack Kerouac Symposium began that afternoon in the lounge with “Jack Kerouac – Angel Goof,” a lecture by Professor Charles E. Jarvis of the Lowell Technological Institute (now UMass Lowell). Jarvis spoke for almost an hour about the close friendship he developed with Kerouac in Lowell during his later years. This crowded event was the highlight of the festival and featured Aaron Latham, John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Stanley Twardowicz, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky. The group sat on stage during Jarvis’s talk until their panel discussion, which immediately followed. Peter Orlovsky quietly sewed in the corner. The men were tasked to reflect on Kerouac’s work and discuss his legacy and impact on contemporary literature, John McHale served as their moderator.

The symposium was freewheeling, as befit the times, and became legendary over the years as the Beat Writers gained in popularity. After Jarvis concluded, McHale asked if anyone in the audience or on the panel had a comment. Gregory Corso was the first to speak, saying “Yeah, I’d like a shot at it.” Corso acknowledged the lack of women on the panel and discussed the dichotomy of women and men in the 1950s Beat era, who both rejected traditional gender roles and societal norms. Corso stated that the men were able to survive the hostility they received and went on to become poets, whereas women were often institutionalized for their lack of conformity and submitted to electroshock treatment. The conversation quickly grew contentious as Corso argued with Aaron Latham over details of Kerouac’s writing process. At the time, Latham was working on a biography in cooperation with Kerouac’s widow, mother, and agent. He never completed the book. Allen Ginsberg, with his leg propped up on a table after suffering a break, remained a calming force in the group, despite persistent antagonizing by Corso.

The Boston Globe reported on the event, writing that Corso, “the tough-talking poet” had “berated the student audience with obscenities between tugs of Vodka.” Corso and Peter Orlovsky debated Kerouac’s drinking habits on stage. Corso said, “He was the most beautiful drunk there was” whereas Orlovsky proclaimed, “Jack almost drove me to the grave with his drinking and drugs.” Orlovsky himself had since sworn off alcohol and cigarettes. He urged the audience to do the same. “I start off each day with a glass of cold water and a cold shower. If you love the memory of Jack, get along in life with cold water.”

The event is considered the first academic symposium on the life and work of Jack Kerouac.

Digitized Archives
A Tribute to Jack Kerouac Audio and Visual Archives
A Tribute to Jack Kerouac Photographs and Ephemera 
Soundings East 25th Anniversary Issue
Salem State College 1973 Arts Festival Brochure
Discussion Following Poetry Reading
An Open-Hearted Symposium by John McHale
A Tribute to Jack Kerouac Transcript Corrections

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