“In my opinion Lowell, Massachusetts is now the most interesting city in the United States of America,” Jack Kerouac enthusiastically proclaimed on a local Lowell radio show in 1962. He told the interviewers that he was back in his boyhood city for a visit, and he’d been out walking the streets, wandering through the Greek neighborhoods and the Portuguese parts of town. The author of On the Road had seen a lot of cities, and Lowell in his view – pretty much against the odds – was the most interesting one in the whole, wide nation.
This interview is part of an extraordinary audio archive owned by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and housed at the Center for Lowell History. It includes interviews, most made in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, with over 175 people talking about their experiences with Kerouac. Some of the interviewees are legendary – Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to name only a few of the famous authors – but many of the discussions are with friends and family of Jack, people who knew him growing up in Lowell.
They knew him from time together at Lowell High playing football, or in the French speaking community, or from a youthful writing club that met above a bar in downtown Lowell. And they knew him later when he returned to live in Lowell near the end of his life. But the interviewees do not simply talk about Kerouac; they discuss him in the context of his time and his place. They talk about what it meant to go off to war and return to Lowell from war. They discuss what it meant to go to work in the factory and to escape from the factory life, and escape Lowell. They recount the rich cultural scene in Depression era Lowell: the dance halls and vaudeville shows, the swing bands that came through from all over the country to play the clubs.
In other words, the interviews provide a vivid picture of not only Kerouac himself, but also Depression- and post-war-era Lowell. This is one of the elements that makes the interviews so important. Mid-size American cities like Lowell have received considerably less attention than other locales both in the grand stories we tell about the nation’s history and in the fine-grained analysis done by professional scholars. Today in the popular media we tend to hear about such cities in only one context, as dead or dying. But in the twentieth century a vast number of Americans lived in such mid-size cities, and they have often been and still are the first American homes of recently arrived immigrants. Kerouac got it right: such cities are some of the most interesting places in the United States of America.
With the help of a Mass Humanities Exhibition Planning Grant, we are working to bring this oral history of mid-century Lowell to the public in a very accessible and interactive way. The idea is to use Kerouac – and his worldwide fame – as an entry point into the cultural and social history of Lowell at mid-century. The voices in the interviews will tell the stories, making concrete abstract topics like class, labor, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, cultural hybridity, and the American Dream.
We are currently in the beginning stages of this project: culling through and analyzing hours and hours of audiotape. Once we have a better idea of what we can use from the interview recordings, we will first incorporate recorded snippets into the audio portion of the permanent exhibit we are designing (with the help of another grant) at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, as well as into a website which will accompany that exhibit. In the future we hope to make access to short portions of the audio recordings available in more mobile and interactive ways. Eventually we would like the snippet recordings to be available on mobile devices as visitors tour the city. You might visit the site of Kerouac’s childhood home or walk around the factory buildings he describes in Dr. Sax at the same time that you listen to one of Kerouac’s contemporaries discuss the location and what it meant to Jack and others in Lowell.
The Kerouac audio project is part of larger plan to further develop Lowell’s creative economy, in part around Kerouac. In 2007, 25,000 students, residents, and out-of-town visitors experienced the legendary On the Road scroll manuscript exhibited at the National Park in Lowell. Media in Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, and across the United States reported on this event. From this experience we know that Kerouac is a proven economic draw. We want to continue to develop the city’s rich Kerouac materials and connections, using Jack as a portal into all sorts of other parts of the twentieth-century history of Lowell – one of the most interesting cities in all the United States of America.