By Paul Maher Jr.
In late 1954, Jack Kerouac wanted to leave New York City for good. He was tired of the rat race and was discouraged that none of his recent writings were considered publishable. Writing to Stella Sampas, the sister of his long-dead friend Sebastian, who was living in Lowell, Jack said he wanted to “re-visit the tenements of Centralville where I jabbered on the porch with little kids long before I even knew how to say ‘door’ in English—I want to re-visit the mysteries of my past, which is my job; the mysteries of my source, my soul, the things that now teach me the meaning of universal love.”
In late October, he returned and felt out of place. Not a “soul recognized me in the streets.” He walked as much as twenty miles a day for the three days he was there.
At dawn he stood at his father’s former printing press. He walked down the little alley where Spotlight Print led to the boarded-up B.F. Keith’s Theatre. The boyhood playing field was empty and the Phebe Avenue sandbank in Pawtucketville was gone. Crossing the Bridge street bridge into Centralville, he saw the sun rise over the houses along the heights of Christian Hill (that formed the basis of “Snake Hill” in Doctor Sax) and then to his birthplace on Lupine Avenue where his photograph was taken as a baby in a wicker basket on the front porch.
On the second day, a Sunday on October 24, though he walked by Stella’s Stevens Street house, he was “afraid to go in.” Instead he kicked the dead leaves and followed the Boston and Maine railroad tracks into South Lowell to the home of Mary (Carney) Baxter, his high school sweetheart. When she knew Jack as a Columbia College student, she sensed that he no longer wanted to be associated with Lowell or her world. She then resented Jack’s mother, Gabrielle, for supporting his decision to leave, and she now realized that Gabe was right. Now, here in her living room where he once stood as a shy unassuming and lovelorn athlete, he was now too deep for her, unfathomable and tremendously sad. She had no way of knowing that he had already written a novel about their time together, begun on January 12, 1953 and ultimately published as Maggie Cassidy in 1959.
The visit, though nostalgic, was awkward. Jack asked her daughters if their mother was “still married.” After the visit, Mary wondered if the past could ever repeat itself and if they could become lovers again. They had little privacy during the short while he was there and after he left, she imagined running after him. She sensed that Jack was a changed man worlds apart from her. After he left her house, he went a short distance away to a railroad bridge crossing the Concord River and meditated Buddhist thoughts. He saw a dead cat floating down the river and immediately wrote his impressions into a little notebook he kept in the breast pocket of his shirt:
“here down on the stain of earth the ethereal flower in our minds, dead cats in the Concord, it’s a temporary middle state between Perfection of the Unborn & Perfection of the Dead.”
He watched a small tumbleweed bounce along the bridge. He studied the bright ribbons of color reflecting from the autumn leaves on the banks of Thoreau’s beloved Concord River. He continued: “What we call life is just this lugubrious false stain in the crystal emptiness.”
He concluded that because what he perceived to be, smelt, saw, felt and thought, these were all arbitrary conceptions of reality, and therefore false, and so he didn’t feel “sad” for the cat. In his mind, it was not there. The impressions from the last two days came to him, and he wrote more thoughts into his “Dharma” notebook: But I’m too sad to care that I understand everything./Lowell is a happy dream but just a dream. / All’s left, I must go now into my own monastery wherever it’s convenient. / My life went from culture of Town, to civilization of City, to neither of Fellaheen.
He walked through downtown Lowell and crossed the bridge of his “watermelon man” vision and onward through Pawtucketville up Crawford Street, where he and his family had lived a little over ten years before. In church he prayed on his knees, looking up at Christ on the cross and fell into a trance. He relayed his vision into an article written for Playboy in January 1959, “The Origins of the Beat Generation”: “I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood (one of them). Ste. Jeanne d’Arc in Lowell, Mass., and suddenly with tears in my eyes and had a vision of what I must have really meant with “Beat” anyhow when I heard the holy silence in the church (I was the only one in there, it was five P.M., dogs were barking outside, children yelling, the fall leaves, the candles were flickering alone just for me) the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific . . .”
The next day, he caroused with friends whom tired of him. They had their own lives. One friend, George J. Apostolos recalled: “Kerouac is haunted by memories of his childhood. He keeps coming back to Lowell looking for something, trying to find home again. The last time he came in 1954 he wanted to be a big kid again and play with the boys for a few days.”
Jack was disappointed and dejected, like a child, and sitting in Ouellete’s Lunch, he wrote a prose sketch in French: “rien plus pire qu’un enfant malade.” [“There’s nothing worse than a sick child.]
Nonetheless he was revitalized with fresh impressions. Lowell pulsed along like a current in a dream river coursing through the “Universe Canyon of mystery.” The next day he returned to New York City having had his fill of the past.
Soon after he left, Mary wrote urging him to continue pursuing his life goals. It was, she said, a visit she found “hard to believe.” Between her and Jack lie an expansive gulf separating them. Her satisfaction lie in the beach watching her children play in the surf. His satisfaction was more cerebral costing him a life time of struggle. Love, or the pursuit of it, was not enough to surrender ambition. Though Jack’s visit left her with several questions, like if his two marriages were “real” or was he “lying”? [He wasn’t lying], her situation wasn’t much better at the moment. Mary’s alcoholic husband bigamously married a seventeen-year-old girl from Monson, Massachusetts. Unsure of where she stood in Jack’s life, she wrote Jack one more time in 1954 and told him that if he didn’t answer, she’d “understand.” He never did. Over the next several years, Jack’s struggles continued until his second novel, On the Road, was published in September 1957 and his troubles would begin anew.
Paul Maher Jr. is the author and editor of four books on Jack Kerouac. He resides in New Hampshire. For more info visit paulmaherjr.com