Finding the KEROUAC COMMEMORATIVE
By Attila Gyenis
Nashua, New Hampshire, is a small New England town located on the Merrimack River about 15 miles north of Lowell, Massachusetts. Nashua is one of the many old mill towns that line the Merrimack River. I moved there in 1990. I decided on a cold October day to go to Lowell to find the Kerouac Commemorative that I had read about in passing. OK, it may not have been a cold October day but the day I was there definitely reminded me that I was in Kerouac’s town. I walked among the red-bricked mill buildings and the narrow canals running under streets and bridges, to the small neighborhood bars with wooden floors and dollar beers. I drove into town, parked my car, and started asking people for directions to the Kerouac Commemorative. Everybody knew where it was but no one could direct me correctly to it. I’m sure I was close and spent the next two hours walking around in downtown Lowell but I never made it to the Commemorative.
The next year a friend saw a notice in the newspaper announcing that there was going to be a Kerouac Festival in Lowell. Of course I had to go. It was then that I finally came face to face with the granite walls that evoked Kerouac’s words. The first time was on a Friday afternoon and I stood there, quietly reading the words to myself. The one that captured me the most was the passage from Lonesome Traveler, where he begins the book with a personal resume that starts off with his name and ends with:
"Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of paradise (which comes to everybody anyways)..."
There were a few other people there and they too were caught up in the surroundings, quietly reading the passages from Kerouac’s books etched in the stone walls and absorbing the serenity of the surroundings.
Later that evening, after a performance with Allen Ginsberg at the Smith Baker Center, I would return to the Commemorative along with a crowd of 100 audience members. We pilgrimed down to the Kerouac Commemorative carrying lit candles. When we arrived, Allen got into the center of the Commemorative and stood on a low table that served as the center of this Kerouac mandala. With the candles reflecting shadows on the stone walls illuminating Kerouac’s words, Allen led the crowd in a Buddhist chant that seemed to capture Kerouac’s spirituality, if not his spirit itself.
Until the Kerouac Commemorative was built in 1988, the only unofficial commemorative was Jack’s grave in Edson Cemetery. That was where people congregated leaving half-full bottles of wine or beer, poems, and other road trinkets. Even today you can find messages and gifts on Kerouac’s headstone.
The push for the Commemorative started around 1985 with the formation of the ‘Corporation for the Celebration of Jack Kerouac in Lowell’ that was working in conjunction with the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission (LHPC) for the purpose of creating a Kerouac Commemorative in Lowell. The world knew that Kerouac was from Lowell, yet within the city of Lowell there had been no official recognition. The purpose of the ‘Corporation’, which was non-profit, was to serve as a fund raiser for the Commemorative. Their first event, on March 17, 1986, was an event with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and several local poets. Over 300 people showed up. As a result of that success they started the Jack Kerouac Literary Series that would feature readings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joyce Johnson, and John Updike.
On December 30, 1986, the Lowell City Council would vote 8 - 1 to enter into an agreement with the Lowell Historic Preservation Society to budget $100,000 for the establishment of the Kerouac Commemorative. The lone dissenting City Council member felt that Kerouac was not the proper role model for the youth of America. Overall, the city was supportive of a Kerouac Commemorative feeling that it was important to separate the man from his writings, and that it was his contributions as a writer that the city was recognizing.
At this point there was no consensus as to what the monument should be. A design competition for the Commemorative was announced and on April 29, 1987, three finalists were asked to come to Lowell to make their presentations. Ben Woitena, one of the three finalists, was chosen by the LHPC in a 3-2 vote as the design artist, and was tentatively awarded the commission provided he could bring it within budget.
Ben Woitena, a sculptor from San Antonio, Texas, knew of Jack from reading On the Road in the 60’s, but did not know a lot about him. To prepare for the design project he spent a year doing research on Kerouac, reading anything he could from Kerouac’s novels to his biographies. LHPC had recommended that the Commemorative should include passages from Kerouac’s Lowell books, like Dr. Sax and The Town and the City. Woitena felt that the Commemorative should also reflect Kerouac’s poetic spiritual side, and as a result included passages from Mexico City Blues and Book of Dreams. Woitena said he selected colors and designs sensitive to the metaphysical images Kerouac was trying to import through his works.
"All components — benches (circular and straight), columns, brick and granite pavers — function aesthetically in the formation of the mandala. My intent was to create a sculpture that is multilayered: a literary portrait with a metaphysical framework. Not an icon or isolated work that one walks around but, rather, a work one walks within, physically participating and peripherally visual with specific references to Kerouac’ work."
Woitena chose Cornelian granite, mined from a quarry in South Dakota and cut in Minnesota, because of its red, brown, and gray colors. Red bricks and light gray stone are laid on the ground in the form of a cross/arrow. The cross represents the Christian cross and the arrow represents the "entry to the road" aspect portrayed in On the Road. It also serves as inroads and outroads to the sculpture. The Commemorative is made up of the eight large three-sided granite panels, each eight feet high, with writing on two of the sides. The Commemorative includes 15 passages from 11 books etched into the polished granite stone, which allows you to read the Kerouac’s words while the city of Lowell is reflected back to you. The panels that are placed on the outer boundary of the Commemorative represent Kerouac’s Lowell books and include passages from The Town and the City, Visions of Cody, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Vanity of Duluoz, Lonesome Traveler, and On the Road. The inner panels, which represent Kerouac’s spiritual side, include passages from Book of Dreams, Mexico City Blues, Scriptures of the Golden Eternity, and Dr. Sax.
It was on June 25, 1988, that the city finally recognized Jack Kerouac with the dedication of the Kerouac Commemorative. That was the first official public recognition of the author who was responsible for putting Lowell on the literary map.
The dedication of the Kerouac Commemorative was a culmination of a week long list of festivities, which included "An Evening of Poetry and Music to Honor Jack Kerouac" the night before. It included poetry readings and music by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Creeley, Michael McClure, Ray Manzerek, and local poets. Events also included Allen Ginsberg’s "Visions: Reflections of Jack Kerouac and Friends" photo exhibition at the Whistler House Museum of Art, panels led by Kerouac biographers, and walking tours of Lowell.
The dedication itself, which attracted a crowd of over 250 people on a Saturday afternoon, had some 20 speakers who either read from Kerouac’s works or spoke about him. The crowd, which could have been part of a Kerouac "This Is Your Life" show, included his wife Stella Kerouac, his first wife Edie Parker, Henri Cru, as well as the previous evening’s performers. There were also politicians and dignitaries who presided over the event. Many spoke about how Kerouac influenced them, especially the politicians.
But that is all in the past now. The Kerouac Commemorative still remains, it’s gray panels and serene surroundings allow you to contemplate Kerouac’s words while the city of Lowell bustles away around you with its cars and buses and old red-brick mill buildings. The Commemorative is still a destination point for me. Sometimes I just quickly walk through it. Other times I sit down, read the words, and appreciate the moment.
(c) 1996 Attila Gyenis and DHARMA beat
The Kerouac Commemorative is located in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, on Bridge Street, just off the Merrimack River. This article is taken from accounts in the Lowell Sun and Moody Street Irregulars, issue 20/21. There is also an excellent personal account of the Commemorative dedication by Stephen Ronan titled Lowell Journal 1988. The Lowell Sun articles are available in Beat Scrapbook Series #1, both available from Beat Books.
Ben Woitena, the designer of the commemorative, has a website at http://www.benwoitenasculptor.com