misses the beat
By Ambrose Clancy
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Jack Kerouac, an American Ulysses who traveled relentlessly as an
avatar of freedom and foe of the bourgeois life, always returned home
to his mother in Northport.
But unlike other famous writers or artists who either hailed from, or
at one time made their homes on Long Island – Walt Whitman, Jackson
Pollack and John Coltrane, to start – Kerouac isn't remembered with a
historic site, reading room, education center or even a Beat
And as a result, Northport is missing out.
Born and raised in Lowell, Mass., Kerouac moved to Northport after
the publication of "On the Road" and lived there from 1958 to 1964
with his mother, said George Wallace, the first poet laureate of
"Jack wanted to be close enough to the city to get in to see his
friends and publisher but far enough away to stay out of trouble,"
Wallace, a Northport resident, said with a smile.
That fact alone already draws people and their discretionary income
from all over the world to get closer to the founder of the Beat
Generation's art and legacy, Wallace said, which is why he is
surprised no government entity has shown an interest in promoting
Kerouac's Northport ties. Wallace has conducted many tours gratis to
interested parties and is very much in favor of promoting Kerouac's
Northport to keep alive a piece of Long Island's literary history.
Not to mention the dollars it would attract to businesses in the
town. Properly promoted, new businesses could also start up, as well.
For example, there is no Kerouac festival to bring people and
business to the town, only a one-night-a-year reading in a bar.
It might be time for some action, Wallace said.
"It's been 50 years since Jack lived here, and 'On the Road' is still
on the lips of people all over the world," he said.
Another point: With the open road never more expensive as these days,
more people are spending vacations at home. Luckily, Long Island
offers many sites for locals drawn to literary and art pilgrimages,
said Joann Krieg, author of "Long Island and Literature." She
suggested Northport as a good place for a ramble through all things
Kerouac, and also recommended a visit to Walt Whitman's home in
Huntington. She noted that pilgrims should spend some time roaming
around Great Neck, the setting of "The Great Gatsby," to look for the
ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or visit the home of the poet and
journalist William Cullen Bryant, preserved by Nassau County.
For painter groupies, take a journey out east to the Jackson Pollock
home in springs, to see where modern art was changed forever, and
consider the connection between the Beats and the Abstract Expressionists.
Kerouac, who would drink himself to death at age 47, could be as
erratic in Northport as he was in the big city. Wallace, pointing out
the trolley tracks still embedded in Main Street, related a story of
the novelist in his cups, lying down between the tracks and daring
anyone to drive over him.
Humor saved his neck, and several great novels to come, by a friend
going out, looking down and asking, "Are you on the road again,
Jack?" Laughing, Kerouac got to his feet.
His first day in town, he went to the realtors, Adelaide Byers, still
on Main Street, and bought the first house he saw, a large
cedar-shingled place on Gilbert Street. There he wrote "Book of
Dreams," and a large part of one of his masterpieces, "Big Sur."
Seeking the quiet life, he rarely found it, Wallace said, because his
fame was a prison.
"Teenagers and people in their 20s would come and throw rocks at his
window calling him to come out and drink with them," Wallace said.
Sometimes he would succumb and give the young people what they
wanted, a front row seat to the Beat poet show. "Jack couldn't
transact fame," Wallace said.
He was happiest just walking over to a baseball field on a Sunday
morning and playing in a pickup game, Wallace said.
There are no monuments to Kerouac in Northport. There's only one
reference in town to the novelist: a sign, suitably enough, in a bar
window saying, "Jack Kerouac drank here."
Visitors remember the author by walking the streets he walked (in
house slippers most of the time) or having a beer in a gin mill where
he once held court with nonstop talk. That bar today still remains
just a bar and not a shrine to the writer.
Asked about the image of Kerouac as a mama's boy, Wallace said that
the relationship can be read in different ways.
"Jack was a complex guy," Wallace said. "For example, he never could
master a marriage."
But his commitment to his mother, whom he always referred to in the
French Canadian manner as "Memere," could be due to a promise he made
to his father to always care for her, Wallace added.
Wallace pointed out the parking lot on Main Street where "One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest" author Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters showed up
in the "magic bus," and left the motor running to ensure a quick
getaway due to outstanding warrants. They tried to get Kerouac to
join the psychedelic antics, but he refused, insulted they would play
him for a fool, Wallace said.
Kerouac drank at two places on Main Street. Murphy's was for men off
the boats and on Friday nights it wasn't uncommon for someone to be
thrown through a plate glass window, Wallace said. Kerouac preferred
Gunther's, which was a bit more upscale.
On a weekday afternoon recently there were only three people at
Gunther's, who along with the bartender seemed to be trying to get
out from under severe hangovers, muttering about the Mets.
The bartender didn't know much about Kerouac, but pointed to a corner
where some newspaper clips were behind glass. She said there was a
reading every fall by Kerouac aficionados.
Wallace asked her if the reading drove the regular crowd away and she nodded.
Once, Wallace said, Kerouac overheard three deer hunters at the bar
talking about their sport. To move a conversation along he said true
hunting was fox hunting. The hunters seemed bewildered, but Kerouac
embarked on a 10 minute dissertation on the wonders and pleasures of
"And when he was finished, the hunters applauded," Wallace said with a smile.
The Mets were still being disparaged, as more beers were pulled.
Kerouac's work is often misinterpreted because of his life, Wallace
said. "He didn't just write about kicks and joy, but about
disappointment and pain," he added. "Jack's spirit took him places
his feet couldn't go."