A Jack Kerouac Time Machine: John Suiter’s Photo-Essay on Lowell, MA By Garrett Caples

Night Stations for GarrettLike Jack Kerouac, I spent much of my childhood being Catholic in Lowell, MA.  Unlike Kerouac, this was in the ’70s; he was dead, and you would have searched in vain for any sign of recognition from the city that a great writer had come from there and written about it.  But like Dublin with James Joyce, Lowell eventually got over itself and realized it should celebrate its famous son instead of being scandalized by him, and nowadays you can find a substantial Kerouac memorial featuring quotations from his works in red marble and he is made much of in local museums.  This turn began in the late ’80s/early ’90s, amid various schemes to revitalize Lowell’s downtown, which at the time was dominated by vast abandoned mill buildings and decaying canal locks.  Over at jackkerouac.com, Beat historian and photographer John Suiter, author of Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, & Jack Kerouac in the Cascades (Counterpoint, 2002), has posted a splendid photo-essay documenting this transitional period of Lowell’s history, including many sites significant to Kerouac’s fiction, like the Night Stations of the Cross in the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes (above), which figures in Dr. Sax (1959), or the house where his brother Gerard died (below), from Visions of Gerard (1963), among other novels.

Beaulieau for Garrett

I asked Suiter how he got in the business of Beat history and what upcoming projects he had, and he had this to say:

“The first thing I wrote on the Beat Generation was Jack Kerouac’s obituary in the Berkeley Barb in October 1969. I was twenty years old, living in Berkeley. At the time, I wasn’t even aware that he was still alive. A lot of people weren’t. Many of his books were out of print, and there were no biographies of him. I had read On the Road and was just getting into The Dharma Bums. The Managing Editor had seen me reading it in the office and said to me, ‘You like Kerouac? Here, write an obituary for him. He just died in St. Petersberg, Florida.’ I couldn’t believe that Kerouac had been caught dead in such an uncool place! In all the wisdom of my twenty years I thought: What the hell was he even doing there? So my lead was: ‘Jack Kerouac is dead of a gastric hemorrhage in the old folks’ capital of the world…’”

“These photographs of Kerouac locales in Lowell led me to the North Cascades and eventually to the publication of Poets on the Peaks. I had become a photographer in the late 1980s. By then I had read everything that Kerouac wrote, and knew the position of Lowell in his creative world. In Lowell I learned an M.O. for making these kinds of photographs. I learned how to carry a text in mind—maybe just a phrase like ‘green faces of death’ or the ‘blue sleer’ of the river as I walked in places that I knew—from my research—had inspired Kerouac. I got good at going to a house, a church, a riverbank, and letting my eye roam over it for a hold, maybe just a color would be enough. I mean, like feeling for a hold on the flat of a rock with your fingertips. Sometimes the mood of the light wouldn’t be right; I’d come back at night, or go to it at dawn.”

“My first Kerouac project—pictures from Lowell—was exhibited at the Boott Mills Gallery, which is run by the National Park Service. Half the town of Lowell is a National Park. The exhibit was curated by a Park Service archivist, who later showed the pictures to another Park Service officer at North Cascades. The North Cascades guy said, ‘We’ve got a Kerouac place here—Desolation Lookout—same cabin that Kerouac stayed in at the end of The Dharma Bums—we’d love to have a little exhibit, maybe ten pictures, for our visitors’ center.’ So that’s how I got out to Kerouac’s old fire lookout on Desolation Peak, more or less by invitation. I stayed there for two weeks. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought there was a road that you drove to the top. I didn’t realize the nearest road was 18 miles away.”

“It was ‘transformative.’ I went back to the North Cascades (from Boston) three more times. Before Desolation I was only shooting pictures. After that I started writing my own text, as well as combining poems by Kerouac, Snyder, and Whalen with photographs. I did a number of magazine articles before the book idea emerged. There was interest in the ‘Beats in the Wilderness’ idea (for lack of a better phrase) for a Buddhist audience, an environmental audience and a literary-cultural audience. That’s how Poets on the Peaks took shape.”

“Since Poets on the Peaks, I’ve been working on a full-length biography of Gary Snyder. As in Poets, I’ve tried to balance the considerable archival research—I’ve been to scores of university special collections—with on-the-ground, experiential ‘research’ (for lack of a better word)—camping in the Mt. Margaret country back of Spirit Lake, for instance, or hiking to the rim of the volcano on Suwanose Island. And, of course, doing hundreds of hours of interview tape. It’s an enormous undertaking—Gary is by far the most social being I’ve ever known; his correspondence at UC Davis alone includes more than 200,00 letters! Networks upon overlapping networks of poetry people, Buddha-dharma people, environmental people. I’m still working on the book—and doing various freelance jobs to support myself along the way. After this current ‘Kerouac’s Lowell’ photo-essay, I’ve got two more projects in the pipeline at jackkerouac.com—one is a ‘Poets on the Peaks’ photo-essay—all color photographs from Kerouac-Snyder-Whalen lookouts in the North Cascades, most of them never published. And the second one is called ‘Kerouac’s Mexico’—photos from a long segunda clase bus trip I took down the Pan-American highway to Mexico City in 1995. And, after that, I’ve got lots of other stuff to show.”

Photo credits: Night Stations, Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Acre, Lowell, Massachusetts, ca. 1990 © John Suiter
The House Where Gerard Died, Beaulieu Street, Centralville, Lowell, MA © John Suiter

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