Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool, Day Three
January 15, 2008
by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D
The American West | Lowell, Massachusetts, the small industrial town of Jack Kerouac's childhood and growing up, is not a setting in his most famous novel On The Road. Still, there is a presence of this town and the people Kerouac left behind there in his depictions of the American West, particularly the rural back roads where his alter ego, Sal Paradise makes his home for a short time.
It is here where he lives and romances a beautiful Mexican-American girl named Teresa, taking work as a cotton-picker alongside the migrant workers of the 1940s California Coast. From On The Road:
We bent down and began picking cotton ... Across the field were the tents, and beyond them the brown cotton-fields that stretched out of sight to the brown arroyo foothills and then the snow-capped Sierra in the blue morning air ... I knew nothing about picking cotton. I spent too much time disengaging the white ball from its crackly bed; the others did it in one flick ... But it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth.
When the sun got red (I) trudged back (and) unloaded my burden on a scale; it weighed fifty pounds, and I got a buck fifty ... I borrowed a bicycle from one of the Oakie boys and rode down 99 to a crossroads grocery store where I bought cans of cooked spaghetti and meatballs, bread, butter, coffee, and cake, and came back with the bag on the handlebars, LA-bound traffic zoomed by; Frisco-bound harassed my tail. I swore and swore ... I should have known better. It was (Theresa) who brought my soul back; on the tent stove she warmed up the food, and it was one of the greatest meals of my life, I was so hungry and tired ... (She) curled up beside me ... The light of our tent burned on the frightful plain. The cowboy music twanged in the roadhouse and carried across the fields, all sadness. It was all right with me. I kissed my baby and we put out the lights.
For Sal, there is a deep sense of familiarity in this place, even though he is, by his own account, a stranger. And that familiarity is rooted in Kerouac's own story as a French-speaking Catholic, born and raised among the French Canadian mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts. A community very much like the Mexican-American migrant workers Sal Paradise encounters and becomes a part of in the West, even though they worked in factories rather than fields and made their livings spinning cotton rather than picking it.
This blog is bring written by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D and David Amram during the third and final run of Sprenger's cross-country sociology and documentary-making course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool." The next entries by Sprenger and Amram will appear January 11, 15, 19. 23, 27, and 31, along with an "audio ethnography" produced by students participating in this course on February 4. Readers are also to join Sprenger and Amram for a FREE Retrospective of the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" in New York on Friday, January 11 at 8pm at the Theater For the New City and Sunday, February 24 at 2 pm in the B2 Conference Center of the Denver Public Library. Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D is an ethnographer, audio producer and professor of sociology. The author of the true-life novel/community study Home Goings, she creates artistic and educational programming for the Denver Public Library. David Amram is an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and author. His most recent orchestral work, "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" made its world premiere in San Jose, California this past September and his third book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat was published a month later. Today is the first of a seven-day diary they are collaborating on together about the life, times and 50th anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel.
Ashley Vaughan is a documentary photographer. Currently a journalism student at the University of Denver, she has received several academic grants for her photographic projects including a Fred McDarrah Grant for Young Photojournalists. An assistant archivist for biographer Bill Morgan, she is also the art director for the David Amram Archive and is currently working with Audrey Sprenger on Jack Kerouac's America, 50 Years Old.