By now, Orlando should be getting used to including "On the Road" author Jack Kerouac as part of its cultural family. This weekend, we have a chance to get better acquainted with this former citizen -- who was, like many of us, a transient Florida dweller.
Kerouac, the pilot light for the inflammatory Beats -- who shook up traditional literary structures with their flashing, impulsive outcries celebrating intensely felt experiences -- lived in Orlando with his mother during the late '50s and again in the early '60s. He was padding around a College Park bungalow at the 1957 publication of "On the Road," a book that turned him into something of a celebrity.
That house, at 1418 Clouser Ave., has been purchased by a group of literary enthusiasts and historical preservationists who have established the Jack Kerouac Writers in Residence Program. This weekend's "Orlando Celebrates Kerouac" festivities will bring together friends and devotees of the writer for events that benefit the Kerouac Project.
But who exactly was this one-time neighbor, a man who earned a reputation for his late-night carousing and gotta-go-gotta-move philosophy of life? "Jack needed to go back to his mother from time to time to be coddled in a stable home," explains Carolyn Cassady, wife of the late Neal Cassady, who was fictionalized as "On the Road's" life-force rush, Dean Moriarty. For Carolyn Cassady, who will be on hand for this weekend's events, the "rebel" image of Kerouac is drastically off the mark -- "total misinterpretation and misunderstanding of his motives and character" is how she puts it. "One of the reasons Jack liked visiting us so much was that we had a stable home with kids, three meals a day, etc.," she says of the years when she was married to Neal and Kerouac was a regular house guest. "His eternal dream was for `a house` of his own, supported by his writing."
Bob Kealing, a WESH-Channel 2 reporter, has spent the last few years researching Kerouac's Orlando life, and he laughs at the incongruity between image and reality. "Here is the renowned king of the Beats," Kealing posits, "and he's living with his mom in the suburbs. He was a much older and world-wearier man when he finally became famous."
None of this domesticity subtracts from the pulsing power that Kerouac's words and, yes, image still hold -- that of the artistic renegade, gulping down life, struck dumb by beauty. "He has a message about what's important in life," says Doug Sharples, who, with his wife Judi, has slowly gathered film footage over the past 17 years that has resulted in "Go Moan for Man," a Kerouac documentary that will receive its world premiere at Enzian Theater. "He's a religious writer, actually," notes Sharples. "His enthusiasm attracts most of the readers -- it's very infectious prose. But that enthusiasm comes out of a sense that life is holy."
But Kerouac can tell us himself: He wonders in one poem, for example, whether the "Infinite Worldwide Angel" can be found in "that bird that floats/ hill belly on the wind up there." Those lines come from a poem called "Orlanda Blues" (Kerouac liked to play with sounds and spellings, thus "Orlanda" ), which also talks about tangerines thudding to the ground and red-eyed lizards, and it houses the tongue-in-cheek advice, "Dont ever come to Florida," because here "A little boy playin in his yard/ was et by a alligator/ (true)."
But back to the mundane: In a letter written from his second Orlando residence dated June 10, 1961, Kerouac describes his living situation in Kings-wood Manor. "We have a brand new house, a private yard with big fences, a supermarket to shop in. ... These new Fla. houses have wall ovens, heating & airconditioning units, shower stalls, terraza floors, real fancy and comfortable."
By this time Kerouac, while still producing piles of writing, was driving himself steadily toward his alcohol-induced death in the late '60s. "He couldn't handle `fame`," notes Cassady, who last saw Kerouac in 1960 but continued to correspond with him until his death. "And it wasn't so much fame as notoriety and disparagement, the outcome being his vow to drink himself to death."
"Kerouac died in 1969 almost a forgotten writer," says filmmaker Doug Sharples. When he started his documentary project in 1982, "I felt he was not being taken seriously by the arbiters of the literary world."
If Kerouac could've outlived the distorting glare of fame and then the slump into neglect, he would have ended up in an era of more careful consideration. Two new Kerouac biographies were recently published, and a Beat movement documentary, "The Source," made the major-city rounds in late summer. And if lists have any value, "On the Road" showed up as No. 55 on the Modern Library's 100 best English-language novels, ahead of "Catcher in the Rye" and "Heart of Darkness."
Here in Orlando, the Clouser Avenue house has been a rallying point for everyone from the Rollins College English department to local activists like Grace Hagedorn, co-chair of the College Park Neighborhood Association Historical Committee, who explains her involvement by saying, "I am a historical preservationist. I think we just had fears that the house would be demolished, and it would just be a terrible shame."
"It's grass-roots," says Kealing of the Kerouac Project. "There's no corporate BS." Once renovations on the house are complete, writers will be selected to live there rent-free for stints of a few months.
Mostly Kealing is pleased that Orlando can lay claim to someone like Kerouac: "A legion of artists look to him as a main influence." Which no doubt would've pleased Kerouac, even though spontaneity, not long-range legacy, was his beacon: "What I wrote first I kept," he offered in "Orlanda Blues," "because I figure/ God moves/ the body hand."
For more "Orlando Celebrates Kerouac" events see:
"Off the Road" signing with author Carolyn Cassady, widow of counterculture icon Neal Cassady, and CD signing with composer David Amram, 11 am Saturday, Borders Books & Music, Altamonte Springs; 1 pm Saturday; Borders Books & Music, Winter Park.
Film screening of Go Moan for Man, 4 p.m. Saturday; Enzian Theater.
David Amram concert, From Cairo to Kerouac, 6 p.m. Sunday; Sapphire.
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