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6/11/1998

Culture > Culture

Jack Kerouac slept here

 

Most of Jack Kerouac’s prose is based on warp-speed adventures featuring a wild bunch of free-spirited pals immersed in mad road trips across America. His most famous piece of spontaneous composition is aptly titled "On the Road." Occasionally, however, even the King of the Beats would need a place to rest, write and repair. For a few years in the late 1950s, the tortured Kerouac found temporary solace at a home in College Park, where his mother and sister lived.

Forty years later, a local group has formed a nonprofit organization in hopes of establishing 1418 Clouser Ave. -- where Kerouac is supposed to have produced the novel, "The Dharma Bums," in 12 days -- as a retreat for impassioned writers.

"We want people who devote their souls to writing," says Maurice O’Sullivan, chairman of the English department at Rollins College. The movement to establish the Kerouac center is being supported by the college, a collection of College Park merchants and other lovers of literature.

While immortalized by "On the Road," and the ’60s beatnik generation it inspired, Kerouac pounded out 22 books before dying in 1969, at 47, in a St. Petersburg from ailments no doubt encouraged by his chronic alcoholism. Although uncomfortable with the role, Kerouac was the acknowledged leader of a group of writers, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and the late Allen Ginsberg, who wrote about and personified the Beat Generation.

"It should be a matter of some regional pride that we’ve had such an influential figure in a literary movement in Orlando. We are not thought of too highly as a hot bed of literary activity," says O’Sullivan.

Central Florida’s population is dominated by transplants, limiting the opportunities for the region to gain a place in literary history. "I think the Kerouac house provides that," O’Sullivan says.

By the end of June, the unnamed group expects to have purchased the Clouser property, says Marty Cummins, the group’s leader and owner of Chapters Bookstore and Cafe. Ideally, renovation will begin by the end of 1998 and the first writer-in-residence will move in by the winter of 1999. Jazz composer David Amram and comedian/pianist Steve Allen, with whom Kerouac collaborated on a spoken-word collection almost 40 years ago, have offered to support fund-raisers in Central Florida.

Cummins says the group plans to renovate both buildings on the property -- a two-story house and a smaller building that served as apartments. The house would be sold, with proceeds used to support the Kerouac center. The apartment building, where Kerouac lived, would serve as the writer’s residence.

Although it is not well-known, Kerouac spent parts of the late 1950s in the as a bum, a railroad brakeman, a merchant seaman and a panhandler, traveled to Orlando to spend Christmas 1956 with his sister and mother. This period marked the upward trajectory of his literary career and the downward spiral of his personal life. Although his signature work, "On the Road," was about to be published, Kerouac felt too old and sad to capitalize on his sudden, explosive fame.

Typing in the relative cool of night on the porch of the Clouser pad, Kerouac is said to have cranked out "The Dharma Bums" in less than two weeks. The small clapboard house also is believed to have been where Kerouac fueled the boozing path of excess that is credited with speeding his death little more than a decade later. Despite the success of "On the Road," his first widely acclaimed book after more than a decade of rejections -- Kerouac spent the last years of his life nearly a recluse. Yet his influence and commercial appeal show no signs of slackening heading into the 21st century.

In the decades since his death, Kerouac’s exploits along the fringes of society, especially with Neal Cassady, the hero of "On the Road," have been the subject of popular movies and a half dozen biographies. Ginsberg was behind the creation of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. Before beginning her solo career, singer Natalie Merchant sang a song about him, "Hey, Jack Kerouac," on the debut album of the 10,000 Maniacs. In 1997, an eclectic group of artists, including Richard Lewis, Lydia Lunch, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson and Steven Tyler contributed to a tribute recording, entitled "Kicks Joy Darkness."

Cummins’ group is hopeful that the writing program created in Kerouac’s memory will draw national attention. The recipients would live in the house rent-free for six months, while working with advanced writing classes at Rollins. They also would receive a stipend from the college to live, work and travel. Although local writers would be eligible, the group anticipates a national competition, bolstering Orlando’s reputation as a thriving arts community. A "Kerouac Days" festival, tentatively scheduled for November, also would be promoted.

By establishing the home as a landmark, Cummins says the group hopes to "preserve a piece of College Park history," while pumping up the local literary scene and neighborhood businesses.

Noting the success of local cultural events, such as the Orlando International Fringe Festival and the Florida Film Festival, the group is convinced the region is ready to support the Kerouac project. Having lavished attention and money on entertainment and sports, the group believes the area is ready to back a more artistic endeavor.

Yet the group recognizes local arts funding is tight, especially as Mayor Glenda Hood pushes a multimillion dollar performing arts center downtown. Money will be needed to buy and renovate the house, and support the writer; other needs, such as furniture and meals, can be satisfied through donations.

Says Cummins: "This is a unique, perhaps the sole, opportunity to get national notoriety" for literature in Central Florida.

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