Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Memory Babe": A wonderful addition to Jack Kerouac's "Lowell books"

The Unknown Kerouac, available at Amazon

Many are brought to Kerouac by On the Road, but those who stick with the man's oeuvre eventually make their way to what are called "the Lowell books": The Town and the City, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Visions of Gerard, and Vanity of Duluoz. These feature heart-wrenchingly accurate and detailed descriptions of growing up in the classical New England mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts in the early twentieth century (Kerouac was born in Lowell in 1922). They are magnificent works, and many say they comprise the best of Kerouac. I cannot argue the point.

If you count yourself a fan of the Lowell books, you are in for a treat. Recently published, The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished, & Newly Translated Writings, features a 53-page piece titled "Memory Babe."* The piece is from a 20-foot long scroll and a revised 22-page typescript from that scroll of a work that Kerouac began in earnest soon after On the Road was published in 1957 but, after periodically working on it along with the The Dharma Bums (1958), abandoned the effort to focus on other works such as Lonesome Traveler (1960). The story takes place when Kerouac was "not yet 14 years old" on the two days before Christmas in Lowell (according to my math, that would be 1935).

As editor Todd Tietchen notes in the introduction to the piece, the Lowell books "remain the most comprehensive literary ethnography of French Canadian life in the 1920s and 1930s New England, mapping and preserving a lost world in a way consistent with Kerouac's aesthetic of memory" (p. 250). "Memory Babe" adds to that ethnography in every sense, capturing not only the ethos but also the ambience of that time and place in a way that pulls the reader deeply into Kerouac's world -- so much so that, sometimes, the reader wonders if it weren't one's own childhood being described.

There's much more in The Unknown Kerouac I have yet to explore, but for me, "Memory Babe" alone makes it worth the price.

* Not to be confused with Gerald Nicosia's Kerouac biography of the same name. "Memory Babe" is what Kerouac claims his friends called him because of his excellent memory.

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