Over my writing desk is a pop-art image of Jack Kerouac. He is so handsome. In purple, orange, and shades of green, it shows him in his prime, a typewriter in the corner and his words about the people he loves, the ones who "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding."
In his On the Road persona, Kerouac may have lived that way. But that’s not the way he died. He didn’t explode. On Oct. 21, 1969, one of America’s greatest literary characters felt not upbeat, but beaten down. His importance as a writer notwithstanding, Kerouac died a pathetic and mean alcoholic, a raging anti-Semite, a bad husband, son and father, trapped in a small house located at 5169 10th Avenue N, right here in your Sunshine City, St. Petersburg, Fla.
His passing was significant enough to warrant this report by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News:
Jack Kerouac, the novelist who wrote On the Road, reached the end of it today. The forty-seven year old spokesman for the Beat Generation died of a massive hemorrhage in a St. Petersburg, Florida, hospital today. Kerouac’s books, selling millions of copies, translated into 18 languages, were regarded as a bridge between older bohemian movements and today’s hippies.
Kerouac had moved to St. Pete in 1964 with his third wife, Stella Sampas, to care for his mother. His life was not totally desolate. Local writers and musicians reached out to him and spent some time. Fans would discover he was here. He made his way, now and then, to Haslam’s book store to "turn out" his books so they were more prominently displayed. He is still thought to haunt the stacks there.
A great athlete in his youth, he would attend spring training baseball games, invite himself into a local newspaper office, and just for fun, bang out a few columns. He hit the bars hard, and sometimes they hit him back. The Flamingo Bar claims Kerouac to this day, and honors him with a mural facing the parking lot. Biographers tell of an incident at a "black bar" where he got beaten badly in the parking lot for some real or imagined offense.
On the day before he died, Jack was watching a popular TV cooking show, the Galloping Gourmet. He was eating tuna fish from a can with a spoon when he began throwing up blood. At St. Anthony’s Hospital, he exhausted their supply of his blood type. Alcohol killed him, the end of a darkly incandescent American life.
I met a local St. Pete musician and occasional writer, the late Ron Lowe, who spent time with Jack during his days here and was with him until the bloody end. During a formal interview Ron told me — and it has been repeated in biographies — that another person who showed up at the hospital was a self-proclaimed member of the American Nazi Party — I don’t have his name — who had once visited Jack at the house. It is not clear why Kerouac’s once radically liberated sensibilities turned misogynist, anti-Communist, anti-hippy, and, most disturbing, anti-Semitic. His diatribes against Jews could include attacks on once-dear friends, such as Allen Ginsberg, perhaps the most well-known American poet of his day.
So, why oh why, do I have an image of Kerouac over my desk? Why did I write a tribute in the Times on the 10th anniversary of his death? Why did I make a pilgrimage and visit his grave in his hometown of Lowell, Mass.? Why, for many years after his death, did I open the St. Pete phone book just to see the continued listing of his name? And why do I still, on a rare occasion, drive past that house on 10th Avenue N, and sit and reflect on his legacy, even as I stare at the No Trespassing sign on the fence?
It’s because we forgive.
We cannot deny that there are some American characters who give us so much that we are inclined to forgive them their flaws. Hemingway, we forgive you. We forgive you. Babe Ruth and Elvis and Marilyn and JFK and Chuck Berry and James Brown for your sins and addictions. Jimi and Janice and Jim Morrison (you who attended St. Pete Junior College, you who tried to track down Kerouac in St. Pete), we love you for what you gave us. We do not forget your failings. We have a compartment that we keep them in so we can separate the greatness produced by your creative efforts from the shadows your brightness sometimes cast upon our walls.
Alcoholism is an illness, Jack. St. Pete forgives you, not for you, so much, but for us. You drank in our bars and pool halls. You browsed our book stores. At night you liked to cruise along our beaches, trying to find decent music on a car radio, a car driven not by you, but by a St. Pete pal. Damn it, you are one of us, Jack, and we embrace you, and then hold you at arm’s length and look you straight in the eye.
Next year, 2019, will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Jack Kerouac. There are many of us in this town who want to celebrate our connection with his life and his body of work. And I am one of them. But I would argue that too much of this effort has been spent on the disposition of his house.
Recent reporting by Paul Guzzo of the Times describes frustrated efforts by locals to acquire the unoccupied house from the Kerouac estate and convert it into a literary center or a writer’s retreat. John Shen-Sampras, who inherited the house and who helps run the estate from Greenwich, Conn., says he is in "no hurry" to sell.
That is a good thing. The house turns out to be the weakest imaginable foundation upon which to build a lasting Kerouac legacy in St. Pete. He lived in that place, badly, for a while. So what? Nothing of value remains to connect the house to Kerouac’s residence there. You can’t read from his bookshelf, you can’t sit at his writing desk, and my guess is that, after a night of drinking, you can’t even use the john.
Let it be sold, or let it sit forever unoccupied, the object of occasional curiosity by a tour bus or lonely pilgrim. Or knock it down so the neighbors can live in peace. Sell the fragments to Kerouac fanatics and give the money to a literacy program. There is no there there.
So what should we do instead to cement St. Pete’s Kerouac legacy? Keep meeting at the Flamingo Bar, that’s for sure. But what else? Novelist Norman Mailer once said that to understand Kerouac you had to think of him as a "surrealist." The rebellious and unconventional surrealism movement extended into the 1950s and is said to have inspired members of the Beat Generation.
That invites this friendly challenge to the good folks who run the Salvador Dali Museum, one of St. Pete’s most notable institutions. What does Jack Kerouac have to do with Salvador Dali? How did the surrealists and the beatniks think about each other? More ambitiously: Is there room, somewhere between the museum and USF St. Pete, for a learning space dedicated to the entire Beat Generation and its legacy?
It could become known as the house that Jack built.
Roy Peter Clark is the author of 18 books on writing, language, and journalism. He has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, since 1977.