Literary pilgrims flock to Kerouac's shack, the house that built Jack

A small property in a suburb of Orlando is Florida's first literary landmark, a place of pilgrimage for Beat generation fans and home to a writers-in-residence scheme. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

Jack Kerouac only lived in the small property at 1418 Clouser Avenue for a few months and, when he moved into the tin-roofed bungalow, he was a nobody.

He spent his time writing, brooding, wondering about his future, enjoying the Florida climate. And then, several months after he arrived, his novel On the Road was finally published. In an instant, Kerouac was on his way from being an anonymous, footloose writer to a legendary footloose writer - the icon of the so-called Beat generation.

As a result, everything connected with the writer has taken on a value - financial or cultural - that Kerouac himself would never have dreamed. And no more so this small house in the Orlando suburbs which has become central Florida's first literary landmark, a destination of pilgrimage for fans of Kerouac from across the world and the location of a writers-in-residence scheme where scribes from various countries can come to work and hope to capture some of the spirit of its famous former resident.

The most recent person to take up the residency is Alan Wilkinson, 54, a British freelance writer from York who moved into the modest property just 10 days ago. Already, the house is having an effect on him, on his thoughts on Kerouac and on his thoughts on the entire process of writing.

"It's a great adventure. It's a blast," said Mr Wilkinson, speaking by telephone from the Sunshine State. "I always said I was not a fan of Kerouac before I came to the house. But then I started thinking back to when I was younger and I realised that I must have read everything that he ever wrote."

He added: "I would still not say I am a huge fan - I think there is a lot of macho shit in his writing that you have to wade through. But I have been thinking about him and I suppose what I like is that Kerouac's view was that he wanted to have adventures and write about them. That is what I also want to do."

Jack Kerouac moved to Florida to be with his ageing mother, Gabrielle, and his sister. He made the journey by bus, travelling down from New York City in December 1956. It was there, while waiting for the publication of On the Road, that he wrote what would be the follow-up, Dharma Bums as well as a poem, Orlando Blues.

After he left the house, it fell into obscurity, owned by a series of people who either were unaware of the link to the famous writer or else uninterested. And so it remained until 1997 when it was "discovered" by Bob Kealing, a local television reporter and a huge fan of all things literary.

Mr Kealing said that he had just returned from a trip to Key West, the town at the end of the archipelago of islands that make up the Florida Keys, to visit the house in which another author, Ernest Hemingway, had lived and worked.

"I mentioned it to a friend from Kansas and was saying how fantastic it was and how it was such a pity that there was nothing like that in Orlando," recalled Mr Kealing. "My friend said that he had read somewhere that there was this house in the city where Kerouac had lived. Well, I had never heard of this and it's not mentioned in most of the books about him."

Mr Kealing's research and the discovery of the unassuming house became the topic of an article in the local newspaper which, in turn, was read by Marty Cummins, owner of Chapter, one of the city's few independent bookstores. Together the two of them hit upon a plan to buy the property and turn it into a literary resource.

"I was not a fan of Kerouac - that was Bob," said Mr Cummins, who put a restaurant in his bookshop because people were not buying books. "I was just looking for a way to improve the state of literary affairs in central Florida, which is pretty much a wasteland in that sense. It's pretty thin.

"Orlando did not even have a book festival - it was the biggest city in the US without a festival of its own."

With the financial help of the Darden Restaurant company that owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, Mr Kealing and Mr Cummins established a non-profit organisation, the Kerouac Project, that managed to save the bungalow from the eyes of the state's voracious property developers.

But Mr Cummins and Mr Kealing - whose research became the subject of a recently-published book Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends - wanted to use the property to continue the literary tradition belonging to the property. Thus was born the writer-in-residence scheme.

So far, there have been 11 writers who have been invited to spend three months at Kerouac's house to work on one of their own projects. One of the recent writers who stayed there, Ted May, said he enjoyed the experience but that he had found it difficult to persuade his friends to come and visit him.

Kerouac also found a similar problem luring his friends to Florida. In 1961 - by which time had moved from the house on Clouser Avenue to a different Orlando property - he wrote a letter to his friend, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "On your trip to Taos and New Orleans, why not come to Orlando also," he wrote, "and dig [he crazy Florida scene of spotlessly clean highways and fantastic supermarkets and Cape Canaveral?" His friend never took up the offer.

Mr Wilkinson, whose airfare to Florida was paid for by the Arts Council of Yorkshire, has already received several visitors. None of them were invited but all were made welcome. "There have already been three or four people who have come just to see the house," he said.

"There was one man here the other day who was a book dealer from Michigan and he wanted to see the place where Kerouac lived."

For Mr Wilkinson, the three months will be used working on a memoir recounting the various jobs he has had over the past 40 years - including factory worker, bookie's assistant and college lecturer.

One of his previous publications was Yes!!!!!!!!, a volume that details Manchester United football club's most famous footballing defeats.

But the stay in Florida will also be a springboard for a trip of exploration and adventure of the variety Kerouac himself would have approved. Having been contacted by a magazine based in Montana, he will recreate the journey of Lewis and Clark, the explorers whose trip to the American west took place 200 years ago.

Though Clouser Street was the place where Jack Kerouac became famous, his relationship with Florida was always a mixed affair. Mr Kealing's book details the writer's alcoholic decline and the various travels between Florida, Long Island and Massachusetts in his final years of life.

His final move was to St Petersburg on Florida's Gulf Coast in 1968. Within a year - at the age of just 47 - Kerouac had drunk himself to death.

Suitably enough, his ghost is said to haunt a bookstore there called Haslam's.