Author's spirit lives on
The past and the present intersect at the corner of Shady Lane and Clouser Avenue in College Park. Tucked inside the walls of a small blue bungalow live the stories of 44 writers, bookended in 1957 and the present by two men with stories told through countless hours filled with the clacking of keys.
It took 12 days of sleepless days and nights at a typewriter equipped with 10-foot scrolls for Jack Kerouac to crank out a 187-page manuscript of “The Dharma Bums” from the back room of the 1920s house. Riding the coattails of the success of his book “On the Road,” published in the fall of 1957, and the ongoing high of adrenaline and alcohol – Kerouac used the small Orlando home as his refuge, turning masses of handwritten notes into the rambling prose for which he is now known.
“He was an author,” Kerouac’s longtime friend and collaborator David Amram said, drawing out his A’s and O’s mimicking Jack’s New England lilt. “…That’s what he did, he used the house to take care of his mother, and to create.”
Today, 56 years later, another author with a different distinguishable accent sits in the same room at a small wooden desk, pictures of Kerouac now lining the whitewashed walls around him. A Mac laptop replaces Kerouac’s boxy typewriter, and the room has been painted and cleaned, but the space is the same.
“It’s perfect, it’s got a great creative vibe… I’d stay for three years if they let me,” Michael Rands said.
Rands has come from Johannesburg, South Africa, to live and write within the walls once home to Jack Kerouac’s eccentric creative processes as the current Writer-in-Residence at Kerouac’s old College Park house. He’s the 43rd writer to reside on premises, each given three months free rent and food to concentrate on nothing but creating, keeping Kerouac’s legacy alive. The Kerouac Project, created in 1998 by a volunteer group of College Park neighbors, uses the Writers-in-Residence program as a living tribute and cultural hallmark for Kerouac in the community, says founding board member Bob Kealing.
“It’s been a whole bunch of folks who really just want to give Orlando some sort of cultural touchstone that helps define the city beyond the theme parks,” Kealing said. “And that’s one of the really important roles I think the Kerouac House has played.”
In the late 1990s, Kealing turned from Orlando Sentinel journalist to Kerouac hobbyist in uncovering his history in Orlando. Following an article published in the Sentinel documenting his findings, and celebrating what would have been Kerouac’s 75th birthday, members of the College Park community came together to save the then-in-shambles bungalow that once served as the scene for Kerouac’s story.
With funding from private donors and volunteers, the first chapter of the Kerouac House’s story began.
Summer Rodman, original and current Kerouac Project board member, said the group slowly worked to restore the home to its humble glory. Two bedrooms and 1,200 square feet – only half of that equating to where Kerouac lived with his mother. The house was previously split in half as a rental, the pair having lived in the one-bedroom back of the now 88-year-old home.
Kealing said the Kerouac Project team worked to bring Jack’s world back to life in recreating at 1950s environment for new writers to live. From retro-styled patterned blue chairs in the living room, to the rotary phone and Polaroid camera adorning vintage wood shelving units – it’s a beat writer’s world transported to the present.
To learn more about the Kerouac Project, visit kerouacproject.org
“It’s reminiscent of the time period. … And seeing as he’s kind of a beat legend, the beat writer, you don’t want it to be too cozy, too comfy, too perfect. It’s nice for it to be kind of rustic the way it is. There’s that continuity there for residents while they’re here,” Kealing said.
David Amram, who knew Kerouac from before his fame and ‘Road book,’ as he called it, were published, said his old friend would be proud of the project now functioning in his name.
“The house itself just reflects just a little place where he struggled so hard … I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be thrilled that this is the way his name is being used just as he wanted to make a contribution as a writer,” Amram said. “He was using his success, reputation and beautiful books that he wrote as a way to enable others to make a contribution.”
Power of the project
“There’s a lot of really important history, not only with the Kerouac House or the Kerouac Project, but also to Kerouac’s legacy. He saw some really good productive times here,” Kealing said.
From stories of weeks-long writing binges, to being so broke when “On the Road” was released that an old girlfriend had to wire him $40 for bus fare from Orlando to New York City so he could get to town for interviews and reviews, Kealing said the house worked as the backdrop for some of Kerouac’s most formative writing years.
Amram said Kerouac struggled with his newfound fame as the 1950s came to a close, the proclaimed ‘bard of the beat generation’ uncomfortable with the accompanying crown.
“He said to me one day, ‘Davey, they’re not reviewing my new books,’ he said, ‘I’m not a king of anything, I’m an author … why don’t they review my books?’” Amram recalls.
Kerouac, originally from Lowell, Mass., was a low-key, conservative, Catholic guy, Amram said, who just wanted to write — plain and simple. Outside of that, an addiction to alcohol would falter that simplicity, and eventually contribute to his death at 47 in 1969.
Summer Rodman said keeping true to that simplicity has been key in keeping the Kerouac Project afloat, both as a non-profit and rightful tribute to Jack.
“Our secret is that we’ve just kept it very simple. I think it’s such a great testament to small, grassroots neighborhood type projects,” she said.
Now with a worldwide network or writers more than 40 strong, Kealing said the Kerouac Project has grown bigger than he ever imagined in the beginning, receiving up to 150 applications for its Writers-in-Residence program each session.
“It truly is an example of what a grassroots group of likeminded people can do…it’s a diverse group that’s done a really wonderful thing and they’ve all volunteered their time. And I think we realize this kind of a wonderful legacy project that we hope will be around in College Park for a long, long time,” Kealing said.
In November 2012, the Kerouac House was voted to the list of the National Register of Historic Places, an honor placing it along the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s home in the Florida Keys, and Zora Neale Hurston’s house in Fort Pierce.
Amram said he’s traveled the world visiting the small humble homes where so many artists, from Beethoven to Mozart, Shakespeare to Hemingway, created their greatest works. The College Park Kerouac House, he said, is that place for his friend Jack.
“You can get a sense of these wonderful artists and show that they were real people with real problems and real struggles, and they created and left us something so beautiful,” Amram said. “… In this case you can go to a little place in College Park and see how a man with at typewriter was able to change the whole face of literature and the world as we know it.”