66th Anniversary of ‘The Town and the City’

The Town and the City

On display at the Beat Museum is this 1950 advance copy of The Town and the City, once the circulation copy at the Lowell City Library (now the Pollard Memorial Library). Advance copies are sent out to reviewers, critics, and the press prior to a novel’s publication, in a bid to generate public interest in the book. This particular copy was one of probably only 20-50 advance copies. It is very possible this book was given by Kerouac himself to his hometown library. This copy was a gift from collector Richard Marcell.

On this day, March 2nd, in 1950, Harcourt Brace published Jack Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City. A more conventional predecessor to Kerouac’s later spontaneous prose work, beginning with On the Road, The Town and the City is written in a style heavily derivative of Thomas Wolfe, his literary hero at the time. The book is a fictionalization of Kerouac’s life as the character Peter Martin in Galloway, Massachusetts (pseudonymous for his hometown of Lowell), and his move to New York City to attend Columbia University, where he began his involvement with the nascent Beat Generation in the late 1940s.

Though The Town and the City is something of a prologue to Kerouac’s “Duluoz Legend,” written prior to the author establishing his own style, the foundations of Kerouac’s skill as a writer are nonetheless apparent. The rich, vivid imagery of his descriptions—as much a feature of his later prose as its frenetic energy—is on full display here, from the opening description of Galloway and the Merrimac river, to when the Martin family first beholds New York City. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between The Town and the City and Kerouac’s later novels is the absence of his signature bop prosody. However, even in the beginning of Kerouac’s literary career, his prose has a poetic, even musical quality; early evidence of Kerouac’s sharp ear and understanding of music.

But moreover, what would eventually cause Kerouac’s ascent to literary stardom wasn’t stylistic, so much as how his stories seem to capture a big-picture perspective of American life. While On the Road resonated with readers because it seemed to reflect the restlessness and disillusionment of the post-war years, The Town and the City is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, and the experience of it through the eyes of Lowell’s largely poor, factory-worker population, as well as their reaction to the outbreak of World War II.

Notably, Kerouac himself had one older brother, Gerard, who died of rheumatic fever as a child. In The Town and the City, there are five Martin brothers and three sisters. It seems that each of the brothers, though based on actual people, represent a different stage in Jack’s own life, and different facets of his personality.