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The muse returns to the Merrimack

"In the Merrimack Valley," says Jay Atkinson, "we celebrate the ordinary moment. That is what you write about. There is no uranium mine here."
By Neil Miller

"The other night I had a dream that I was sitting on the sidewalk on Moody Street, Pawtucketville, Lowell, Mass., with a pencil and paper in my hand saying to myself, 'Describe the wrinkly tar of this sidewalk, also the iron pickets of the Textile Institute, or the doorway where Lousy and GJ's always sittin....' " So begins Jack Kerouac's 1959 novel, Dr. Sax." 'Don't stop to think of words,' " the author tells himself, " 'and when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better....' "

For Kerouac, the brick factories and canals and playing fields of Lowell provided an endless source of inspiration. Five of his novels are set there, including his first, The Town and the City, in which he called the city Galloway, a place rooted "in the ancient pulse of life and work and death." He left home, wandered the country and Mexico and Morocco, was among the poets and novelists who launched the Beat generation, spewed out hundreds of thousands of words, moved back to Lowell, and left again. He returned one last time to rest in Edson Cemetery.

But other writers who grew up in the sometimes hard-luck northern Massachusetts towns along the Merrimack River have less fond memories. "When I think Merrimack Valley, I think mill town. I think barroom. I think welfare mothers. I think tough kids growing up too soon," says novelist Andre Dubus III, who spent his teenage years amid the crumbling sea captains' mansions of Newburyport and the boarded-up shoe factories ofHaverhill. Dubus left as soon as he could, for places like Colorado, California, and New York, eventually dragged home, "kicking and screaming," by a girlfriend to live in a trailer on the beach in Newburyport.

Even nonfiction writer Jane Brox, who grew up in more bu-rr colic surroundings on her family's farm in Dracut, next door to Lowell, was eager to get out. A writer's life was elsewhere. She moved to Nantucket, then to the Cambridge-Watertown area. "I never imagined coming back here," she says. But when her parents got older and needed help with the farm, she did come back - finding her subject matter in the process.

A number of writers have been following the same paths - home and away and back home again. Increasingly, and with characteristic lack of fanfare, the Merrimack Valley is gaining literary visibility. And its writers are garnering various honors as well. Dubus's novel House of Sand and Fog was a 1999 nominee for the National Book Award. Brox's Five Thousand Days Like This One was a 1999 National Book Critics Circle finalist in nonfiction. Andover novelist Mary McGarry Morris's Songs in Ordinary Time was the June 1997 Oprah Book Club selection.

Several events are also helping to create a local literary culture. The 12th annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival, which concludes tomorrow, features readings, movies, music, walking tours, and a high school poetry competition. Lawrence hosts the annual Robert Frost Festival, scheduled for October 28. (The poet spent his formative years in Lawrence, met his future wife there, and was valedictorian of the 1892 Lawrence High School class.)

"We are having our literary moment," says Lowell poet Paul Marion, editor of last year's anthology of previously unpublished Kerouac juvenilia, Atop an Underwood. "The brain drain has reversed itself."

The Merrimack Valley follows the Merrimack River (and, these days, Interstate 495) from the New Hampshire border through old factory towns like Lowell, Lawrence, Methuen, and Haverhill to suburban Andover and trendy Newburyport. At first glance, the area appears an unlikely spot to emerge as a literary center; John Updike once called it "the New World's first industrial belt."

Despite Lowell's revival and Newburyport's transformation to upscale bedroom community, the region is still struggling economically, as it has been since the textile and shoe factories shut down early in the 20th century. Immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America seek the American dream in Lowell and Lawrence, as did the French-Canadians, Greeks, and Italians before them. "The valley is an extremely practical place," says Jane Brox. "That is not necessarily a writer's temperament. It's at odds with sitting in a room and waiting for words to come."

Still, the same characteristics that give the Merrimack Valley its distinctive flavor also make it a fertile territory for writers. "It has not been swallowed up by suburbia," Brox notes. "You can still glimpse the old world between the cars going by. And there hasn't been the exodus among people of my own generation you find in many places. The second generation of immigrant families has stayed close to home and to their parents."

To Mary McGarry Morris, the "two faces" of the valley - lovely old towns where not much has changed in a hundred years existing cheek by jowl with dynamic urban centers populated by new waves of immigrants - "make for an exciting, stimulating, colorful mix."

It's a mix that is also perfect for a private-eye novel. When novelist David Daniel moved to Lowell from suburban Arlington in the mid-1980s, he was struck by the look of the place. "It had that noir feeling," he says. "The sunlight painting itself on brick walls late in the day. The men wearing fedora hats on Merrimack Street. It was like cranking the clock back. That made it great source material."

The result was two hard-boiled novels, in which Daniel turns Lowell into his version of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. His first book, The Heaven Stone, in 1993 won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private-eye novel.

The valley's lack of pretension, literary or otherwise, can be an asset, too. "One thing that makes the Merrimack Valley a good place to be a writer is that no one here is impressed by writers," says Jay Atkinson, whose nonfiction book Ice Time, a chronicle of a year with the Methuen High School hockey team, will be published next fall.

All these writers are very different, of course, and it's hard to find one unifying theme, a single valley sensibility. Brox's elegiac memoirs and her feeling for place have led her to be dubbed "a latter-day Thoreau." Until recently, Dubus has been reluctant to write about the Merrimack Valley at all. Still, all are drawn to working-class, sometimes hardscrabble characters, those "practical" types who populate the region. "In the Merrimack Valley, we celebrate the ordinary moment," says Atkinson. "That is what you write about. There is no uranium mine here."

The intellectual history of the area reaches back almost to the beginnings of New England's industrial revolution. In the 1840s, on a trip to America, Charles Dickens paid a visit to Lowell, where he made some unexpected discoveries: Many of the young New England farm women who came to the city to work in the textile mills subscribed to circulating libraries. And some of them were publishing a regular magazine called The Lowell Offering, which he wrote in his book American Notes "will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals."

There were other publications, too - The New England Offering, The Ladies' Pearl, and the Operatives' Magazine. The Lowell Lyceum held nightly lectures throughout the winter. The city, writes Arthur L. Eno Jr. in his collection of essays about Lowell's history, Cotton Was King, was "an enormous female academy."

Meanwhile, poet and Haverhill native John Greenleaf Whittier was living in Lowell and editing the newspaper The Middlesex Standard. In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe lectured in Lowell, where he fell in love with Mrs. Annie Richmond and wrote her passionate letters and the poem For Annie.

This cultural golden age was short-lived, however. By 1845, The Lowell Offering ceased publication; in the years that followed, Lowell's "mill girls," many of whom had antagonized their bosses by their campaign for a shorter workweek, were replaced by less educated Irish immigrants.

It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of Kerouac and the late Andre Dubus (father of Andre Dubus III), that the Merrimack Valley found itself again on the literary map. Although Kerouac is best known as the author of exuberant odes to the American landscape like On the Road and The Dharma Bums, his five Lowell novels mythologized the workaday Lowell neighborhoods of Centralville and Pawtucketville and made the city's French-Canadian patois an expressive language all its own. (With passages from the author's works chiseled into red granite, Jack Kerouac Park became part of downtown Lowell's permanent landscape in 1988.)

Meanwhile, Dubus, who lived in Haverhill and taught at the now shuttered Bradford College for many years, starting in the 1960s, chronicled the blue-collar world north of Boston in his short stories and novellas.

The reputations of Kerouac and Dubus helped inspire the current spurt of literary activity. Yet, at the same time, both writers cast long shadows, inspiring but also intimidating would-be successors who were afraid they would be compared unfavorably to them. The Merrimack Valley was "my father's Yoknapatawpha County," says his son, Andre Dubus III, a reference to the private fictional universe of William Faulkner's Mississippi. When then-aspiring writer Jay Atkinson first discovered Kerouac's On the Road while away at college in the 1970s, he was thrilled: "I thought, 'He is speaking to me.' And the guy was right down the street. It can be done!" Nonetheless, Atkinson scoured the Kerouac oeuvre for mentions of Methuen, Atkinson's hometown. There were none. He breathed a sigh of relief: Methuen, at least, was safe to write about.

All these writers have different relationships with the places in which they live and work - relationships influenced by their childhoods and their own literary preoccupations, relationships that continue to evolve.

From the window of Jane Brox's study adjoining her family's farm in Dracut, you can see apple orchards. There are blueberry fields and woods, too, where once was open land. Readers of Brox's books know every rock, every pine tree, every stone wall, how a field looks in winter, how it looked 50 years ago. "I live halfway between Kerouac and Frost" - five miles from Lowell and five miles from Lawrence - she says jokingly.

Brox was in her early 30s when she moved back to the farm in 1989. Not only did her parents need her to help out, but she also thought she would have more time to write and would be able to live less expensively than in Cambridge.

She had started writing the book that would become Here and Nowhere Else before moving back to the valley. Once she returned, she began to develop her subject matter - "the water-worn hills of this cultivated valley" - and to find her literary voice: eloquent, quiet, precise. Here and Nowhere Else is a memoir about the farm, her family, and the decline of agriculture in the area. In her second book, Five Thousand Days Like This One, she expands her canvas to the entire Merrimack Valley, trying to get at its essence from a variety of angles - history and immigrant life, the Lowell mills and the Lawrence "Bread and Roses" strike, the influenza epidemic of 1918, soils, trees, and Native American lore.

But Brox doesn't want to be viewed as too local. She insists that neither the farm nor the regional terrain is really what her books are about. She's trying to write about life, not just a place. "In the first book I was trying to capture something disappearing," she says. "In the second book, I looked at how time changes a place. I write about time and change."

In many ways, the Merrimack Valley is an ideal setting for Brox's kind of meditative writing. The area, she thinks, represents a speeded-up microcosm of American history. "Everything rose and declined very quickly here," she says. "But you can still find 'shells' of the old life - pastures in the middle of a wood, the mills in Lawrence. My father talked about how the place changed so enormously. The road in front of my house was a dirt road; now you can hear the sounds of commuters driving by for three hours every day. How fast the ways of life have been eclipsed! They are lost in time. There have been no voices to give them their due."

Brox has been determined to be that voice. Now, however, she's moving beyond the valley to write a series of essays about places like Halibut Point in Rockport; the salt marshes along the Massachusetts and New Hampshire coasts; and New Hampshire's Pemigewasset Wilderness. The collection, provisionally called Tumult and Peace, is about how our perceptions of place change over time. Her subjects are places that were once "worked" - quarried, logged, harvested - and are now to some extent protected. "Each book is pushing out a little further," she says.

Ironically, coming back home has made her a writer, which was only part of her original intention. These days, Brox no longer has anything to do with the running of the farm; after her father's death a few years ago, it was leased out. Now, in addition to her book of essays, she's busy working on a novel set in a fictionalized Merrimack Valley. "The more I have written," she says, "the more ambitious I am for writing."

Compared to Brox, whose Lebanese immigrant grandfather purchased the farm in 1900, Mary McGarry Morris is a relative newcomer to the valley. She's been there for only 30 years or so. But increasingly, the contrasts and the complexities of the valley are playing a role in her fiction.

Morris married into the Merrimack Valley. She grew up in the old marble quarrying town of Rutland, Vermont, the child of divorced parents. The summer after high school, while working as a waitress at a small hotel in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, she met her future husband, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst student and lawyer-to-be from Lawrence. For many years, she was an Andover housewife who was working on a novel that she kept secret from all but her husband and their five children.

Then, in 1988, when she was 45, the publication of Vanished - the story of a Vermont laborer and his teenage lover who kidnap a baby girl and spend five years on the road with her - gained her critical acclaim and nominations for the prestigious National Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner award.

Like Brox, Morris doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a Merrimack Valley writer. In fact, her first three novels are set largely in Vermont. It was only in her most recent novel, Fiona Range, which takes place in a Boston-area town much like Andover, that she ventured into the valley setting. "I think I have more of a New England take on things," she says. "I don't dwell on setting. I'm more interested in character."

Still, in all her books, Morris's characters are the marginal types who preoccupy so many Merrimack Valley writers - characters who inhabit the fringes of society, like Aubrey Wallace and Dotty Johnson, the two kidnappers in Vanished; outcasts like Martha Horgan of A Dangerous Woman; "bad girls" like Fiona Range.

And the contrast between posh Andover, where Morris lives in a rambling 1860s house surrounded by her children and grandchildren, and next-door Lawrence, with its fast-growing immigrant population, invigorates her life and her fiction. She and her husband, Michael Morris, lived in Lawrence when they were first married, and her husband practiced law there until moving his practice to Andover 12 years ago. Morris herself worked for the state welfare department in Lawrence for six years.

Of Lawrence, she says, "You go a few miles, and you are in a different culture. The city is so amazing. Its history is so amazing, with all the immigrants who began there. And it is still happening."

Lawrence makes a cameo appearance in Fiona Range (Morris calls the city Collerton). But it is in the novel that she is currently writing that the "upstairs-downstairs" Andover-Lawrence dichotomy plays a major role. The book concerns two brothers, one who is successful and lives in a town like Andover, while the other lives in the family home in a city modeled on Lawrence. "The contrast [between Andover and Lawrence] is tailor-made for this book," says Morris.

Beyond that, there is a darkness and pessimism apparent in so much of her work. Morris attributes this to her family and early environment. Yet there is something about her world view that seems to correspond with the long and difficult history of the Merrimack Valley as well. "Here, there is a sense of so much having happened before you," she says. "In these old towns and these old houses, people lived complicated lives. Today's tragedies happened 100 years ago."

Of the major Merrimack Valley writers, Andre Dubus III's relationship with his home ground is by far the most complicated. There is little positive in the 41-year-old Dubus's memories of trying to survive in tough working-class neighborhoods of the valley towns where he lived with his divorced mother in the 1970s. "My soul was fed by poverty and violence," he says. He describes attending his 20th Haverhill High School reunion: The first person he encountered was drunk, leering at Dubus's wife and telling him that he just got out of the prison in Walpole, where he had served time for armed robbery. Almost everyone Dubus met at the reunion, he recalls, was involved with the legal system - either as a prosecutor, a prison guard, or an ex-con.

"I avoided writing about the Merrimack Valley," he says. "The time and place were too depressing. I didn't want to revisit Haverhill, even imaginatively." Actually, he did write a novel set in Haverhill. But the book was never published. What remains is a short memory piece about alienated adolescents called "Tracks and Ties," which was chosen to appear in the Best American Essays of 1994. In the memoir, Dubus is living in New York City when he stumbles upon a newspaper article about three women in prison for killing their abusive husbands. As he reads on, he realizes that one of the men killed was his best friend in high school.

That essay - seven pages long - was all he salvaged from two years of writing. "The book had too much hate and anger in it," he says. After that attempt, he set his books further afield - Western Massachusetts and, in House of Sand and Fog, Northern California.

Still, no matter how much Dubus wanted to escape the Merrimack Valley, he has never quite been able to do so, either in life or in his fiction. As much as he would disparage where he grew up, a friend once told him that whenever he spoke about it, "there is nothing but love in your voice."

And even when he has set his books elsewhere, Merrimack Valley characters seem to have made the journey. In House of Sand and Fog, an exiled Iranian military officer under the shah and a woman named Kathy, a hard-living, recovering substance abuser from the East Coast, are involved in an emotional and legal battle over possession of a house in the San Francisco Bay area. Dubus says that Kathy is based on women he knew in the valley. "Every woman I went out with was like Kathy," he says.

And he admits that it's the valley that gave him his view of life. "It affected my vision of things," he says. "I was drawn toward marginal people. It helped increase my powers of compassion. I learned to expect hardship. Life isn't Starbucks and sunshine. Life is mills closing and trying to buy bread."

These days, Dubus lives in Newburyport, which he describes as the "sugariest town on the river," with his wife, who also grew up in the area, and their three children. The Newburyport of today doesn't feel like the Newburyport he remembers when he lived there at ages 12 and 13. These days, "it's Paris," he says. On Lime Street, just a couple of blocks away from where he now lives, he received the worst beatings of his life when he was a kid. Now his children walk there without fear.

For him the "real" Newburyport can be seen in a 1972 aerial photograph of the city that sits on the wall of a local restaurant. In the photo, 3-foot-high weeds cover Market Square where these days are fountains, gardens, and galleries. "Then it looked like Beirut," he points out, adding: "That photo, that's my memory of the place. It is deep psychic terrain."

Currently, he's writing a book that may turn out to be a novel or two or three novellas. He's not certain yet. There's one thing he is certain of, though: It will be set in the Merrimack Valley.

There are other voices in the valley, writers most people have never heard of, published by small local presses like the Loom Press in Lowell or in literary magazines like the Andover-based The Acre and Lowell-based Vyu. You can find some of them in the online magazine The Bridge Review (at www.floweringcity.org), based at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. In Andover, a group of some 25 poets hold readings and other events; Chelmsford's group of fiction writers meets at the local library.

Also fueling this "literary moment" are the bookstores. The Andover Bookshop has a regular reading series; the UMass/Lowell Barnes & Noble downtown bookstore - the site where Kerouac once held a book signing for The Town and the City - features readings and signings; so does the Barnes & Noble superstore in Salem, just over the New Hampshire line.

And then there are the immigrant writers, writers like Chath pierSath, a 30-year-old Cambodian poet writing in his Lowell apartment, unknown to other Cambodians, struggling in a language that isn't his own, and dreaming of becoming the next Kerouac. In one of a series of poems titled Letters to Jack Kerouac, he tells Lowell's most famous literary figure that he wants "to pick up where you left off," to describe Lowell "with my Cambodian nose sniffing the childhood you had lived."

PierSath came to the United States from Cambodia at age 10, at the end of Pol Pot's reign of terror, during which he lost both his parents. His "Letter to My Mother" appears in the anthology Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, compiled by Dith Pran, the Cambodian photojournalist portrayed in the film The Killing Fields. Mostly, he publishes his poetry in homemade chapbooks. Now, in a city with a large Cambodian population, he's looking to the future, contemplating a novel that incorporates both his native country and the Cambodian-American experience. "There is a lot to write about being a Cambodian here," says pierSath. "There are many stories that have yet to be told from our perspective."

The emergence of writers like Chath pierSath is heartening to Lowell poet Paul Marion, who, in addition to his anthology of Kerouac's unpublished work, has edited and published a collection of Franco-American writings called French Class, runs the Loom Press, and tries to promote the area's literary culture. Marion remembers the "dark ages" in the valley 25 years ago, when local writers were mostly invisible, when "you rarely read in the papers about somebody writing in Andover or Lowell like you do now."

Still, despite the current high level of literary activity, Marion says that, at least since the '50s, the Merrimack Valley has "lacked written narrative. Our generation needs to tell its story."

Now, with Brox documenting the region's past and present, with established writers like Dubus and Morris mining the local terrain, and with younger writers like pierSath gaining some notice, Marion sees strong indications that the Merrimack Valley is "on the cusp."

"We have the talent in place," he says. "The new economy is more stable here. So there is a more fertile field for a richer culture. And the newcomers represent an infusion of culture. What is interesting is where it will take us. What more will we see? Who is the next Kerouac? The next Robert Frost in Lawrence may be named Roberto. Who is going to tell the family stories of Puerto Ricans and Cambodians in the Merrimack Valley?"

Chath pierSath, for one, is ready to take up Marion's challenge. Whether his proposed novel turns out to be the Cambodian version of The Town and the City is anyone's guess. But if not, with the speed that writers are springing up in the Merrimack Valley these days, someone else is likely to do something similar. That's part of the excitement of living in the midst of a "literary moment," too. In a 1999 poem addressed to Kerouac, pierSath intones defiantly in what could almost be an anthem for a new generation:

Look here, straight at my meek eyes,
My gentle face you need to memorize
Remember this that Lowell is mine like it is yours
...In Lowell, together we rise.

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