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100 years after his birth, the road brings Kerouac back to Lowell

Part of the original scroll that Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road" is displayed at Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell. Pictured next to it are Jim Sampas (left), Kerouac's nephew and literary executor of Kerouac's estate, and Jim Canary, the scroll's conservator.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A century after his birth in Lowell, the city is hosting a yearlong celebration of Jack Kerouac, one of the foremost voices of the Beat Generation.

To kick off Kerouac@100, a free, special exhibit is on view through April 15 at the Lowell National Historical Park’s Boott Cotton Mills Museum. It traces the life and work of the author, who was born in Lowell on March 12, 1922, and died in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1969.

“Visions of Kerouac” features many artifacts, including part of the original 120-foot scroll on which Kerouac wrote his magnum opus, “On the Road.”

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The celebration will continue this year with a youth poetry slam, concerts, lectures, and the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival Oct. 6-10.

“On the Road” launched Kerouac into stardom when it was published by Viking Press in 1957. A review in the New York Times called him the voice of a new generation.

Lowell-born Beat writer Jack Kerouac is known his book "On the Road." Photo by Tom Palumbo, courtesy of the Jack Kerouac Estate

The novel was a breakthrough at the time for its stream-of-consciousness style. The manuscript on display was written during a three-week session of spontaneous confessional prose, and is based on his travels with friends a decade earlier around America.

“Jack was such a keen observer of landscape and people and detail and could then recall that and put it down, and I think people read it and they are inspired to do their own kind of explorative trip,” said Jim Canary, conservator of the scroll.

The scroll is on loan from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, while the rest of the exhibit items come from the UMass Lowell Kerouac Center and the Kerouac estate.

Canary, who has brought the scroll to 26 locations under special security and environmental conditions, believes Kerouac’s writing resonates with people.

“You just never tire of it, and I think it has to do with that style of writing he created. It’s quite honest and I think that’s why people gravitate toward it,” said Jim Sampas, Kerouac’s nephew and the literary executor of Kerouac’s estate.

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The scroll is encased in glass in the middle of the exhibit, surrounded by photos and other artifacts.

“‘On The Road’ is the showcase of the exhibit, and having it there in front of you, you can almost feel the kinetic energy coming out of it,” said Sampas.

Photographs by John Suiter depict Lowell, as well as Mexico and the North Cascades mountains in Washington State, where Kerouac traveled. Also on display are pictures of Kerouac and his friends taken by one of them, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, along with a few original paintings and drawings by Kerouac.

“The flow of it is quite beautiful, the way they sort of bring you through the personal as you walk right in,” said Sampas. “You’re getting a really honest Jack.”

Ginsberg and Kerouac developed their voices together, writing hundreds of letters to one another and even appearing in each other’s work, according to Mike Millner, cocurator of the exhibit and vice president of the Jack Kerouac Foundation.

“There were any number of other creative people that were part of a scene in New York and San Francisco and Denver ... that doesn’t really exist anymore in the literary world,” said Millner.

On the far wall, a photo can be seen of Ginsberg and Bob Dylan kneeling over Kerouac’s grave in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery. Another photo shows his grave laden with empty whiskey bottles and lottery tickets left by his fans.

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“Visions of Kerouac” is open daily at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, 115 John St., from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more details, visit nps.gov/lowe/index.htm.

"Visions of Kerouac" at Boott Cotton Mills Museum celebrates the centennial of the birth of writer Jack Kerouac .Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Part of the original scroll that Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road" is on display at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum at the Lowell National Historic Park. The scroll is on loan from Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts of the NFL.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Grace Gilson can be reached at grace.gilson@globe.com.