As a teenager, Mike Millner ’90 was enthralled by the writing of Jack Kerouac, author of the novel On the Road and a leading figure of the Beat Generation, a 1950s literary movement that rejected materialism in favor of a quest for spiritual and sensory experiences. “You read Kerouac and the Beats when you’re young, and they’re inspiring,” Millner says. “They give you a sense of freedom and motivation to go out and see the world.”
Now a professor of American literature at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Millner directs the institution’s Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities, which he calls “the most comprehensive archive in the world” of the writer’s work — a collection that Millner helped UMass Lowell secure.
Millner majored in English at Princeton and then earned a doctorate in American literature from the University of Virginia. His early scholarship focused on the 19th century, and he reengaged with Kerouac’s work only in 2007 when he took a job in Lowell, where Kerouac was born and grew up.
Though Kerouac left Lowell as a teenager, his archives were still in the city, a former mill town 30 minutes northwest of Boston. Stella Sampas, Kerouac’s wife when he died in 1969, was also from Lowell, and the archives stayed in the family, coming under the control of her brother, John, after Stella’s death in 1990.
John Sampas had stayed in Lowell, where “he took this disorganized archive and made it into something that was intellectually important,” Millner says. As Millner describes in Kerouac's “Archive Fever at One Hundred,” an essay he published in the Missouri Review last year, Sampas zealously guarded the archive and promoted Kerouac’s work. When Kerouac died, Millner says, “He wasn’t a popularly read writer,” and his work wasn’t of much interest to academics. But thanks largely to Sampas, four volumes of the Library of America are now devoted to Kerouac’s work.
In 2013, Sampas told UMass Lowell that he was willing to give it some objects from the house in St. Petersburg, Florida, that Kerouac owned and in which he died. Millner and his colleague Todd Tietchen flew down with Sampas.
“It was this crazy trip that was profound,” Millner says. “We were going with John, who was a character. He was a little mean, but he could be filled with kindness and joy.”
In the following years, Millner forged a relationship with Sampas, who sold off chunks of the archive but made copies of everything he sold. Sampas also collected newspapers, magazine articles, essays, photographs, and sound recordings related to Kerouac.
In the last years of Sampas’ life, “he started thinking more about the city, and the university is a big part of the city,” Millner says. “He didn’t really trust the administration, but he did come to trust Todd and me and a couple of other people at the institution.”
When Sampas died in 2017, he left UMass Lowell an archive of about 110 banker’s boxes full of folders and papers that students have cataloged. An authorized biography of Kerouac, by Holly George-Warren, based on the archives is due out in 2025.
“The construction of 20th-century literary history we’re making now, and Kerouac will be part of that history in large part because of John Sampas,” Millner says.