Facebook Fauxlore: Kerouac, Burroughs, and a Fight Over the Oxford Comma That Never Was

If something is shared, printed, or said enough times, it might never become true, but it does become real.
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kerouacplaque.jpg

Perhaps you've seen this plaque on the Internet. It's been liked thousands of times on Facebook and passed around all kinds of social media networks.

Maybe you love it. You should love it, I would venture. I mean, could the story get any better? Two literary icons, getting wasted in the Lowell night, and brawling over the Oxford comma, that most loathed/loved grammatical affectation. (I support the comma, if you must know.)

But it's not just the incident itself, but the aftermath: we imagine Burroughs grabbing the policemen's pen, lucid as a shaman, and then plopping onto the grass, out cold.

AND THEN the good people of Lowell have the sense to preserve the artifact of the police report in the historical archives at the Mogan Center there in downtown Lowell.

It's just too good.

And it is, in fact, too good.

Because Dr. Sax was written in 1959. The incident supposedly occurred in 1968. And (I looked, just in case), there is no mention of any such incident in Dr. Sax. Tony Sampas, an archivist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and a local Kerouac expert, also said that Kerouac and Burroughs hadn't even met by the time of the events recounted in Dr. Sax, and that furthermore, to his knowledge, Burroughs had never even been to Lowell.*

Curious, very curious.

My quest to track down the provenance of the story began when I tried to pin it to a map for a forthcoming project we're doing with the design podcast 99% Invisible called (appropriately) Read the Plaque.

Someone sent an image of the plaque to me, and I tried to locate where it might be. I searched for Lowell Athenaeum. What comes up is the Boston Athenaeum, about which Amy Lowell wrote a poem (thanks, Google). And there is an under-construction website at LowellAthenaeum.org. But that's all.

So, not knowing the pub date of Dr. Sax and imagining the plaque was legit, I went to the other location mentioned in the plaque, the Mogan Center, which is run by the National Park Service. Their curators were out of town, but they referred me to Martha Mayo, head of the Center for Lowell History. She'd never heard of the plaque, nor seen reference to it anywhere. She referred me to Sampas.

Sampas, for his part, had seen the plaque on Facebook, Googled around a bit, but when his initial searches came up empty, wrote it off. When I got back in touch with him, he started to fill me in on the problems with the plaque's chronology and overall plausibility. Nonetheless, after we got off the line, he dug a little deeper.

He got in touch with Paul Marion, who works at UMass Lowell in the Arts and Ideas Center, who had, in fact, seen the plaque with his own two eyes. The plaque was created, Marion said, to promote the quite lovely and insane rehab of a building known as Mill #5 in Lowell.

Our Facebook sensation wasn't hanging on a wall, but in an office at Mill #5, Marion told Sampas.

And as proof, he offered up an April article about the building from the Boston Globe. And there, in the 13th paragraph, was proof that we were looked at a false sign: "Inside the entry hall will be a reconstructed early 19th-century New England schoolhouse," the Globe wrote, "an exhibit that will be part of what Valhouli calls the Lowell Atheneum [AHA!], which will also feature a collection of hand-painted pseudo-historical plaques from New England history [DOUBLE AHA!]."

As Sampas put it, "It's a hoax, a Fakelore creation, perpetrated by one Constantine Valhouli to promote a building rehab called Mill #5 here in Lowell."

Fakelore!

mill5.jpg
Mill Number 5 (Mikeal St Ayre)

I had to get in touch with this Valhouli character, who was, no doubt, swirling his mustache near some railroad tracks looking for damsels. I called his phone. Straight to voicemail. And then sent him an email letting him know that the jig was up. And that I had some questions.

While I waited, I went to the Mill #5 Facebook page to see if it was, in fact, the original source of the image that I'd seen shared.

It was. On November 20, 2012, we find the photo sitting innocently there with the tagline, "A bit of history for you." As of this writing, it had received 3,683 likes and 2,544 shares. I've also seen just the image shared widely on Twitter and Tumblr and had it sent to me for our plaques project.

From previous experience with our own viral hits, I'd say at least tens of thousands of people have seen this image, maybe into the six digits.

Of the 320 comments on the original plaque, only five questioned its veracity. Five! Congratulations Tracy White Wendland, Bill Hennigan, Diane Gaw, Thomas Dorman, and Michael Mazzenga. You were not taken in.

As I finished reading the many paeans to Kerouac, Burroughs, and the comma, Valhouli responded, downright merrily.

The "fauxlore" project, as he called it, was merely one small part of the massive redevelopment of the Mill #5 building in Lowell, the culmination of a decade of collecting salvage and rescuing historic buildings. "We wanted people to realize that there was overlooked value in these buildings that were being demolished," he said. "So the entire inside of the mill is composed of these rescued historic buildings, re-arranged an an interior streetscape."

In keeping with the idea of novel remixes of historical things, he and his collaborator in fauxlore and real estate development, Jim Lichoulas III, decided to create a series of plaques commemorating events that never happened. The Kerouac plaque came together over night filled with Dark and Stormies in New York's East Village. Valhouli was living across the street from Allan Ginsberg's old apartment, which was commemorated with a blue plaque.

"Which got me to thinking: he was probably not the best tenant at the time he was living here," he said. Among the salty old-timers of Lowell, Kerouac himself didn't have the best reputation either. "They're always like, 'He was a fucking drunk.' or 'He hit on my daughter,'" Valhouli said. "No one around here is impressed."

So they came up with a scenario that paid homage to both the local Kerouac and the internationally renowned writer Kerouac. In the anecdote, he's a rambunctious drunk who cares about language and pals around with the literary icons of his generation.

Then they got Robert and Judy Leonard of Ould Colony Artisan, who have painted many historical signs across New England, to hand paint the placard. That part is authentic.

Why'd they choose Dr. Sax in which to plant the fake story?

"Because everyone claims to have read it, but no one actually seems to have."

And why the Oxford comma, out of all the possible pitched battles dueling grammarians fight?

"It seemed like the perfect was to highlight the difference between the two Beat writers - one with a more formal writing background, the other an autodidact who was comfortable playing around with grammar and structure in ways that might make Strunk & White either cringe or cheer," Valhouli said. "Plus, we wanted to give a nod to Vampire Weekend [who wrote a song called 'Oxford Comma']. And to the forgotten duel in which the astronomer Tycho Brahe lost the tip of his nose -- people forget that it was with his cousin, over a mathematical formula."

He concluded, "People just don't duel enough these days over such things."

For Valhouli, the point of the fauxlore project is to "raise awareness of some of the interesting aspects of New England's history, and also to poke gentle fun at the often dry manner in which it is presented." That is to say, history is awesome, but the study of history often is not.

Even if Burroughs and Kerouac never brawled at Mill #5, the history of the site remains interesting and important. Entrepreneur Nathan Appleton built it as part of Lowell's emergence as a water-powered textile manufacturing powerhouse in the first half of the 19th century. It was one of the most famous towns in the Western hemisphere as a model for a distinctively American response to the horrors of British factory life. If it didn't always succeed, Lowell was at least an attempt to create a better, cleaner kind of industrial capitalism.

mill5LOC.jpg
The turbine room at Mill #5 (Library of Congress).

After the mills closed, the town fell on hard times. Buildings were abandoned. Appleton's descendants prospered. They included Warhol-muse Edie Sedgwick, Valhouli said.

That last connection makes the sign's success on the Internet even more appropriate. Warhol's obsession with reproduction and the mutations that occur when we copy and copy something could not look more prescient. We live in a world where thousands of people duplicated a fiction about a mill site built by a forefather of the muse of Warhol Factor. For tens of thousands of people, the fiction about this space in the world became far better known than any real historical information about Appleton's mill.

On its own, the sign is nothing: a joke between friends. But stick it on the Internet, reproduce it thousands of times, and it becomes something else entirely.

You can't take a good story back. Now, henceforth, Mill #5 will always be the place where the fight between Burroughs and Kerouac didn't happen.

I don't think I have to spell out the fact that many, many other supposed facts on the web are also fictions, and they get their power the same way as the Kerouac plaque: they're perfect stories reproduced into existence.

If something is shared, printed, or said enough times, it might never become true, but it does become real.

* With input from Sampas, I clarified the Burroughs-Kerouac chronology in this paragraph.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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