A decade earlier, his On the Road influenced The Doors' Jim Morrison, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 27. Before "Light My Fire" and "People Are Strange," Morrison lived in Clearwater,
Last month a newly formed organization calling itself The City of Writers gathered at the Poynter Institute to name Kerouac and Morrison as two of the first five honorees in its City of Writers Hall of Fame.
The idea for starting a hall of fame for writers with St. Pete connections came from conversations between Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter, and his close friend Tom Hallock, professor of literature at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus.
Clark, who began his writing career in 1979 with the St. Petersburg Times, early on was asked to write an article about Kerouac on the tenth anniversary of his death. The experience left a vivid impression.
"It's an odd and strange fact that Kerouac died in what at one time was called 'The City of the Newly Wed and Nearly Dead,'" said Clark.
It was the seed that only took 30 years to germinate, as he and Professor Hallock argued over who else would be Hall-of-Fame-worthy.
From Kerouac, Clark thought of Morrison, who though more famous for his songs than his poetry, was a serious writer. When Clark learned that Morrison had gone to Clearwater High School, St. Pete Junior College, and FSU, he wondered: Where are the plaques? Where are the monuments? But there were — and are — none. The conservative city governments have refused to acknowledge the achievements of a man known for his iconoclastic nature and ribald lyrics.
For other recipients Clark looked to Eckerd College, which over the years has hosted a number of famed writers who came to St. Petersburg to teach. Among the best known was John Hope Franklin, whose landmark history From Slavery to Freedom was one of the first to tell the truth about the black experience.
Franklin, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 94, was chosen for the Hall of Fame, Clark said, because he was a stickler for the truth.
"I connect Franklin to Kerouac and Morrison," said Clark. "He was a historian who was riding and writing on the edges. He was seeing stuff conventional historians weren't seeing. He understood it as a black man in America, and he was saying and writing things at that point that were very hard to say or write. You had to read Communist Party publications to get that."
The fourth honoree, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was included, not just for her Florida roots and her classic novels The Yearling and Cross Creek, but because there's an elementary school founded in 1992 in St. Petersburg named after her with a curriculum devoted to writing.
"The school still exists, still does very, very good work," said Clark.
The fifth honoree, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, was one of the first Europeans to set foot in Florida, landed in Tampa Bay in 1528 and was only one of four survivors of his 600-man expedition. He was also a first-rate journalist, recording the flora and fauna and anything else he observed.
"He was enlightened," said Clark. "He wrote about everything he saw in these crazy journeys from Cuba to the Gulf of Mexico to Texas and back to Spain... My God, he was the first tourist, the first anthropologist, first travel writer."
Who is under consideration for future inductions? Zora Neale Hurston, who died penniless in Fort Pierce, Florida; Carl Hiaasen; St. Petersburg poet laureate (and CL contributor) Peter Meinke; novelist Dennis Lehane and crime thriller writer Michael Connelly; James Michener and Elie Wiesel (both of whom taught at Eckerd); sportswriter Fred Lieb; novelists Dexter Filkins, Jim Swain and Sterling Watson; and a number of journalists connected to the St. Petersburg Times including Rick Bragg, Dick Bothwell, and Pulitzer Prize winners Tom French, Ann Hull and David Finkel. And there are plenty of others, including writers like Red Smith, who covered baseball over the years.
Why a writers' hall of fame? I asked.
"Why just have these occasional starbursts that are meteors that crash into St. Petersburg?" Clark replied. "Why not see it as a constellation, that it represents a history, a continuing culture, a growing culture?"
Find a bibliography of St. Pete writers at cltampa.com/arts.
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