Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969), also known as “King of the Beatniks” and “Father of the Hippies,” was an American writer, poet, artist, and novelist. He is most famous for his simple, confessional, and meandering writing style that describes his nomadic travel experiences captured throughout his novels, especially On the Road.
Early on in his college days, Kerouac embraced a bohemian lifestyle that lead him to take drug-fueled cross-country trips. He notes in his personal writings and in his novels that he rejected the values of the time and was seeking to break free from society’s restraints. These practices no doubt led to his life-long addictions and habitual drug use, including psilocybin and LSD. He also rejected traditional ideas about spirituality, and devoted time to studying Buddhism.
Kerouac often wrote of every person and place he encountered as being holy. Yet while his writings were suffused with religious imagery, it was usually stained with decadence. Perhaps he was searching for God, but the holiness he sought for himself was not contingent on any kind of morality. He instead resonated with the moral vacuum of his times and became one with it. His flirtation with Buddhism was a superficial one; he required drugs to understand it. His friends Gary Snyder and Alan Watts, on the other hand, were serious students of Buddhism and their lives were positively affected by it. None of the personal influences in his life helped him to understand that genuine spirituality is achieved only through disciplined efforts.
Jack Kerouac’s books and poems have often been referred to as the catalyst for the 1960 counterculture revolution. Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and others, have publicly testified to Kerouac’s influence on them.
His life story, as much as any figure from his time, is a testament to the results of a confused ideology that seeks spirituality with no moral boundaries to guide it.
Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922 with the given name of Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. He was the third and final child of Leo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, working-class immigrants from Quebec, Canada. Jack’s father ran a print shop and published the Spotlight magazine. This early exposure to publishing, printing, and the written word piqued Kerouac’s already growing interest in the literary world. At the age of four, Kerouac’s elder brother, Gérard, was stricken with rheumatic fever and died at the age of nine. The family, and especially Jack, was heartbroken. Jack believed that from that time on Gerard served as his guardian angel, and followed him throughout his life. This belief, along with his memories of his beloved brother, inspired him to write his book Visions of Gerard.
Nevertheless, his family’s traditional Catholic values began to fall by the wayside. His brother’s death seemed to make him and his father angry at God and religion. When the relationship between Jack and his father began to deteriorate, that anger in Jack turned into rage and rebellion. He went from a strong Catholic upbringing to a lifestyle of no moral boundaries.
Kerouac grew up speaking a dialect of French-Canadian known as joual. He spoke English as a second language and didn’t begin learning it until he was almost six years old. Kerouac played sports extensively, liked to take long hikes, and wrote little diaries and short stories. He was a sociable child who made friends easily, but his main companion during his youth and adulthood was the constant notebook he would carry with him wherever he went. He loved to write letters that were peppered with details about thoughts he was having, current world situations, and the actions of his daily life. He says his early desires to write were inspired by the radio show “The Shadow” and the writings of Thomas Wolfe, whose style he modeled in his first novel.
Education was an important part of Kerouac’s early life, but he soon lost interest in its formalities. He was a very bright student who skipped the sixth grade. He went to high school in Lowell, Massachusetts, the Horace Mann School for Boys, and then, in 1939 he attended Columbia University in New York City. Kerouac was a star athlete who earned a football scholarship from Columbia. By the time he finished high school he knew that he wanted to be a writer so he deliberately skipped classes at Columbia to stay in his room and write. His disenchantment with college increased when he broke his leg at the beginning of the football season during his freshman year and as he continually had disagreements with his coach about playing time.
When Kerouac left Columbia in 1941, his budding wanderlust led him to join the merchant marines in 1942, and in February 1943 he enlisted in the United States Navy. He was discharged from the Navy while still in boot camp on psychiatric grounds for “indifferent disposition.”
He returned to New York after his discharge and sought refuge with his former girlfriend Edie Parker. They married in 1944 and while living in a small apartment he met and formed strong bonds with Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs. These three men, more than any other people in Kerouac’s life, influenced him, inspired him, and were the subjects of many of his writings. Their influence included experimentation with religious practices, sexual preferences, and hallucinogenic drugs.
These men were to become his traveling partners as he roamed the United States. It was the experiences Kerouac had while living and traveling with these men that led him to describe his friends and his generation as the so-called Beat Generation. In a conversation with novelist John Clellon Holmes in 1948, Kerouac commented on his generation by saying, “Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation.” Holmes wrote an article in The New York Times shortly thereafter entitled “This is the Beat Generation,” and the name stuck.
While he was still working on his breakthrough novel On the Road his marriage to Edie Parker was annulled and he remarried in 1950, this time to Joan Haverty. Not long after Kerouac finished his manuscript in 1951, Haverty threw him out and filed for divorce, despite being pregnant with Kerouac’s daughter.
Just as Burroughs and Cassady were Kerouac’s mentors in his young adulthood, Gary Snyder took this role later in Kerouac’s life. The Dharma Bums details Kerouac’s newfound devotion to Buddhism and his traveling adventures with Snyder. The main character in the novel is based on Gary Snyder’s personality and his ideas. Snyder’s influence went beyond Jack Kerouac’s writings and into his personal life when he took a job as a fire lookout for several months because Snyder recommended taking time to be with nature. Kerouac gives an account of that summer, which was a difficult one for him, in his novel, Desolation Angels. Snyder spent more than a decade studying Zen Buddhism in the Japan and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his poetry collection “Turtle Island.” Kerouac’s novel Big Sur is based on the time spent with the Episcopalian priest turned Zen Buddhist scholar Alan Watts. Big Sur is considered his last great novel.
With the acclaim of On the Road, Jack Kerouac soon became a household celebrity. Ironically, this rise to fame led to a rapid downward spiral in his personal life. Kerouac (the book character) and Kerouac (the conservative Catholic) came into severe conflict and his drinking and drug use intensified. He was uneasy and unhappy.
He moved in with his mother and she continued to live with him for the rest of his life. Just three years before he died he married Stella Sampas, the sister of his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas, who died fighting in Europe during World War II. They continued to live with his mother Gabrielle. He continued to write after Big Sur, but the writings were sad and slower and showed a very disconnected soul. As his depression and drunkenness worsened, Kerouac became reclusive, staying at home, playing with the same deck of cards, and giving up all of his Buddhist beliefs and replacing them with the devout Catholicism of his mother.
Kerouac was rushed to St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, on October 20, 1969. He died the following day from an internal hemorrhage that was the result of cirrhosis of the liver. He had been experiencing severe abdominal pain in direct relation to a life of heavy alcoholism and drug use. He was buried in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.
In 1985 John Antonelli made a documentary film called Kerouac, the Movie that shows rare footage of reading from On the Road and “Visions of Cody” from The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1957.
On May 22, 2001, Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts professional football team, bought the original “On the Road” manuscript for $2.2 million at Christies Auction House in New York City. In 2002 the New York Public Library acquired a major portion of the remaining Kerouac archives that included letters, journals, notebooks, and other manuscripts.
Kerouac’s first novel was The Town and the City, published in 1950. Kerouac’s father died in his arms in 1946, and he began writing the book almost immediately after his death. The novel, like all of Kerouac’s novels, was autobiographical, and told of the decline of his own family.
The whole family never really recovered from Gerard’s death. His mother fell back on her Catholicism to deal with it while his father rejected it. He refused to attend mass, claiming the church was no more than a business organization out for a profit. His son’s death, and the subsequent failure of his business and then Jack’s departure from Columbia left Leo bitter. His relationship with Jack soured as he called him a “bum,” and called his friends “dope fiends, crooks and “misfits.” His life became chain smoking, drinking, and gambling.
Kerouac’s parents had moved from Lowell, Massachusetts to Queens, New York when Kerouac enrolled in Columbia University. The novel dealt with Kerouac’s mixed feelings about the decline of his parent’s small town values and his own increasingly wild lifestyle in the city. It received brief critical acclaim, but Kerouac always thought of it as a failure. It was patterned after the style of his favorite author, Thomas Wolfe. It was not until Kerouac’s second novel that he put his own revolutionary stamp on his writings.
In 1951 Kerouac took the ideas from various brief writings and decided to come at those ideas from another direction. He sat down to write and in just three weeks he created what would eventually be his biggest success, On the Road. He didn’t sleep, he barely ate, and his main fuel was an amalgam of Benzedrine, a widely-abused commercial version of the stimulant amphetamine and coffee (caffeine). In this manic state Jack taped together long strips of Japanese drawing paper that formed a roll that could be fed continuously through his typewriter. The finished work was one paragraph with no punctuation marks. He said that he was writing the way that Neal Cassady spoke, “in a rush of madness with no mental hesitation.”
Kerouac’s initial efforts to get it published were rejected because of the odd and unfamiliar writing style, as well as its favorable portrayal of minority and marginalized social groups. After six years of attempts, Viking Press finally purchased On the Road, but he had to agree to clean up the more explicit passages..
The year 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the first publishing of On the Road. To celebrate this milestone, the book is scheduled to be re-released by Viking Press in its original uncensored form, with text taken straight from the original scroll.
On the Road is an autobiographical account of Kerouac’s road trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady. The main character, Sal Paradise, is modeled after Kerouac and the character of Dean Moriarty was created from the experiences and letters of Neal Cassady. Kerouac’s novel is the defining work of the Beat Generation.
Kerouac’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, defined a generation. Kerouac also wrote and narrated a “Beat” movie entitled Pull My Daisy in 1958. He wrote many of his novels during the 1950s, yet none of them were published during that time. It was only when he and his friends began to get a group of followers in San Francisco that the publishers began to take any notice of Kerouac’s writing. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder were underground celebrities because of their constant poetry readings. This led to the eventual publication of On the Road as well The Dharma Bums, which many have dubbed the sequel to On the Road.
One of the most famous sentences ever penned by Kerouac is “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” This quote from On the Road demonstrates what Kerouac called his original technique of “spontaneous prose.”
His style is similar to the “stream of consciousness” technique. His motto was “First thought=best thought,” and thus many of his books, including On the Road, Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur, and The Subterraneans, were written in a matter of weeks, instead of years like his some of his contemporaries. Kerouac claimed that this style was greatly influenced by the exploding jazz era of his time. More specifically, it was the effect of the bebop genre established by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others that gave feeling and mood to much of Kerouac’s writings.
Kerouac’s writing centered around the idea of breath (borrowed from jazz and from Buddhist meditation). Connected to this idea also came a disdain for the full stop or period, instead he would much rather use a long dash that he felt gave his writings a sense of connectedness. This prolific use of dashes caused his works, when read aloud, to sound as if they had their own unique rhythm. Thus his works were compared to the lyrics and music of jazz.
Unlike many writers who liked to keep their methods and ideas secret, Kerouac never tired of talking about his inspiration and his style. Often influenced by drugs and alcohol, Kerouac could talk to anyone for hours about how he wrote and why he wrote. These indiscretions were frowned upon by Ginsberg, who felt that Kerouac’s drunken openness would make it more difficult for him to sell his work to a publisher. Nevertheless, Kerouac decided to write down his method for anyone who wanted to know how write like him. The most specific directions he gave on his spontaneous prose can be found in [“Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.”
Although Kerouac made a name for himself during his lifetime, he had many critics. Among them were Truman Capote, who described Kerouac’s quick writing ability by saying, “That’s not writing, it’s typewriting.”
It is a fact, however, that although his initial draft may have been spontaneous, he did spend days perfecting many of his writings. This is most likely attributed to the fact that Kerouac was constantly trying to get his work published during the 1950s and thus trying to adjust to various publishers’ standards. Kerouac documented his struggles, his revisions, and his disappointments in a vast number of letters he wrote that were also written in his Spontaneous Prose style.