Jean-Louis Lebris de (Jack) Kerouac (1922-1969), American writer, experimented with spontaneous autobiographical fiction chronicling his travels into the American West. He is known as the father of the Beat Generation.
Rambling. Wandering. Overflowing. Like his fiction, Jack Kerouac covered a great deal of territory in a short period of time. Known as the father of the Beat Generation, Kerouac's freewheeling life on the road and his chronicles of that life paved the way for the youth counter-culture of the 1960s.
Born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was the son of a French-Canadian printer. Kerouac, who wanted to be a writer from his earliest childhood, did not speak a word of English until he was five years old. He had an older brother, Gerard, who died at age nine, and an older sister Caroline. At age 11 Kerouac began writing adolescent novels and fictionalized newspaper accounts of horse racing, football, and baseball.
A gifted athlete, Kerouac was recruited by Columbia University for the football team. At age 17 he went off to Horace Mann High School in New York to boost his grades and his weight in preparation for Columbia. In 1940 Kerouac arrived at Columbia. In his second game as a freshman Kerouac returned a kick 90 yards, but on his next return he broke his leg. The injury freed him to pursue his true passion—literature.
During this period, Kerouac once bragged, he set a Columbia record for cutting classes. The young writer studied the rolling style of Thomas Wolfe and plunged deep into the New York street scene. In 1941, his leg healed, Kerouac had a falling out with Columbia's football coach. When he left school Jack Kerouac took his first road trip, to Washington, D.C.
Kerouac pumped gas for a while in Connecticut, where his family had moved; worked briefly as a sports reporter for the Lowell Sun when his family returned there; and found himself a scullion on the S. S. DORCHESTER bound for Greenland. Two days after that trip Kerouac was back at Columbia for a second, short stay. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but was honorably discharged as a discipline problem after six months. Kerouac spent the war years working as a merchant seaman and hanging around Columbia with free-thinking Bohemians, including William Burroughs, Lucian Carr, Edie Parker, and Allen Ginsburg. He wrote two novels during the war, The Sea Is My Brother and And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, with Burroughs.
Kerouac married Parker in 1944, but the marriage broke up after two months. His father died in 1946, and in 1947 Kerouac found his guiding light—Neal Cassady.
Cassady's reputation among the New York crowd was of mythical proportions. Mad genius, admired by women, car thief, Cassady visited New York and had Kerouac give him writing lessons. When Cassady returned to Denver, Kerouac followed. After a few weeks in Denver with Cassady, Kerouac wandered into California. During the next four years he travelled throughout the West. When not on the road, he worked on his novel The Town and The City in New York. The novel was published in 1950.
Now married to Joan Haverty, a woman he knew only a few days before proposing, Kerouac began to experiment with a more spontaneous writing style. He wanted to write the way he lived: once and with no editing. In April 1951 Kerouac threaded a huge roll of teletype paper into his typewriter and wrote the single 175,000-word paragraph that was to be On The Road. The more than 100-foot scroll was written in three weeks but took more than seven years to be published.
On The Road chronicles the travels of Dean Moriarity—a Cassady figure—and Sal Paradise—Kerouac as narrator. They travel from New York to Denver, San Francisco, and Mexico City. In it, Sal, the Eastern college square, absorbs the meaning of the West and Kerouac carves out his legacy as a writer and immortalizes the philosophy of the Beat Generation.
On The Road, which despite Kerouac's attempts at spontaneity took shape over a period of three and a half years, was written in at least five different versions. There are three in print. On The Road was the fourth version; Pic, written in 1950 and published after Kerouac's death, was the third; and Visions of Cody, written in 1951-1952, was the final version. The author's changing image of what it means to be on the road can also be applied to his view of what it means to be a writer. In its first version, the road is a specific place. In the second, it is a symbol, and in the final three versions the road is a mix of the imaginative and the real.
The episodic, apparently rambling, prose of On The Road instills its characters with a disdain for established values and a romantic code born out of the West. Sal and Neal are "performing our one noble function of the time, move." And with movement comes wisdom and meaning in a repressive society.
In the time between writing On The Road and its publication Kerouac took numerous exhausting road trips, ended his second marriage, fell into great depression and drug and alcohol addiction, and did his most ambitious experimentation with the narrative form. Always after spontaneity, Kerouac wrote in great bursts of athletic energy—writing complete works through all-night, week-long binges. In 1952 he wrote Visions of Cody, Dr. Sax, and "October in Railroad Earth." In 1953 he completed Maggie Cassidy (a romantic tale of his teenage days), The Subterraneans, and a statement of his writing principles, "The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." In 1955 Kerouac wrote Mexico City Blues and Tristessa, and in 1956 he wrote Visions of Gerard, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and Old Angel Midnight as well as book one of Desolation Angels.
When On The Road was published, Kerouac became an instant celebrity and spokesman for the Beat Generation. He handled the notoriety poorly. As a spokesman he was contrary and unintelligible. He often appeared drunk, and interviews frequently dissolved into didactic arguments. In 1958 he wrote The Dharma Bums as a commercial followup to On The Road, but then fell silent for four years before writing again. By 1960 Kerouac was a sick and dying alcoholic; he suffered a nervous breakdown.
Again remarried, Kerouac died of a massive abdominal hemorrhage on October 21, 1969, with a pad in his lap and pen in his hand. He was buried in the family plot near Lowell, Massachusetts.
Further Reading on Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac
Tom Clark's Jack Kerouac (1984) is an extremely thorough biography of the author's life, but is short on criticism of Kerouac's work. A helpful package is On The Road, Text and Criticism, edited by Scott Donaldson (1979). In addition to the novel, the package includes a number of insightful articles, including pieces by Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, Timothy Hunt, and the transcript of an interview with the author by Ted Berrigan. Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac (1960) is a collection of autobiographical pieces, useful for their style as much as for their content. Jack Kerouac by Harry Russell Huebel (1979) is a quick biography, and Jack's Book, An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee (1978) is also interesting.