Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts , into a working-class French-Canadian family on March 12, 1922. He spoke only French until he was seven years old. Kerouac was an imaginative boy, who wrote his own newspapers, radio plays, and novels. He excelled in his school studies and developed into a gifted athlete. A football scholarship took him to Columbia University in New York City. Things did not work out there as well as he had hoped. He broke his leg the first season, and in 1941 he spent much of the season arguing with his coach.
By that time, World War II (1939–45) was in full swing, and Kerouac struggled with what he considered a national shift in morals brought about by the war. He left college to join the U.S. Merchant Marine. He returned to New York in 1942 but soon left again to join the U.S. Navy . He had difficulty with the military's discipline, and also spent time in the psychiatric ward of Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland . He left the Navy with an honorable discharge for “indifferent character” and returned to New York City.
Dawn of the Beats
In 1943, Kerouac met and befriended William Burroughs (1914–1997) and Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), two published writers who, along with Kerouac, would form the core of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg was just seventeen when he met Kerouac; Burroughs was several years older than both men. He would become their mentor and would have great influence over Kerouac. It was Burroughs who introduced him to morphine and the underground drug scene of New York's Times Square.
In 1950, Kerouac published an autobiography called The Town and the City. While working on the book, he would take breaks and visit friends. He met Neal Cassady (1926–1968), a young criminal with a serious drug and alcohol addiction. For Kerouac, Cassady was the epitome of the American Dream: someone who did not have to work, who lived by his own rules, and did whatever he pleased. The two became fast friends.
Without consciously realizing it, Kerouac and his friends established a new artistic protest movement that would span roughly throughout the 1950s. Self-declared nonconformists, these men were so influential to their culture that they immediately became the antiheroes of the day. The media dubbed them beatniks.
The term beat has never been clearly defined. Kerouac is said to have coined the term Beat Generation when he suggested he and his friends were beaten down in frustration at the difficulty of individual expression at a time when artists were intent on conforming. On another occasion, Kerouac said beat was derived from the word beatific, suggesting the Beats had earned intellectual grace through the purity of their lives.
Whatever the origin, the Beat Generation and all it stood for was reflected in Kerouac's next novel, On the Road. The book's subject was a fictionalized Neal Cassady and the friendship they shared. It took just twenty days for Kerouac to type a 175,000-word manuscript that was stylized to imply the same kind of energy as the story itself. The author called it “spontaneous prose,” and the raw energy it put forth was too new and experimental; no publishing house would touch it. For six years, On the Road sat. Those years turned out to be Kerouac's most productive, as he attacked each new novel with the same passion and energy as he had his unpublished manuscript.
Finally, in 1957, Viking Press published On the Road, but only after Kerouac agreed to extensive cuts and revisions. By that time, the Beat Generation was a literary force, and the time was right for an experimental novel. Most critics considered the book a disaster and nothing more than an immoral act of rebellion, one that glorified drug use, sex, and cheap thrills. It has since been chosen by Time magazine as one of the hundred best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. The original manuscript, which is actually a 120-foot-long (37-meter) roll of paper fed through Kerouac's typewriter, was sold for $2.4 million in 2001.
Post–On the Road
Although Ginsberg and Burroughs were writers whose work embodied the Beats, it was Kerouac who was hailed as the father of the movement. It was a label he resented, and one he felt inclined to live up to. These years of fame intensified Kerouac's alcoholism, and he aged quickly. He continued to write, but his work was considered too quirky to publish. He had visions of publishing separate but interconnected novels, but things did not work out that way. In two years’ time, he published six novels while at the same time appearing on television shows, writing magazine articles, and recording spoken-word albums. Kerouac became burnt out and unstable.
By 1961, Kerouac had further deteriorated and his work was not taken seriously. He drank himself into a constant stupor, and his unraveling life was the subject of his last major novel, Big Sur. Kerouac went home to live with his mother, where he would stay until his death. Although always drunk, he continued to write and publish, though the quality of his writing suffered severely.
As the 1960s progressed and the beat movement gave way to the hippie movement, Kerouac found pleasure in publicly standing against whatever it was the hippies were promoting. His politics were conservative, and he supported the Vietnam War (1954–75). Some believe this stance was nothing more than the writer's bitterness at having been left behind or falling out of the spotlight. Whatever the reason, Kerouac spent his last years living with his third wife and mother. Kerouac died at home in Lowell, Massachusetts, of liver disease brought on by alcoholism. He was forty-seven years old.
Kerouac's wife had his papers sealed, and it was not until her death in 1990 that they were made available for publication. In addition to volumes of poetry, some of Kerouac's correspondence was published. These letters were written to Ginsberg, Cassady, book editors, and Kerouac's first wife. The letters are valuable because they shed light on the background of the writing of On the Road. The book was rereleased in 2007, its fiftieth anniversary. By 2001, the novel had 3.5 million copies in the United States alone. It continues to sell at a rate of 110,000 to 130,000 copies every year, according to the New York Times.
J ack Kerouac, an American writer, is best known for On the Road, (1957) which describes his travels into the American West. He is known as the father of the Beat Generation, younger intellectuals who rejected traditional values of society.
Born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was the son of Leo Kerouac, a printer, and Gabrielle Levesque, a factory worker. Kerouac loved to read and wanted to be a writer from his earliest childhood. He did not speak English until he was five years old, using instead a combination of French and English used by the many French-Canadians who settled in New England. Kerouac's older brother Gerard died at age nine; he also had an older sister. At age eleven Kerouac began writing novels and made-up accounts of horse races, football games, and baseball games.
Kerouac received a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City. At age seventeen he went to Horace Mann High School in New York City to improve his grades and increase his weight. In 1940 Kerouac arrived at Columbia but broke his leg in the second game of the season. After the injury he began to pursue his true passion—literature. Kerouac began to cut class regularly; he studied the style of writer Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) and hung out on the New York City streets. In 1941 Kerouac had an argument with Columbia's football coach and left school.
Kerouac worked briefly at a gas station and as a sports reporter for a newspaper in Lowell. He then signed on to work aboard the S. S. Dorchester bound for Greenland. After that trip Kerouac returned to Columbia for a short stay. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but he was honorably discharged after six months. Kerouac spent the war years working as a merchant seaman and hanging around Columbia with intellectuals such as writers William Burroughs (1914–1997) and Allen Ginsburg (1926–1997). He wrote two novels during this time, The Sea Is My Brother and And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, with Burroughs.
Kerouac married Edie Parker in 1944, but the marriage lasted only two months. In 1947 Neal Cassady, a car thief and ladies' man who was considered something of a genius, visited New York and asked Kerouac to give him writing lessons. When Cassady returned to Denver, Colorado, Kerouac followed. After a few weeks in Denver, Kerouac wandered into California, beginning a four-year period of travel throughout the West. When not on the road, he was in New York working on his novel The Town and The City, which was published in 1950.
Most famous work
Now married to Joan Haverty, whom Kerouac proposed to after knowing her for only a few days, Kerouac began to experiment with a more natural writing style. He wanted to write the way he lived: once and with no editing. In April 1951 Kerouac threaded a huge roll of paper into his typewriter and wrote the single 175,000-word paragraph that became On The Road. The more than 100-foot scroll was written in three weeks but was not published for seven years. Sal and Neal, the main characters, scoff at established values and live by a romantic code born out off the West. They are described as "performing our one noble function of the time, move. " And to Kerouac, with movement comes wisdom and meaning.
In the time between writing On The Road and its publication, Kerouac took many road trips, ended his second marriage, became depressed and addicted to drugs and alcohol, and did his most ambitious writing. Kerouac often wrote complete works through all-night, week-long sessions. His other works include Visions of Cody (1952), Dr. Sax (1952), Maggie Cassidy (1953) (a romantic tale of his teenage days), Mexico City Blues and Tristessa (both 1955), and Visions of Gerard, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and Old Angel Midnight (all 1956).
Spokesman for a generation
When On The Road was published in 1957, Kerouac became instantly famous and a spokesman for the Beat Generation, young people in the 1950s and 1960s who scorned middle-class values. Kerouac frequently appeared drunk, and interviews with him usually turned into arguments. In 1958 he wrote The Dharma Bums, a follow-up to On The Road. He then stopped writing for four years. By 1960 he was an alcoholic and had suffered a nervous breakdown. Kerouac died of massive stomach bleeding on October 21, 1969, with a pad in his lap and pen in his hand. He was buried with the rest of his family near Lowell.
For More Information
Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1984.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1957. Multiple reprints.
Miles, Barry. Jack Kerouac—King of the Beats. New York: H. Holt, 1998.
Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983.