Jack Kerouac

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Jack Kerouac in 1956

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac (born March 12, 1922 – died October 21, 1969), better known as Jack Kerouac, was an American author and poet. He was part of the Beat Generation movement of writers and artists of the 1950s and 1960s, and gave the movement its name. His most famous work was a long novel titled On the Road, which was published in 1957.

Kerouac was a friend of writers Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, among many others. Nearly all of Kerouac's writings were directly based on his own life, but he mostly changed names and details, to protect everyone's privacy. The man he wrote about most was his friend Neal Cassady, who was called "Dean Moriarty" in On the Road. Kerouac influenced many other writers and poets who came along later, and also many musicians of the 1960s, through his works. He also changed the way Americans saw themselves, and their country.

Early life[change | edit source]

Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents (named Leo and Gabrielle), and was the youngest of three children. He spoke only French until he started school. His family was Roman Catholic. His father was a printer, and Kerouac became interested in printed works. He liked to make his own handwritten newspapers and books. He enjoyed reading, and imitated the styles of writers he liked, such as Thomas Wolfe. He became an expert typist, and could type faster than 100 words per minute.

Kerouac was a good athlete, and earned a football scholarship to Columbia University.[1] An injury during a practice game ended his football career. He dropped out of Columbia, and devoted himself to writing stories and plays. He met Allen Ginsberg at college. Their circle of friends included many future writers and artists, like William S. Burroughs, and Herbert Huncke.

During World War II, Kerouac served in the Merchant Marine, which made him a veteran of the American military. He kept journals of his experiences, and he used them later to write other works. He was honorably discharged from military service in 1943 when he was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.[2] He was able to get veteran's benefits later, such as medical help when he was sick with phlebitis, and grant money to pay his bills while he wrote. Kerouac was proud to be an American, and always said good things about his country.

Kerouac's father died of stomach cancer in 1946. He made Kerouac promise to always work to support his mother. He tried to talk Kerouac out of becoming a writer, because he knew it was hard to succeed in such a career. Kerouac had a hard time staying with any other kind of work, though. He would become impatient or restless, or a disagreement with someone at work would turn into trouble. Kerouac did his best to earn enough money to pay for both his and his mother's living, but his mother also had to work. She was a nurse. She worked in a factory when there were no nursing jobs.

Early career[change | edit source]

Kerouac published a few short stories and reviews in New York magazines and newspapers in the 1940s. He worked briefly for his hometown newspaper, The Lowell Sun. His first novel, The Town and the City, was published in 1950. For his second novel, Kerouac wanted to write a book about cross-country road trips and hitchhiking. Hitchhiking was safer to do in the 1940s, in America, than it is today. Kerouac stopped and restarted writing this book several times. Kerouac did not want to just tell an ordinary story. He wanted to give an idea of how the people he met thought things through, and expressed this to each other, along with telling what they did and said. He also knew he needed more experiences, to tell a better story.

Many experiences came through Kerouac's friendship with Neal Cassady. Cassady was a handsome, bright young drifter with a teenaged wife, named Luanne Henderson. Cassady and Luanne had a hard relationship, and broke up and got back together many times. He later married another woman named Carolyn Robinson, who was older than Luanne and understood him better, but Carolyn and Cassady also had troubles. Kerouac was briefly married, to girlfriend Edie Parker. They did not stay together long, and were soon divorced. Cassady taught Kerouac, who never had a driver's license, how to drive, while Kerouac taught Cassady about writing.

A Hudson automobile

Neal Cassady traveled back and forth across the country, usually driving cars like Hudsons at high speed. he looked for jobs, fresh experiences, and new friends. Kerouac began to travel with him. They lived in and visited cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Monterey, and even Mexico City. They also looked sometimes for Cassady's father, who disappeared years earlier. Kerouac got sick in Mexico City, and Cassady left him behind at the hospital. Kerouac had to make his own way home. He took this very hard, and was angry with Cassady. He forgave him later, when they met again, and he made Cassady the central character of his new book. One job Kerouac could fall back on, thanks to Cassady, was as a railroad brakeman.

A map of Kerouac's cross-country road trips

Many people in the 1940s and 1950s used stimulant drugs such as benzedrine, to help them stay alert. Jazz music was also popular, and some jazz musicians and listeners smoked marijuana. Kerouac was influenced by both drugs, and they changed the way he wrote. He began to write what he called "spontaneous prose", jotting down words in much the same way a musician improvises a solo in a song. (Kerouac played no musical instruments, but could scat sing well, and had many of the same instincts as a musician.) His new writing style was strange to many people, and even seen as bad by some older authors and critics. It was six years before Kerouac published his second novel.

The version of On the Road that finally satisfied Kerouac was written over three weeks in 1951. It was typed on a single roll of teletype paper. Kerouac liked to type on rolls of paper, because he did not have to stop to change pages. He had just gotten married for the second time, to Joan Haverty. The manuscript was Kerouac's way to explain his friendship with Neal Cassady to his new wife. The explanation made a fine rough draft for a novel, but it did not help his marriage. Joan felt that Kerouac's nonstop work on the manuscript was an obsession, and she did not want to stay married to him after it was finished. They were soon divorced, as he was with his first wife.

The editor who worked on The Town and the City found the long, scroll-like manuscript hard to understand, and even harder to work with. Kerouac's publisher rejected the novel, as did every other publisher he went to. Nor was anyone interested in The Subterraneans, a shorter novel he wrote in three nights, about his romance with an African-American woman. Such a relationship was taboo in America during the 1950s. Kerouac continued to write, from short stories and essays to long novels, and even poetry. He tried many different subjects, but had almost nothing published. He also worked different jobs, including brakeman and night watchman.

It turned out that Joan Haverty was pregnant by Kerouac, and she gave birth to a daughter, Jan-Michelle. Kerouac denied he was the father at first, but a blood test later proved it was likely. She also grew to look like him, and he accepted her as his child. Joan sued Kerouac for child support, but he was ill and could not work at the time, and she collected almost no money. Kerouac only saw Jan a few times, but talked to her more often by telephone. Joan mostly kept them apart.

Fame[change | edit source]

Allen Ginsberg became well-known during the 1950s for his writings, in particular a poem called "Howl", whose title came from Kerouac's critique of it. Ginsberg mentioned his friends in some of his works, including Kerouac, and wanted the people who liked him to give them and their writings a chance. Finally Viking Press agreed to publish On the Road, after many changes to the manuscript. The novel became a bestseller, and Kerouac was a celebrity after years of little success. Magazines began to request articles and essays from him. He appeared on many television programs, including The Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen liked him, and they recorded an album together, with Kerouac reading aloud and Allen playing piano. He recorded another album later, with jazz musicians Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

Kerouac wrote and published more novels, including The Dharma Bums, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Visions of Gerard (a memoir of his older brother, who died in childhood), Big Sur (about the stresses brought on by fame, and how the people he knew saw him differently), Desolation Angels, and Book of Dreams (a dream journal). He studied Buddhism, and this also influenced his writing. He wrote Some of the Dharma as an introduction to Buddhism, though he remained a Catholic.

As Kerouac, Ginsberg, and their friends became famous, a trend among the group of writers and artists was noticed, and was written about in the mainstream media. Kerouac was asked to describe his generation. He explained that the pressures of 20th century living had 'beaten' normal ways of thinking and working out of them, and they preferred the beat of bebop and jazz to most other music, "so I guess you could say we're a beat generation."

"Beat Generation" became the name for the new sense of style coming from artists and writers in New York and San Francisco. Kerouac's circle of friends and acquaintances (and their imitators) were called the Beats, with Kerouac himself called "King of the Beats" by the media. (The term was later parodied as "beatniks", implying such people were Communists, and would hurt the country.) Kerouac narrated a movie, called Pull My Daisy, about the Beat phenomenon.

An ongoing problem Kerouac had with fame was that people thought he did all the things he wrote about. Much of what he described (like Neal Cassady's lawless nature, promiscuity, and drug use) was only what he saw in other people. Not everyone who read Kerouac's stories understood this. Some people wanted to blame him for doing bad things, or getting others to do them. Other people wanted to do those kinds of things with Kerouac. Shy by nature, Kerouac pulled away. He became almost a recluse in the house he bought for his mother. He also began to abuse alcohol.

Later life and career[change | edit source]

During the 1960s, American society went through many changes, in part because of the influence of the Beats. Many young people read On the Road, and saw things they related to, and it made them want to experience more in their own lives. Other writers liked the looseness of Kerouac's style, and it made them think more about their own writing, how to study life, and how to better express themselves. Many musicians were affected by Kerouac's books, including Bob Dylan, Donovan, and The Doors.

Kerouac was more disappointed than happy to be famous. Even though he liked some of what he inspired, he felt that the public largely got the wrong message from his books. He saw many people take what the Beats wrote as a kind of permission to get into trouble, or abandon (give up) people and things they cared about. He felt sympathy for the hippies, but disagreed with them on the Vietnam War, the role of government, and patriotism. He also lost some of his old friends, when their views differed.

Kerouac still abused alcohol and other drugs, and it harmed his health. He became bloated and irritable, and looked drunk on his last television appearance, on William F. Buckley's Firing Line in 1968. He married for the third time, to Stella Sampas, the sister of a boyhood friend. Stella looked after Kerouac and his mother, kept the public and others away, and tried to get him to stop drinking alcohol.

His daughter Jan-Michelle also began to write during her teen years. He gave her his blessing, and told her "You can use my (last) name." She wrote under the name Jan Kerouac, and published novels and stories herself, from the 1970s to the 1990s. Kerouac's mother became sick, and he sometimes worked at her bedside on stories. She helped him work out the ending of Pic, his novel about a young African-American.

Kerouac's last home, in College Park, Orlando, Florida

Kerouac wrote and reworked new material until the last day of his life. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida during emergency surgery, to try to repair a hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis, due to his alcohol abuse. He was buried in his hometown, and was hardly remembered there at first. Even though he was world famous, Kerouac earned very little money as a writer. He died with only a few hundred dollars in the bank. It was years before his grave received a headstone.

Neal Cassady died more than a year before, of exposure, alongside a railroad track in Mexico. He set out to become a writer or musician, but he never got far with either. He only published one book, The First Third, which was about his youth. Cassady earned most of his money from labor, and was often out of work and owed money. He spent a long time in jail after he was arrested for selling marijuana. Sometimes the fact that Cassady was well-known through Kerouac kept him from having the life he wanted. Cassady had a family with Carolyn, but she had to both work, and raise the children when her husband was away. Carolyn later wrote a memoir.

Legacy[change | edit source]

Kerouac's works, especially On the Road, are now more popular than ever. Generations have discovered his works, as a means of learning about life and attitudes in America during his lifetime, as a way to measure their own sense of experience, or as examples of free association and stream of consciousness in creative writing.

A street sign showing Jack Kerouac Alley, in San Francisco, California

Less than half of Kerouac's writings were published during his lifetime, but nearly all are now available. The ones published later drew hundreds of times more money than his most famous works, when they first appeared. His hometown Lowell remembers Kerouac today with a memorial, and cultural events every year. His grave now has a headstone, which reads "He honored life". A street in Lowell was renamed "Jack Kerouac Alley" in his memory.

In other media[change | edit source]

The Subterraneans was made into a movie by MGM in 1960, but the storyline was almost completely different from the book. On the Road was considered many times to be made into a movie, once with actor Marlon Brando as Dean Moriarty and another time with Sean Penn, but this never got farther than negotiations. The movie rights were resold in the 1990s, for more than ten times Kerouac's lifetime earnings, and a movie of On the Road appeared in 2012, starring Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund as Kerouac and Cassidy, with Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst as LuAnne Henderson and Carolyn Cassady.

A movie, Heart Beat, was made in 1980, about the relationship between Carolyn Robinson, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. It starred Sissy Spacek, Nick Nolte, and John Heard.

Kerouac appears as "Hank" in William S. Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch, and was played by Nicholas Campbell in the 1991 movie version.

He was also the subject of a song by 10,000 Maniacs, "Hey Jack Kerouac".

He and Neal Cassady are the subject of a song by Tom Waits, "Jack & Neal/California Here I Come". Waits also covered a song written by Kerouac, titled "On the Road", on his' album "Orphans".

Sources[change | edit source]

  1. Dittman, Michael J. (2004), Jack Kerouac: A Biography, Greenwood, ISBN 0-313-328363-6
  2. Hit the Road, Jack
  • Kerouac: A Biography, by Ann Charters (St. Martin's Press)
  • Jack Kerouac, by Tom Clark (Marlowe & Company)