Article abstract: Kerouac was one of the major figures of the Beat movement in the United States, a literary and cultural reaction against Cold War America. Although Kerouac viewed himself as a naturalistic novelist in the tradition of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, literary and social critics generally view him as one of the more dramatic examples of American countercultural artistic expression, especially in novels such as On the Road and The Dharma Bums.
Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born in the French-Canadian section of Lowell, Massachusetts, known as Pawtucketville, the second son and third child of Leo Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle Ange Levesque Kerouac (whom Kerouac called “Memere” to the end of his life). Kerouac’s parents, especially his mother, were devout Catholics, and the memory and imagery of a distinctly Catholic altarboyhood in an impoverished northern factory town informed much of Kerouac’s fiction. When Kerouac was five, his older brother Gerard died, and Kerouac remained obsessed throughout his life with the memory of a religiously devout and spiritual older brother who was iconized by parish nuns into a figure of superhuman rectitude. This became a source of great guilt in Kerouac’s personal life that was expressed repeatedly in his fiction, especially in Doctor Sax (1959) and Visions of Gerard (1963).
Despite his average stature, Kerouac was a standout athlete at Lowell High School in football and track in the late 1930’s and earned a scholarship for a postgraduate year at the Horace Mann School in New York in order to prepare for Columbia University the following year. Although knee injuries limited Kerouac’s football heroics to a single punt-return touchdown at Columbia, Kerouac’s short, two-year stay at the university introduced him not only to the literary interpretations of Professor Mark Van Doren but also and especially to fellow classmate and future Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, as well as to future Beat writer William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr, among others.
Through Ginsberg, Kerouac became acquainted with the bohemian fringe of students and artists in Greenwich Village, Soho, and Morningside Heights and also became acquainted with various members of the “subterranean” fringe that would soon introduce him to such disparate figures as Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder. The friendship between Kerouac and Ginsberg would survive for the next twenty-five years, but it was tempered on Kerouac’s part by a deeply held anti-Semitism nurtured in Depression-era Lowell and by a deeply held ambivalence toward homosexuality (despite Kerouac’s own experimentation in that area in the 1940’s with both Ginsberg and Cassady). The friendship between Kerouac and Cassady was more unalloyed than that between Kerouac and Ginsberg but was undermined by Cassady’s wanderlust as well as his need to cycle through multiple sets of friends and experiences.
Perhaps Kerouac’s ultimate statement of friendship toward Cassady was expressed through making him the absolute hero of Kerouac’s most important text, On the Road (1957). Sal Paradise, the narrator, is sometimes at a loss for direction or words, but Sal’s friend, Dean Moriarty, is the very personification of energy, excitement, and living for the moment, all characteristics that seemed rare and even unlawful in the United States during the 1950’s. The experiences that comprise On the Road largely occurred in the late 1940’s, and evidence suggests that an essentially final manuscript of On the Road was completed in 1951, the year following the publication of Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City (1950). However, On the Road remained unpublished until 1957, and the novelist who confronted the critical acclaim of publication in the late 1950’s was a thirty-five-year-old politically conservative and somewhat paranoid mama’s boy, not a young adventurer in the ilk of Dean Moriarty or even Sal Paradise.
Kerouac expressed and defined the Beat movement in literature, espousing at least two parallel and consistent understandings of the word “beat”: beaten down, in the sense of being tired and downtrodden; and beatific, in the sense of being blessed and full of spiritual joy. The enduring controversy over the term and over Kerouac’s place in the movement increased rather than lessened after Kerouac’s death in 1969. Analysis of Kerouac’s literary works have often included societal commentary on the author and the lifestyles depicted in the text. In a similar vein, prose pieces on beatniks and later on hippies often included evaluative references to Kerouac’s prose output. Therefore, Kerouac’s literary output, especially his prose fiction, has not always received the sort of extended close readings separate from societal context that serious fiction deserves.
Kerouac’s juvenalia, as well as his first published novel,...
(The entire section is 2055 words.)