Jack Kerouac 1922-1969
(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist, poet, and essayist. See also Jack Kerouac Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 14, 29.
Kerouac was the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which took its name from Kerouac's abbreviation of “beatific,” began in Greenwich Village and San Francisco as a reaction against the conservatism prevalent in America during the Cold War era. Other important participants in the movement included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs, all of whom were close friends of Kerouac. Kerouac's best-known novel, On the Road (1957), depicts the counter-culture lifestyle of the Beats, which was marked by manic travel and experimentation with sex and drugs.
Born in a French-Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was raised a Catholic and educated in parochial schools. An outstanding athlete, he received a football scholarship to Columbia University but withdrew from school during the fall of his sophomore year. He joined the navy in 1943 and was released after six months for psychological reasons. Kerouac worked the remainder of World War II as a merchant seaman and associated with the bohemian crowd around Columbia that included Ginsberg and Burroughs. The publication of On the Road brought Kerouac sudden notoriety, and eight more of his books appeared during the next few years as publishers rushed to capitalize on his popularity. Kerouac's natural shyness, however, kept him from enjoying his fame; he was known to arrive at interviews intoxicated and failed in his sporadic attempts to withdraw from society to concentrate on writing. A sincere patriot and Catholic, Kerouac became increasingly bewildered and alienated from his bohemian fans in the 1960s. He returned to the place of his birth in 1966, and in 1969 died of medical complications deriving from his longterm alcoholism.
Many of the characters in Kerouac's novels were based on his friends in the Beat Movement. Novelist William S. Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg are portrayed in On the Road as Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx. Beat poet Gary Snyder inspired Japhy Ryder, the main character in one of Kerouac's more celebrated novels, The Dharma Bums (1958). Undoubtedly the single most influential personality in Kerouac's circle of friends, and the basis for the main characters in both On the Road and Visions of Cody (1972), was Neal Cassady. Kerouac saw the energetic, charismatic Cassady as the quintessential Beat figure and the last of a vanishing breed of American romantic heroes. Kerouac also cited Cassady's stream-of-consciousness writing style, exemplified in his voluminous letters, as having inspired his own “spontaneous prose” technique.
Kerouac considered his novels a series of interconnected autobiographical narratives in the manner of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). The novels that compose “The Legend of Duluoz,” as Kerouac called the totality of his works, include Visions of Gerard (1963), which pictures Kerouac's childhood as overshadowed by the death of his beloved brother Gerard at age nine; Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three (1959), a surrealistic depiction of Kerouac's boyhood memories and dreams; Maggie Cassidy (1959), which recounts Kerouac's first love; and Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-1946 (1968), which chronicles Kerouac's years of playing football at prep school and Columbia. In On the Road, Kerouac wrote about the late 1940s, focusing on the years of traveling and socializing with Cassady, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Visions of Cody, viewed by many critics as a late revision of On the Road, retells the story in spontaneous prose. Kerouac wrote about his love affair in 1953 with an African-American woman in The Subterraneans (1958), and his adventures on the West Coast learning about Buddhism from Gary Snyder are delineated in The Dharma Bums. Desolation Angels (1965) covers the years just prior to the publication of On the Road, while Big Sur (1962) displays the bitterness and despair Kerouac experienced in the early 1960s and his descent into alcoholism. Together these novels portray the birth, development, and dissolution of the Beat Movement.
When first published, On the Road was rejected by many as a morally objectionable work. Kerouac, through his first-person narrator, Sal Paradise, enthusiastically describes the adventures that make up the book's narrative, including stealing, heavy drinking, drug use, and sexual promiscuity. To many critics of the time, Kerouac's novel signaled the moral demise of a generation. Gilbert Millstein, representing the opposing view, decreed that the publication of On the Road was an “historic occasion” and the immoderate lifestyle of the Beats was a “search for belief.” Critics who shared this attitude focused on the theme of spiritual quest that permeates the novel, arguing that this theme made On the Road a descendent of American “road literature” as represented by such works as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although On the Road was once commonly considered to have inspired the peripatetic hippie generation of the 1960s, later evaluations have paid greater attention to the narrator's disillusionment with the life of the road at the conclusion of the novel. Some commentators now view On the Road as depicting the conflicting appeal of a contemplative, inner-directed life on the one hand, and an unexamined, outgoing existence on the other. More recent critical studies also evidence considerable interest in Kerouac's “spontaneous prose” method, viewing it as an extension of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique used by James Joyce. While On the Road and subsequent works by Kerouac once stunned the public and the literary establishment, the enduring attraction these works hold for both readers and critics argues for their importance in the canon of modern American literature.
The Town and the City (novel) 1950
On the Road (novel) 1957
The Dharma Bums (novel) 1958
The Subterraneans (novel) 1958
Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three (novel) 1959
Mexico City Blues (poetry) 1959
Maggie Cassidy (novel) 1959
The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (nonfiction) 1960
Tristessa (novel) 1960
Book of Dreams (nonfiction) 1961
Big Sur (novel) 1962
Lonesome Traveler (novel) 1962
Visions of Gerard (novel) 1963
Desolation Angels (novel) 1965
Satori in Paris (novel) 1966
Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education 1935-46 (novel) 1969
Pic (novella) 1971
Visions of Cody (novel) 1972
San Francisco Blues (novel) 1983
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SOURCE: “Off the Track,” in Jack Kerouac, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 46-57.
[In the following essay, French discusses key differences among The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Pic, and Kerouac's other major novels.]
THE SUBTERRANEANS (1953, 1958)
While The Subterraneans is usually looked upon as part of the Duluoz Legend, it would take very extensive revision to fit this nearly hysterical tale into the whole panoramic work.1 In the first place, the name used here for Kerouac's alter ego, Leo Percepied, occurs only in this brief novel and was apparently not a substitution required by cautious publishers. It is difficult, therefore, to ignore the symbolic implications of the name, which could be translated “Lion with a Pierced-Foot,” suggesting some kind of primitive jungle king disabled by a crippling wound or with an Achilles' heel. Although the novel has been praised by those close to Kerouac for its verisimilitude, its credibility is immediately suspect because of the fact that, although it parallels events that took place in New York's Greenwich Village during the summer of 1953, the novel is set in San Francisco.
It is also entirely different in tone from any of the novels in which Kerouac is transformed into Ti Jean Duluoz. It is the most sexually specific of any of Kerouac's works, so that is is understandable why...
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SOURCE: “The Road as Transition,” in The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 34-56.
[In the following essay, Weinreich discusses On the Road as a picaresque novel.]
The Open Road. The great home of the soul is the Open Road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above.’ Not even ‘within.’ The soul is neither ‘above’ nor ‘within.’ It is a wayfarer down the Open Road.
—D. H. Lawrence, “Whitman”
If The Town and the City establishes the essential proposition of the Duluoz legend—that is, the loss of spiritual values prophesying the decline of America and its soul—then On the Road [hereafter abbreviated as OR] extends this idea in a picaresque mode. The soul journeys along the open highway of America, in search of permanence, of values that will endure and not collapse. Indeed, as the design of the Duluoz legend unfolds, the progression of Kerouac's career becomes one in which his own persona retreats further and further away from the distractions of this world to the inwardness of writing, “telling the true story of the world in interior monolog,” as he recommends to writers in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.”1
Thus, within the context of the entire legend, On the...
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SOURCE: “The Sound of Despair: A Perfected Nonlinearity,” in The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 89-118.
[In the following essay, Weinreich examines Desolation Angels as the culmination of Kerouac's religious and philosophical thinking just before the publication of On the Road.]
Do you hear that? The sound of it alone is wonderful, no? What can you give me in English to match that for sheer beauty of resonance?
—Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
Kerouac attempted to resolve the aesthetic problems of Visions of Cody in his next period of writing, from 1953 with the writing of The Subterraneans on through the sixties, as his life and thinking became more religious and philosophical. The culmination of the experiments that comprise Visions of Cody is found in Desolation Angels, [hereafter abbreviated as DA] a novel concerned with the period of legend/life from 1956 to 1957. The novel, first published in 1965, is based on Kerouac's journals written in the year before the appearance of On the Road; these writings were put in novel form after the success of On the Road,1 and integrate the events of the road with the Zen philosophy he was learning as he developed both as a man and...
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SOURCE: “On the Road Reconsidered: Kerouac and the Modernist Tradition,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 30, No. 1, winter, 1989, pp. 59-67.
[In the following essay, Malmgren asserts that Kerouac achieved an anti-Modernist aesthetic in On the Road.]
There was a conference in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 1982 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. In the brochure advertising the week-long multimedia “event,” various novelists, poets, and critics paid tribute to Kerouac's literary accomplishments. Not surprisingly, the compliments and claims are hyperbolic. William Tallman asserts that “you've got to get past Jack to get down to writing in our time.” James Laughlin states, “I think he was a turning point in the history of modern American fiction.” And the poet Ted Berrigan goes so far as to say, “I think that only with the arrival of Jack Kerouac did American fiction become American.” These are some pretty extravagant claims for the significance of Kerouac and On the Road, even given the promotional context. Now that we have passed the silver anniversary of its publication, it is appropriate to establish the place of On the Road in relation to postwar American fiction, to assess its contribution to the evolution of new narrative forms, to ascertain just how much the “Bible” of the Beat...
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SOURCE: “Kerouac: Writer without a Home,” in Un Homme Grand: Kerouac at the Crossroads of Many Cultures, edited by Pierre Anctil, Louis Dupont, Rémi Ferland, and Eric Waddell, Carleton University Press, 1990, pp. 19-39.
[In the following essay, Nicosia examines the theme of homelessness in Kerouac's writings, as well as the biographical reasons behind the recurrent theme.]
Near the end of his novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac's persona Sal Paradise sings a little poem:
Home in Missoula, Home in Truckee, Home in Opelousas, Ain't no home for me. Home in old Medora, Home in Wounded Knee, Home in Ogallala, Home I'll never be.
It comes at a point in the book, based on Kerouac's own experience living with his mother, when the narrator is living with his aunt in New York. He has just sold a novel (The Town and the City) and has fine prospects of becoming a successful writer in the literary capital of America. Instead of exploiting this opportunity, he packs his belongings into a rucksack and once again sets out on a bus going west. Why does he leave? Kerouac explained: “Whenever spring comes to New York I can't stand the suggestions of the land that come blowing over the river from New Jersey and I've got to go.” For a writer so concerned about his homelessness, it might seem strange to be voluntarily leaving home. But the truth is that Kerouac's whole life...
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SOURCE: “Kerouac's The Subterraneans: A Study of ‘Romantic Primitivism’,” in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, fall, 1994, pp. 107-23.
[In the following essay, Panish argues that Kerouac unwittingly used white stereotypes of African-Americans to achieve intertextuality with black jazz culture in The Subterraneans.]
In a review of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel, The Subterraneans, poet/critic Kenneth Rexroth said “The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about—jazz and Negroes” (Nicosia 568). Whatever the source of Rexroth's disdain for Kerouac's novel, this criticism of The Subterraneans hits close to the mark.1 Kerouac's romanticized depictions of and references to African Americans (as well as other racial minorities—American Indians and Mexican-Americans) betray his essential lack of understanding of African American culture and the African American social experience. That is, Kerouac's novelistic attitude toward racial minorities in The Subterraneans (and elsewhere) is similar to the stance of those “romantic racialists” of the 1840s and 1850s described by George M. Fredrickson, who, in African Americans, “discovered redeeming virtues and even evidences of … superiority” (Fredrickson 101). For Kerouac uses (as did the nineteenth-century romantic racialists) racial minorities as symbols of those entities that...
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SOURCE: “Kerouac among the Fellahin: On the Road to the Postmodern,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, summer, 1995, pp. 265-83.
[In the following essay, Holton explores Kerouac's approach to racial issues in On the Road.]
We need studies that analyze the strategic use of black characters to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters. Such studies will reveal the process of establishing others … so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos. Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one's own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other.
—Toni Morrison (52-53)
“It's the world,” said Dean. “My God!” he cried, slapping the wheel. “It's the world! We can go right on to South America if the road goes on. Think of it! Son-of-a-bitch! Gawd-damn!”
—(On the Road 277)
During the early postwar era, the pressures to conformity in middle-class white American culture were enormous, and it should come as no surprise that a reaction against that conformity—the Beat Generation—should arise and attain notoriety. In some ways this response may now seem shortsighted or dated, yet...
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SOURCE: “Trafficking in the Void: Burroughs, Kerouac, and the Consumption of Otherness,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, spring, 1997, pp. 53-92.
[In the following essay, Eburne analyzes the wider social implications of the Beat generation by examining subversiveness in The Subterraneans and William S. Burroughs's The Naked Lunch.]
Abjection—at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion. … In abjection, revolt is completely within being. Within the being of language.
—Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
Divulging his latest platform as crime-and-commie-busting director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover claimed at the 1960 Republican National Convention that “beatniks” were, alongside communists and liberal “eggheads,” one of the three greatest menaces to U.S. National Security (Morgan 289). Using “beat-nik” rather than “beat” to describe the group of writers, poets, and bohemians known as the Beat Generation, Hoover's semantic slide—or push—seemed to implicate beat “niks” as petty communists who threatened to enervate America's welfare. Both a terrible menace and a crude joke, the Beat Generation elicited similar disdain across a vast cultural front—from Hoover, mainstream culture, and “eggheads” alike.
Notorious for its...
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SOURCE: “‘Telepathic Shock and Meaning Excitement’: Kerouac's Poetics of Intimacy,” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, winter, 2000, pp. 8-21.
[In the following essay, Douglas examines the reactions Kerouac elicited from the readers of his fictional autobiographies.]
Explaining the special nature of his friendship with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg said that early in their relationship he realized that, “If I actually confessed the secret tendencies of my soul, he would understand nakedly who I was” (Watson 1995, 37). I think a number of Kerouac's readers even today feel the same way. I, for one, seem to know Kerouac better, he's dearer to me, than all but a few people in my actual life, and the extended confessions he called his “true—story novels” tell me that I am somehow just as important to him.
Every writer enters into a relationship with his reader, offering at the outset a kind of contract that lets the reader know what she must give to live inside this book, and what she will get in return. But few writers try to tell their readers everything that ever happened to them as Kerouac does over the many volumes of the “Duluoz legend”; few writers deliver the magical intensity of intimacy that Dr. Sax, On the Road, Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Maggie Cassidy, and Big Sur bring. Kerouac's ambition was as modest...
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SOURCE: “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa,” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, winter, 2000, pp. 39-62.
[In the following essay, Grace analyzes the significance of race in Kerouac's stories about romantic relationships.]
Jack Kerouac is generally not thought of as a writer of love stories, his name more readily evoking images of jazz, poetry, Buddhism, the boy gang, and cars zooming along the omnipresent road. But a considerable portion of his Duluoz legend is devoted to representations of women he loved. Maggie Cassidy, written in 1953, introduced the portrait of Mary Carney, an Irish girl who was his high school sweetheart. Later that same year he used The Subterraneans to record his brief but intense relationship with Alene Lee, an African-American woman whom he renamed Mardou Fox for purposes of publication. In 1955-56, he wrote Tristessa, a reflection upon Esperanza Tercerero, an Aztec-Hispanic morphine addict. Significantly, their stories are not road stories. All are set in spaces defined by corporation limits and the walls of tenement houses and Beat pads. Safe within domestic spheres and linguistic artifice, Kerouac dared to do what he dared not do elsewhere: masquerade as a dark female, the ultimate white male experimentation with forms of identity challenging...
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SOURCE: “‘My Virtuous Desert’: Kerouac's Dharma Bums,” in “Forest Beatniks” and “Urban Thoreaus”: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure, Peter Lang, 2000, pp. 49-69.
[In the following essay, Phillips discusses Kerouac's works concerning the natural world, particularly The Dharma Bums.]
“[M]y companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker,—not the Knight, but Walker, Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (1851)
As the jacket notes from a recent edition of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums, indicate, the fast paced, jazz and drug inspired action of his 1957 triumph On the Road casts a long shadow on the writer's subsequent works:
[B]y the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation, JACK KEROUAC author of ON THE ROAD …
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French, Warren. Jack Kerouac. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986, 147 p.
Biographical and critical study.
McDarrah, Fred W, ed. Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generation Album. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985, 338 p.
Illustrated collection of reprinted and original essays recollecting the Beat era of the 1950s.
Coolidge, Clark. “Kerouac.” The American Poetry Review 24, No. 1 (January-February 1995): 43-9.
Analysis of Kerouac's poetic and prose style.
Foster, Edward Halsey. “Kerouac.” In Understanding the Beats, pp. 28-83. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Introductory biographical and critical essay.
Additional coverage of Kerouac's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 54; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 14, 29, 61;...
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