Jack Kerouac Biography

Jack Kerouac Biography

Jack Kerouac gets discovered all over again every year. His nontraditional style has made him a favorite of alternative writers and thinkers. His stream-of-consciousness approach was both revelatory and revolutionary, particularly in the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s. Ironically, his off-the-cuff writing style has sparked much academic debate: while some scholars claim he meticulously crafted works such as On the Road to achieve the spontaneity for which he became famous, others simply labeled his writing as rambling and indulgent. Despite these criticisms (and also because of them), Kerouac has evolved from cult figure to literary staple, and his antiestablishment point of view has influenced generations of authors. Intentionally or not, Kerouac secured his place in contemporary literature as the antidote to traditional writing.

Facts and Trivia

  • Kerouac’s loose, freewheeling style in part reflected his spiritual bent as he turned to Buddhism during the heyday of his writing career.
  • Kerouac was a friend of fellow cutting-edge writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the latter of whom was heavily influenced by Kerouac’s writing style.
  • To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, the book was republished in 2007 featuring previously unseen material that had been censored in its original publication.
  • Despite his reputation as King of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, Kerouac had great disdain for the counterculture it catalyzed in the subsequent decade.
  • Kerouac, whose lineage traces back to Quebec, began writing On the Road in French.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 Town and the...

(The entire section is 2055 words.)

Jack Kerouac Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The body of Kerouac’s work will remain the province of those who can appreciate the mastery of style, depth of learning, boldness of vision, and knowledge of time and place that it exhibits. On the Road and, possibly, The Dharma Bums have earned a permanent place in American popular culture as well. On the Road provided a model for the exuberant literary expression and cultural stances of succeeding generations of rebels, mystics, and artists. The book’s revelations of crucial facets of the American psyche now seem more enduring and incisive than other, more highly praised, works by contemporaries. Kerouac’s writing can be seen as part of an American tradition dating from Whitman and Thoreau in the nineteenth century.

Jack Kerouac Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922. His mother, Gabrielle Ange Levesque Kerouac, and his father, Leo Alcide Kerouac, were both French Canadians whose families had immigrated from Quebec. Gabrielle’s father, a mill worker and owner of a small tavern, had died when she was fourteen, and she then went to work as a machine operator in a Nashua, New Hampshire, shoe shop. From that moment, and for the rest of her life, “Memere” (as she was familiarly known) struggled for higher social status. Leo ran a successful print shop where convivial companions gathered for exuberant conversation and card playing. Young “Ti Jean” (“Little Jack”) loved to listen to these men.

At the time of Kerouac’s birth, his sister Caroline—known as Nin—was three, and Gerard, his brother who had been weakened by rheumatic fever, was five. The year after Kerouac’s birth, Leo began publication of The Lowell Spotlight, which featured local political and theatrical news. The family was very close; the mother was a teller of tales, and the father was an entertainer who specialized in animal noises. At the age of nine, Gerard became so ill that he was forced to remain in bed. To his younger brother, Gerard was saintly, and as Gerard grew weaker, he grew more angelic in the eyes of everyone in the family, a contrast to the lively young Jack. As Gerard’s pain grew worse, Jack began to feel that he was somehow responsible, and after Gerard’s death, Jack tried futilely to fill the void by being especially pious and sensitive.

As he grew older, Kerouac went frequently to films with passes given to Leo. The public library also became another favorite haunt, but the biggest outside influence on Kerouac’s childhood was the Roman Catholic Church of his forefathers. He attended parochial school, had visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary, memorized the catechism, and worried about his sins and purgatory. When he became an altar boy, his Jesuit teachers thought that he might become a priest, but when he entered a public junior high school, Jean Kerouac became “Jacky,” who could write, and whose favorite radio program was The Shadow—the forerunner of Dr. Sax. The powerful effect of his involvement with Catholicism was evident in his view of the world, notably in his well-known remark to Timothy Leary when Leary was extolling the use of psychedelic substances: “Coach Leary, walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”

As he walked to Lowell High School, where he participated in track and football, Kerouac saw the factories and the failures of his French Canadian neighbors; his father had lost his business and had even been forced to accept a job carrying water buckets for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Memere, frustrated in her ever-present ambitions, placed all her hopes in her remaining son and urged him to study and to succeed in a way that his father had not. By his senior year, Kerouac was a football star, scoring the winning touchdown for Lowell in the final game against Lawrence High.

Drawn by the prospect of the great city, Kerouac decided to accept an offer he received from Columbia University football coach Lou Little to attend Horace Mann Prep School, where he was to add the pounds and knowledge requisite for a Columbia football player. At Horace Mann, Jack wrote papers for his classmates for pay, spending some of the proceeds on the pleasures available in the “the machinery of night.” He published short stories in the Horace Mann Quarterly, became friends with people like William F. Buckley, Jr., discovered the jazz world in Harlem, and adopted Walt Whitman as his personal bard. At Columbia, Kerouac studied William Shakespeare under noted scholarMark Van Doren, earning an “A” in the course but getting an “F” in chemistry. He registered for the draft, found another mentor in the works of Thomas Wolfe, and broke his leg in a freshman football game.

To the great distress of his parents, who constantly pleaded with him to “get ahead” in the world, Kerouac left Columbia for Washington, D.C., then New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut, and a series of short-lived jobs. While he was a sportswriter for the Lowell Sun, he read Fyodor Dostoevski, who became another in a series of literary models/mentors. In a pattern that became the shaping force for his novels, he followed Whitman’s example of a man on the threshold of an open road leading onward to unknown love and adventure, and shipped out of Boston as a merchant seaman on the Dorchester, where he started a novel called “The Sea Is My Brother.” In 1943, he entered the U.S. Navy, which discharged him honorably three months later for “indifferent character,” the formal notation for psychiatric instability.

In 1944, Kerouac met poet Allen Ginsberg, a Columbia student until he was banned from campus, and William S. Burroughs, with whom he wrote a detective...

(The entire section is 2035 words.)

Jack Kerouac Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

It is likely that as a very young boy Jack Kerouac spoke only French, and certainly he was immersed in his French Canadian heritage. His father died in his arms in 1946 and he adored his mother, but rebelled against his Catholic upbringing. The death in 1926 of his revered older brother, Gerard, may have heightened an early sense of disconnection. The twin brothers in Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City (1950), are fictional alter egos. His nonfiction Book of Dreams (1961) reveals his awareness of his own divided personality. Thematically and stylistically, identity informs Kerouac’s adolescent and adult writing and shaped his experiences and expressions; in Kerouac, the latter pair are barely...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Jack Kerouac Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In effusive, poetic language, Jack Kerouac (KEHR-uh-wak) captured the energy of the archetypal American quest for love, adventure, and enlightenment. Born Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac to immigrants from Quebec who grew up in New England mill towns, he was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle, born while his father ran a moderately prosperous printing shop. “Ti Jean” (“Little Jack”) attended the St. Louis school in accordance with his family’s serious Catholic background. His religious training was complemented by his constant visits to the Lowell Public Library and by his father’s boisterous drinking and cardplaying companions, an aspect of saloon society of which Kerouac never tired. He spoke French until he was six...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

Jack Kerouac Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

John Louis Lebris de Kerouac was the younger son of Leo Alcide Kerouac (a job printer) and Gabrielle Ange Levesque Kerouac, immigrants from Quebec who grew up in New England mill towns. He attended a parochial school and complemented his education with frequent trips to the Lowell Public Library. At the age of five, he lost his brother Gerard to rheumatic fever, an event which haunted his dreams and became a focal point for the family saga he wrote in later years. Both an enthusiastic student and a fine athlete, he played football and starred in track for the Lowell High School team. His mother’s tales of his Gallic and Celtic heritage intrigued him, as did the stories of father’s drinking companions, and although he had spoken...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Jack Kerouac Biography

(Novels for Students)

Kerouac was born on March 22,1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents, Leo and Gabrielle, were French-Canadian immigrants. "Ti Jean"...

(The entire section is 533 words.)