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.

Biography

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Last Updated on March 16, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2055

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.

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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 City, were comparatively traditional works of fiction. Although Kerouac’s first novel received some critical approval, poor sales compelled his publisher, Harcourt Brace, not to exercise an option on a second novel. The next seven years served as an informal literary apprenticeship period for Kerouac as he travelled to New York City, Denver, San Francisco, and Mexico City, with side trips to Lowell and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to visit family. Kerouac’s periods of travel alternated with periods of literary productivity, supported in part by Memere’s indulgent largesse. Kerouac was also stockpiling experiences that he would use in his later fiction.

Although critical commentary differs on the issue, it seems likely that Kerouac speed-typed a complete first draft of On the Road during three weeks in New York City in 1951 on a stolen teletype roll. Kerouac was a quick and accurate typist who was often frustrated by the task of replacing typewriter paper every time the 11 inches were filled. Foolscap paper provided only an additional three inches, but Lucien Carr’s theft of a teletype roll provided Kerouac with a seamless roll of paper on which his ideas could be quickly transferred to the page. During this period, Kerouac began to develop a theory of poetics that he called “spontaneous prose” in which he thought of an idea and developed it by writing without stopping or editing. Despite protestations to the contrary, however, there is evidence that Kerouac continued to tinker with the text until 1956, when it was finally accepted for publication in the following year.

Meanwhile, in 1951 and 1952, Kerouac wrote much of Visions of Cody (1960), a more extended attempt to put Cassady into a literary form worthy of his personality. The text was not published in any form until 1959 and not in completed form until 1972, but it belongs strongly to immediate postwar America, where it moves the characters of Jack Duluoz and Cody Pomeray through a subterranean landscape of the highways, diners, and flophouses of which Kerouac was enamored.

Despite William S. Burroughs’s accidental lethal shooting of his wife, Joan, in Mexico City in September, 1951, Kerouac wrote Doctor Sax there during the winter of 1951-1952. He subtitled the eclectic text Faust: Part 3 and used the book as an opportunity to remember the radio mysteries of his childhood. Travelling later in the year to San Francisco and to North Carolina (where his mother had moved), Kerouac began compiling his Book of Dreams (1961), a transcription of dreams that he kept by his bedstead in order to recall and transcribe the otherwise inchoate meanderings of his subconscious.

Kerouac’s productivity continued in New York City in 1953 as he composed manuscripts that continued to chronicle the Beat movement (The Subterraneans, 1958) at the same time that he also extended the Jack Duluoz legend (Maggie Cassidy, 1959), this time replete with small-town football games and homecoming queens. A return trip to Mexico City in 1955 caused Kerouac, now toying with Zen Buddhism (partly because of Gary Snyder’s and Allen Ginsberg’s separate influences), to become infatuated with an Indian woman named Esperanza, who would become the model for Tristessa (1960). During his stay in Mexico City, Kerouac also composed the “242 Chants” that comprise Mexico City Blues (1959), Kerouac’s only extended foray into poetry during his adult years.

A 1955 Christmastime visit to his mother in North Carolina extended into 1956 as Kerouac wrote Visions of Gerard with his mother in the house to coax recollections about the boy who had died three decades earlier. In the summer of 1956, Kerouac worked for the National Park Service as a fire lookout in Mount Baker National Forest near Marblemount, Washington. Kerouac’s lookout point was 12 miles south of the Canadian border near the top of Desolation Peak, and it was there that he wrote the first section of what would later become Desolation Angels (1965).

The publication of On the Road in 1957, especially Gilbert Millstein’s September 5, 1957, New York Times review of the novel (“the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. . . . On the Road is a major novel”), catapulted Kerouac to instant international fame, a responsibility and a burden that Kerouac rather gracelessly carried with him during the final twelve years of his life.

Although Kerouac’s publication record throughout the period remained fairly constant, much of the work had been written earlier, and the work composed after 1957 is generally considered to be second-echelon Kerouac (The Dharma Bums, 1958; Big Sur, 1962; Satori in Paris, 1966; Pic, 1971). Kerouac also dabbled in film (Pull My Daisy, 1961) and religious writings (The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, 1960), but he remained, both in the public eye and to himself, primarily a prose writer. Increasingly isolated from his friends and finding it more difficult to write as time went on, Kerouac died of a hemorrhage in 1969 at his mother’s home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Summary

The legacy of Jack Kerouac ultimately lies in his status as a spokesperson for the Beat movement through his book On the Road and, to a lesser extent, the essay “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” Selected passages from On the Road have entered popular culture and remain as vital and expressive comments on the place of youth, art, and longing in American culture. Videotape of a shy yet personable Kerouac on the Steve Allen Show, as well as existing photographs have made him a cultural icon of the young even as new generations come of age. Kerouac’s characters, especially those in On the Road, were on a neoreligious quest for personal understanding and fulfillment. Those needs and that sort of quest are common to all eras and generations.

Bibliography

Cassady, Neal. The First Third: A Partial Biography and Other Writings. San Francisco: City Lights, 1971. This posthumous collection of Cassady’s prose includes the three extant chapters (“the first third”) of an unfinished autobiography, six brief narrative prose pieces, and two lengthy letters, one to Jack Kerouac and one to Ken Kesey.

Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. New York: Warner, 1974. This is the earliest critical biography and remains a benchmark for Kerouac biographical criticism.

French, Warren. Jack Kerouac. Boston: Twayne, 1986. This text, composed for a scholastic audience, focuses on the Duluoz legend (Maggie Cassidy, Visions of Gerard, Vanity of Duluoz, Doctor Sax) as Kerouac’s version of a collective Bildungsroman analogous to James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus novels or Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981).

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. Reprint. Edited by Scott Donaldson. New York: Viking, 1979. This is a scholarly edition with significant critical articles, position pieces by Kerouac himself, and various useful appendices, including a section on “Topics for Discussion and Papers.”

Kerouac, Jack. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Edited by Ann Charters. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996. This relatively inexpensive text provides selections from Kerouac’s principal works as well as biographical background and critical commentary.

Knight, Arthur, and Kit Knight, eds. Kerouac and the Beats: A Primary Sourcebook. New York: Paragon, 1988. This collection includes interviews, personal recollections, and other primary source material relevant to an understanding of Kerouac’s significance to the Beat movement.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove, 1983. This lengthy and amply documented biography divides Kerouac’s life into three principal periods. It includes forty-four pages of sources and notes as well as a comprehensive index.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. This eminently readable text considers the origins and development of a Beat sensibility within the cultural context of the 1950’s. There are worthwhile discussions of most major Beat texts, including On the Road as well as Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl and William S. Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch.

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