Jack Kerouac Additional 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.


(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.)


(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 distinguishable.

Impulsive and energetic, Kerouac produced huge amounts of material during marathon spontaneous writing sessions. He savored experiences and had a remarkable memory. His fiction comes from accurate remembrances. He was known as an adept typist and was chided by Truman Capote as being nothing else. He surrounded himself with music, specifically jazz. Such talents and inclinations resulted in his signature use of stream-of-consciousness and embedded blues phrasings in prose and poetry. He is often compared to Thomas Wolfe and to Walt Whitman (both writers were masters of a style that is, or appears to be, spontaneous and free-flowing). Kerouac traces his artistic self-discovery in the allegorical novel Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three (1959).

Kerouac’s affinity for literature, philosophy, common folk, and music fostered associations with some of the most active, innovative minds of his generation. A close friendship with the spirited Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) fueled Kerouac’s lust for road experience. Kerouac and his companions’ experimental approach to life and art often shocked America’s prim post-World War II society.

Indifferent politically and hedonistic practically, Kerouac nevertheless claimed conservative views. For a time he embraced Buddhism; The Dharma Bums is a product of that interval. Big Sur chronicles his nervous breakdown of 1960. His death resulted from alcoholism. Curiosity, his and others’, stemming from his reclusion, sexuality, and personae has enhanced the minor mythos around him. Kerouac’s 1952 coining of the special meaning of the word “beat” eventually led to his defining it on The Steve Allen Show in 1960 as “sympathetic,” an apt vision of Kerouac at his best.


(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.)


(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.)


(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.)