Jack Kerouac Kerouac, Jack - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

Warren French (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.]


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...

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Regina Weinreich (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Regina Weinreich (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carl D. Malmgren (essay date winter 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerald Nicosia (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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Joe Panish (essay date fall 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Holton (essay date summer 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Paul Eburne (essay date spring 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ann Douglas (essay date winter 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nancy McCampbell Grace (essay date winter 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rod Phillips (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 217 words.)