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.