Jack Kerouac 1922–1969
(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist and poet.
Kerouac is best known as the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began simultaneously in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, was a reaction against the conservatism in America during the Cold War era. Other key figures in the Beat Movement included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs, all of whom were close friends of Kerouac. Kerouac coined the label "Beat" as an abbreviation of "beatific," and his best known novel, On the Road (1957), is considered the manifesto of the Beat Movement. On the Road depicts the counter-culture lifestyle of the Beats, which was marked by manic travel and experimentation with sex and drugs. While On the Road stunned the public and the literary establishment when it was first published, it is now recognized as an American classic.
Kerouac's early life had a considerable impact on his fiction. His French-Canadian parents, particularly his mother, were devout Catholics, and Kerouac suffered lifelong guilt over the contradictions between his bohemian lifestyle and his own deep-rooted belief in Catholicism. Kerouac was also psychologically scarred by the death of his older brother, who was deemed a near saint by the Kerouac family and their friends. Two of Kerouac's lesser known novels, Doctor Sax (1959) and Visions of Gerard (1963), are viewed by critics as autobiographical works in which Kerouac attempted to exorcise the fear and guilt of his childhood.
Many of the friends Kerouac made during his adult life served as the basis for the characters in his novels. Novelist William 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 better-known novels, The Dharma Bums (1958). But undoubtedly the single most influential personality in Kerouac's circle of friends, and the main character 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. The female characters in Kerouac's novels are also largely based on the women in Kerouac's life and the lives of his friends. However, women generally assume minor roles in Kerouac's fiction. They are often depicted as the "property" of the male characters, or as purchasable commodities. Tristessa (1960), a novel which has been largely dismissed by critics, is based on Kerouac's relationship with a drug-addicted prostitute in Mexico. Maggie Cassidy (1960) was inspired by Kerouac's long, ill-fated love affair with his high school sweetheart. Tristessa and Maggie Cassidy are Kerouac's only two works in which women are central figures; Kerouac's considerable ambivalence toward women is revealed in both works.
Twenty-seven years after the publication of On the Road, critics are beginning to seriously consider Kerouac's place in con-temporary American fiction. Much of the sensationalism and subjectivity which marked early Kerouac criticism is gone. What has replaced it is traditional, scholarly critical effort. Some recent critical studies show considerable interest in Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" method, which is a variation of the "stream of consciousness" technique utilized by James Joyce. There have also been critical attempts to compare On the Road thematically with such American classics as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. And because of his flamboyant and tragic life and career, Kerouac has been the subject of several recent critical biographies. The past speculation of whether Kerouac would merit a permanent place in contemporary American fiction has ended; he is now widely recognized, if begrudgingly by some, as an important contributor to American literature.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)