Name: Jack Kerouac
Born: March 12, 1922 (Lowell, MA)
Died: October 21, 1969 (St. Petersburg, FL)
Seminal Work: On the Road
Relationship to The Beat Generation:
Jack Kerouac, with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, founded The Beat Generation in 1940s New York City. He was inspired by Jazz music and by the mantra of “first thought, best thought.” His writing reflects a quest for honesty and a mythical approach to ordinary life.
Importance to Literary History:
As one of the founding members of the Beat Generation and arguably its most influential character, Jack Kerouac has a very real place in American literary history. On the Road has appeared on almost every published list of “greatest American novels,” since the 1960s and has become one of the most enduring American novels of the 20th Century.
Jack Kerouac and Automatic Writing:
Kerouac wrote his seminal work in one frantic, frenzied burst that took him three weeks. He had been taking notes for years, in preparation for what would become the novel, but when he actually sat down to write a book – he did it all at once. He termed this particular style, “spontaneous prose” and compared it to his greatest influence, jazz music. Kerouac believed that prose had the ability to capture truths, particularly “the truth of a moment,” but to be faithful to this, the writer could not revise or edit; these corrections, in Kerouac’s opinion, would be like lying – presenting an untrue prose, lacking truth of the moment. This was certainly a new concept, one which publishers were leery of, and it was partly because of this style (and partly because of the book’s content) that it took 6 years for anyone to publish On the Road.
“Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.” -Joyce Johnson
Biographical Information & Fun Facts:
- Kerouac’s birth name was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac.
- He began his writing career in the 1940s but his first success, On the Road, was not published until 1957.
- Kerouac was a High School football star, at the position of running back. He always dreamed of becoming a writer but thought sports would be his best chance at getting himself and his parents out of hardship.
- He received a football scholarship to Columbia University and moved from Massachusetts to New York in 1939, at the age of 17.
- In New York, Kerouac would discover one of his first loves and greatest influences: Jazz music.
- After breaking his leg and being benched by his football coaches, Kerouac quit the team, quit school, and started working odd jobs while writing more seriously.
- He joined the U.S. Marines in 1943 but was honorably discharged after 10 days, for ‘strong schizoid trends.’
- Kerouac returned to NYC and met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. The Beat Generation of writers began to form.
- Kerouac and Cassady took several road trips across the country, from NYC to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and Mexico. These trips would inspire Kerouac to write On the Road.
- In the late-1940s, Kerouac wrote his first novel, Town and City. It was published in 1950 (with help from Ginsberg).
- Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951. It took him just three weeks, and he wrote it on a single scroll of paper that was 120 feet long, though he had been taking notes for years.
- Upon publication, On the Road became an instant classic, with The New York Times claiming that the book would do for The Beat Generation what Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises did for The Lost Generation.
- Following On the Road, Kerouac published many books in rapid succession, including: The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans in 1958, and Dr. Sax, Mexico City Blues, and Maggie Cassidy in 1959.
- In the 1960s, Kerouac wrote and published other novels, such as Big Sur (1962), wrote poetry, including experiments with Japanese haiku and long-form free verse, and also released multiple albums of spoken-word poetry.
- Kerouac did not handle fame well. He spent most of his years post-On the Road in drunkenness and drug addiction.
- He was married three times (1944, 1950, and 1966) and divorced twice.
- Kerouac died of an abdominal hemorrhage at the age of 47, just 12 years after publication of On the Road.
“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles” (On the Road).
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple” (The Dharma Bums).
“Happiness consists in realizing its all a great strange dream.”
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness” (On the Road).
“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.”
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road” (On the Road).