Jack Kerouac was an American writer best known for the novel On the Road, which became an American classic, pioneering the Beat Generation in the 1950s.
Famed writer Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. A thriving mill town in the mid-19th century, Lowell had become, by the time of Jack Kerouac’s birth, a down-and-out burg where unemployment and heavy drinking prevailed. Kerouac’s parents, Leo and Gabrielle, were immigrants from Quebec, Canada; Kerouac learned to speak French at home before he learned English at school. Leo Kerouac owned his own print shop, Spotlight Print, in downtown Lowell, and Gabrielle Kerouac, known to her children as Memere, was a homemaker. Kerouac later described the family’s home life: “My father comes home from his printing shop and undoes his tie and removes [his] 1920s vest, and sits himself down at hamburger and boiled potatoes and bread and butter, and with the kiddies and the good wife.” Jack Kerouac endured a childhood tragedy in the summer of 1926, when his beloved older brother, Gerard, died of rheumatic fever at the age of 9. Drowning in grief, the Kerouac family embraced their Catholic faith more deeply. Kerouac’s writing is full of vivid memories of attending church as a child: “From the open door of the church warm and golden light swarmed out on the snow. The sound of the organ and singing could be heard.”
Kerouac’s two favorite childhood pastimes were reading and sports. He devoured all the 10-cent fiction magazines available at the local stores, and he also excelled at football, basketball, and track. Although Kerouac dreamed of becoming a novelist and writing the “great American novel,” it was sports, not writing, that Kerouac viewed as his ticket to a secure future. With the onset of the Great Depression, the Kerouac family suffered from financial difficulties, and Kerouac’s father turned to alcohol and gambling to cope. His mother took a job at a local shoe factory to boost the family income, but, in 1936, the Merrimack River flooded its banks and destroyed Leo Kerouac’s print shop, sending him into a spiral of worsening alcoholism and condemning the family to poverty. Kerouac, who was, by that time, a star running back on the Lowell High School football team, saw football as his ticket to a college scholarship, which in turn might allow him to secure a good job and save his family’s finances.
Upon graduating from high school in 1939, Kerouac received a football scholarship to Columbia University, but first he had to attend a year of preparatory school at the Horace Mann School for Boys in the Bronx. So, at the age of 17, Kerouac packed his bags and moved to New York City, where he was immediately awed by the limitless new experiences of big city life. Of the many wonderful new things Kerouac discovered in New York, and perhaps the most influential on his life, was jazz. He described the feeling of walking past a jazz club in Harlem: “Outside, in the street, the sudden music which comes from the nitespot fills you with yearning for some intangible joy—and you feel that it can only be found within the smoky confines of the place.” It was also during his year at Horace Mann that Kerouac first began writing seriously. He worked as a reporter for the Horace Mann Record, and published short stories in the school’s literary magazine, the Horace Mann Quarterly.
The following year, in 1940, Kerouac began his freshman year as a football player and aspiring writer at Columbia University. However, he broke his leg in one of his first games and was relegated to the sidelines for the rest of the season. Although his leg had healed, Kerouac’s coach refused to let him play the next year, and Kerouac impulsively quit the team and dropped out of college. He spent the next year working odd jobs and trying to figure out what to make of his life. He spent a few months pumping gas in Hartford, Connecticut. Then he hopped a bus to Washington, D.C., and worked on a construction crew building the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Eventually Kerouac decided to join the military to fight for his country in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1943, but was honorably discharged after only 10 days of service for what his medical report described as “strong schizoid trends.” After his discharge from the Marines, Kerouac returned to New York City and fell in with a group of friends that would eventually define a literary movement. He befriended Allen Ginsberg, a Columbia student, and William Burroughs, another college dropout and aspiring writer. Together, these three friends would go on to become the leaders of the Beat Generation of writers.
Living in New York in the late 1940s, Kerouac wrote his first novel, Town and City, a highly autobiographical tale about the intersection of small town family values and the excitement of city life. The novel was published in 1950 with the help of Ginsberg’s Columbia professors, and although the well-reviewed book earned Kerouac a modicum of recognition, it did not make him famous.Another of Kerouac’s New York friends in the late 1940s was Neal Cassady; the two took several cross-country road trips to Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, and even Mexico City. These trips provided the inspiration for Kerouac’s next and greatest novel, On the Road, a barely fictionalized account of these road trips packed with sex, drugs and jazz. Kerouac’s writing of On the Road in 1951 is the stuff of legend: he wrote the entire novel over one three-week bender of frenzied composition, on a single scroll of paper that was 120 feet long.
Like most legends, the story of the whirlwind composition of On the Road is part fact and part fiction. Kerouac did, in fact, write the novel on a single scroll in three weeks, but he had also spent several years making notes in preparation for this literary outburst. Kerouac termed this style of writing “spontaneous prose” and compared it to the improvisation of his beloved jazz musicians. Revision, he believed, was akin to lying and detracted from the ability of prose to capture the truth of a moment.
However, publishers dismissed Kerouac’s single-scroll manuscript, and the novel remained unpublished for six years. When it was finally published in 1957, On the Road became an instant classic, bolstered by a review in The New York Times that proclaimed, “Just as, more than any other novel of the ’20s, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the ‘Lost Generation,’ so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the ‘Beat Generation.’” As Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time, Joyce Johnson, put it, “Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.”
In the six years that passed between the composition and publication of On the Road, Kerouac traveled extensively, experimented with Buddhism, and wrote many novels that went unpublished at the time. His next published novel, The Dharma Bums (1958), described Kerouac’s clumsy steps toward spiritual enlightenment on a mountain climb with friend Gary Snyder, a Zen poet. Dharma was followed that same year by the novel The Subterraneans, and in 1959, Kerouac published three novels: Dr. Sax, Mexico City Blues and Maggie Cassidy.Kerouac’s most famous later novels include Book of Dreams (1961), Big Sur (1962), Visions of Gerard (1963) and Vanity of Duluoz (1968). Kerouac also wrote poetry in his later years, composing mostly long-form free verse as well as his own version of the Japanese haiku form. Additionally, Kerouac released several albums of spoken word poetry during his lifetime. Despite maintaining a prolific pace of publishing and writing, Kerouac was never able to cope with the fame he achieved after On the Road, and his life soon devolved into a blur of drunkenness and drug addiction. He married Edie Parker in 1944, but their marriage ended in divorce after only a few months. In 1950, Kerouac married Joan Haverty, who gave birth to his only daughter, Jan Kerouac, but this second marriage also ended in divorce after less than a year. Kerouac married Stella Sampas, who was also from Lowell, in 1966. He died from an abdominal hemorrhage three years later, on October 21, 1969, at the age of 47, in St. Petersburg, Florida.