Born: March 12, 1922
Died: October 21, 1969
St. Petersburg, Florida
J ack Kerouac, an American writer, is best known for On the Road, (1957) which describes his travels into the American West. He is known as the father of the Beat Generation, younger intellectuals who rejected traditional values of society.
Born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was the son of Leo Kerouac, a printer, and Gabrielle Levesque, a factory worker. Kerouac loved to read and wanted to be a writer from his earliest childhood. He did not speak English until he was five years old, using instead a combination of French and English used by the many French-Canadians who settled in New England. Kerouac's older brother Gerard died at age nine; he also had an older sister. At age eleven Kerouac began writing novels and made-up accounts of horse races, football games, and baseball games.
Kerouac received a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City. At age seventeen he went to Horace Mann High School in New York City to improve his grades and increase his weight. In 1940 Kerouac arrived at Columbia but broke his leg in the second game of the season. After the injury he began to pursue his true passion—literature. Kerouac began to cut class regularly; he studied the style of writer Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) and hung out on the New York City streets. In 1941 Kerouac had an argument with Columbia's football coach and left school.
Kerouac worked briefly at a gas station and as a sports reporter for a newspaper in Lowell. He then signed on to work aboard the S. S. Dorchester bound for Greenland. After that trip Kerouac returned to Columbia for a short stay. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but he was honorably discharged after six months. Kerouac spent the war years working as a merchant seaman and hanging
Kerouac married Edie Parker in 1944, but the marriage lasted only two months. In 1947 Neal Cassady, a car thief and ladies' man who was considered something of a genius, visited New York and asked Kerouac to give him writing lessons. When Cassady returned to Denver, Colorado, Kerouac followed. After a few weeks in Denver, Kerouac wandered into California, beginning a four-year period of travel throughout the West. When not on the road, he was in New York working on his novel The Town and The City, which was published in 1950.
Now married to Joan Haverty, whom Kerouac proposed to after knowing her for only a few days, Kerouac began to experiment with a more natural writing style. He wanted to write the way he lived: once and with no editing. In April 1951 Kerouac threaded a huge roll of paper into his typewriter and wrote the single 175,000-word paragraph that became On The Road. The more than 100-foot scroll was written in three weeks but was not published for seven years. Sal and Neal, the main characters, scoff at established values and live by a romantic code born out off the West. They are described as "performing our one noble function of the time, move. " And to Kerouac, with movement comes wisdom and meaning.
In the time between writing On The Road and its publication, Kerouac took many road trips, ended his second marriage, became depressed and addicted to drugs and alcohol, and did his most ambitious writing. Kerouac often wrote complete works through all-night, week-long sessions. His other works include Visions of Cody (1952), Dr. Sax (1952), Maggie Cassidy (1953) (a romantic tale of his teenage days), Mexico City Blues and Tristessa (both 1955), and Visions of Gerard, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and Old Angel Midnight (all 1956).
When On The Road was published in 1957, Kerouac became instantly famous and a spokesman for the Beat Generation, young people in the 1950s and 1960s who scorned middle-class values. Kerouac frequently appeared drunk, and interviews with him usually turned into arguments. In 1958 he wrote The Dharma Bums, a follow-up to On The Road. He then stopped writing for four years. By 1960 he was an alcoholic and had suffered a nervous breakdown. Kerouac died of massive stomach bleeding on October 21, 1969, with a pad in his lap and pen in his hand. He was buried with the rest of his family near Lowell.
Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1984.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1957. Multiple reprints.
Miles, Barry. Jack Kerouac—King of the Beats. New York: H. Holt, 1998.
Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983.