Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac, better known as Jack Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922. His parents, Leo and Gabrielle, were French Canadian and devoutly Roman Catholic. Leo developed a printing business in Lowell, which provided a modestly comfortable life for the Kerouacs during the 1920s. The security of Jack’s early childhood existence was soon disrupted, however, by the death of his much loved older brother, Gerard, in 1926. During the following decade—the Depression of the 1930s—the financial fortunes of the family took a serious downturn. Leo lost his business and was forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet. The family had to move into tenement housing. These reversals helped shape the character and values of young Jack. He learned that life is suffering, and he acquired, especially from his deceased brother, a sense of compassion for all living things and a need to find spiritual meaning in life. Although his search for meaning would take him in many different directions as an adult, the influence of his Catholic upbringing would remain substantial.
Jack was a gifted child, endowed with a keen intellect and a strong creative imagination. Although French was the language he grew up with at home, he learned English quickly once he entered school in Lowell. More introverted than many of his peers, he became an avid reader and by the age of ten had decided to become a writer. At the same time, he was an athletic person whose strength and coordination allowed him to excel in sports. In the end, those talents rather than his very considerable intellectual gifts provided his path out of and beyond Lowell. In 1939, his prowess on the football field earned him a full scholarship, first to Horace Mann, a prep school in Riverdale, New York, and then in the fall of 1940 to Columbia University, a few miles to the south in Manhattan.
Kerouac’s football career at Columbia proved brief. An early injury prevented him from playing most of his freshman year. Although freed to concentrate fully on academics, he had little success as a student. Impatient with the structured regular curriculum, Kerouac preferred to study what interested him, skipping classes and spending countless hours in the library reading modern writers such as Céline, Dostoevsky, and especially Thomas Wolfe. Not surprisingly, he flunked chemistry in his second semester. The following fall, he played football again briefly but developed serious conflicts with the coach. A few weeks after the beginning of the term he quit both the team and Columbia.
For the next several years Kerouac’s life was unsettled and directionless. In early 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the merchant marine and took one brief voyage to Greenland. Upon his return, he made another attempt at school and football at Columbia but soon dropped both again, this time for good. In early 1943, Kerouac was drafted into the Navy. When he proved resistant to the requirements of military discipline during basic training, preferring the library to the drill field, he was placed under psychiatric observation and then, having served less than six months, was given a medical discharge. After leaving the Navy, he shipped out again several times with the merchant marine, but he spent much of the remainder of the war in New York City, where he gravitated toward a group of friends living in the area around Columbia University.
Kerouac and his New York friends of the 1940s came to be the core members of what would later be known as the Beat literary movement. The group was small, at first limited to Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Allen Ginsberg. Later they were joined by Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and a number of lesser known figures. Although from widely different backgrounds (from the Harvard-educated and aristocratic Burroughs to the street junkie and petty criminal Huncke), they were all resistant to mainstream expectations, willingly—even determinedly—living on the margins. They shared a common alienation from what they saw as the narrow conformity of much of American life and culture in the 1940s (and 1950s). Kerouac and his friends often stressed that they were on a quest, one that was essentially spiritual in character. They were determined to live their lives more fully and with greater spontaneity and consciousness. In their search for new meaning, they experimented with drugs and sexuality but also with new forms of literary and cultural expression.
Although Kerouac had been composing stories and accumulating material in a journal since he was a teenager, he did not begin to write seriously until the early 1940s. From the outset, what seemed to interest him most was a blend of fiction and autobiography. Looking back years later, he explained that his novels should all be seen as part of a grand scheme written in the manner of a Proust or a Balzac. The stories embodied in these books were, he said, to be seen as episodes in what he called the “Legend of the Duluoz Family.” The family was in fact the Kerouacs, and the legend was largely Jack’s own personal story and that of his immediate family and friends. He saw each novel in the Duluoz cycle as a unified work capable of standing on its own. No attempt was made to write them in their proper chronological sequence. The names of real people were changed, sometimes varying from novel to novel, at the insistence of the publishers. (Allen Ginsberg, for example, was “Carlo Marx” in On the Road, “Alvah Goldbook” in The Dharma Bums, and “Irwin Garden” in Big Sur.) Nonetheless, if lined up on a shelf and read sequentially, the books would form a continuous tale. Indeed, Kerouac expressed a hope that he might at the end of his career re-edit his novels to allow them to be read in just that manner.
As a writer, Kerouac’s most productive years stretched from the late 1940s through the decade of the 1950s. He began working on his first novel, The Town and the City, in 1946 and finally published it in 1950. He wrote the book very much under the influence of the work of American writer Thomas Wolfe. Not surprisingly, Kerouac’s publishers promoted him to the world as the new Wolfe for another generation. By the time The Town and the City was published, however, the young novelist was already looking for a new voice, one that was more distinctly his own. He struggled with this while working on early drafts of what would later become his most famous book, On the Road. He found some of his answers in his long, late-night discussions with friends and fellow writers such as William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes. An avid jazz fan, Kerouac also sought to incorporate something of the rhythms and feel of his favourite music into his writing. Most important, he was affected by the passionate personality of his good friend and frequent travelling companion, Neal Cassady. Kerouac’s trips with Cassady back and forth across America provided the narrative material for On the Road. Of equal importance, however, the example of Cassady’s limitless energy, fast-talking manner, and irrepressible spontaneity deeply influenced Kerouac’s emerging voice and writing style.
The young novelist made his breakthrough to what he would later call “spontaneous prose” in 1951. Over a three-week period in April, Kerouac sat down to a typewriter and wrote a completely new draft of his novel on long rolls of teletype paper, which, taped together, extended to nearly 120 feet in length. He typed as rapidly as he could, with little concern for punctuation, paragraph endings, or other mechanical obstacles to his creative flow. Although Kerouac did indeed edit and revise the typescript extensively over the next few years, this new, more spontaneous style, what Truman Capote would later dismiss as mere “typing,” became the chief characteristic of his prose. Kerouac struggled for years to find a publisher for On the Road. Finally, Malcolm Cowley at Viking took an interest in the book, and it was published in 1957. The novel was very favourably reviewed in the New York Times, where Gilbert Millstein declared its publication “a historic occasion” and “the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is”. On the Road quickly became a bestseller. Overnight, its author became a national celebrity, heralded in the media as the “King of the Beats.”
In the years between completing the first draft of On the Road and its publication in 1957, Kerouac wrote several other novels in his Duluoz legend series. Following the Millstein review and the remarkable attention given to the author of the new bestseller, the demand for a stream of new material became intense. Kerouac was persuaded to publish most of his accumulated manuscripts over the next three years, with apparently little sense of the risks involved in overloading the market. Thus, in the year following On the Road, he published two more novels, The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums. Four more books appeared in 1959: Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Mexico City Blues, and Excerpts from Visions of Cody. In 1960, he issued Tristessa, Lonesome Traveler, and Rimbaud. He slowed down as the 1960s progressed but still managed to publish several substantial works, including Big Sur (1962), Visions of Gerard (1963), Desolation Angels (1965), Satori in Paris (1966), and Vanity of Duluoz (1968).
For Kerouac, the 1960s were years of decline, both artistic and physical. Basically a shy person, he was never comfortable with the constant public attention he received following the success of On the Road. Moreover, he felt deeply misunderstood and hurt by the many negative criticisms he received from within the mainstream press and by the tendency of some to treat him and other “beatniks” with ridicule. He did not appreciate being associated with the hippies, and he became disturbed by the drift of the counterculture toward more radical and confrontational politics in response to the escalating American involvement in Vietnam. Kerouac had always had a tendency to drink heavily and to be something of a loner. In his declining years, he drank increasingly and became more and more reclusive. His third marriage, to Stella Sampas, a childhood acquaintance from Lowell, did not alter this direction substantially. He eventually retired to St. Petersburg, Florida, with Stella and his ailing mother. He continued to drink and to behave erratically. At one point in late 1969, still married and living with Stella, he attempted to re-establish contact with his first wife, Edie Parker, and even invited her to join him in St. Petersburg. Then, the next day, he abruptly wrote a letter withdrawing the invitation. Four weeks later, on October 21, 1969, he died in a St. Petersburg hospital of an abdominal haemorrhage clearly related to his alcoholism.