Authors: Jack Kerouac

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Beat writer best remembered for his stream-of-consciousness, jazz-influenced novels

March 12, 1922

Lowell, Massachusetts

October 21, 1969

St. Petersburg, Florida

Biography

In effusive, poetic language, Jack Kerouac captured the energy of the archetypal American quest for love, adventure, and enlightenment. Born Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac to immigrants from Quebec who grew up in New England mill towns, he was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle, born while his father ran a moderately prosperous printing shop. “Ti Jean” (“Little Jack”) attended the St. Louis School in accordance with his family’s serious Catholic background. His religious training was complemented by his constant visits to the Lowell Public Library and by his father’s boisterous drinking and card-playing companions, an aspect of saloon society of which Kerouac never tired. He spoke French until he was six years old, encouraged by his mother’s tales of their Gallic and Celtic heritage, but moved beyond his Franco-American neighborhood when he entered junior high school and started to write stories and keep a journal. In 1936, he entered Lowell High School, where he excelled at football and was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. After spending one year at the Horace Mann preparatory school, he began to study at Columbia and played on the freshman football team. He was swept up in the excitement of life on the streets, drawn to both the great downtown library and uptown jazz clubs. The turmoil of Kerouac’s life was reflected in the A he got from the Shakespearean scholar Mark Van Doren and the F he got in chemistry. He left Columbia in September, 1941, held several odd jobs, read constantly, shipped out to Greenland in 1942, and, upon his return, reentered Columbia at the invitation of the football coach. He left again when the coach kept him on the bench for several games.

In 1943, Kerouac joined the U.S. Navy but accepted an honorable discharge six months later on psychiatric grounds. He rejoined his family in the borough of Queens in New York City (where they had moved to get jobs in the war effort), shipped out to Liverpool, England, in the fall, and continued to gather experience for a writing career based on “what I’d seen with my own eyes,” following the example of poet Walt Whitman, one of his earliest heroes. Back in New York in 1944, while frequenting a familiar neighborhood on the Upper West Side near Columbia University, Kerouac met William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, both brilliant young men as alienated from mainstream American society as he was. Moving amid the early stirring of a counterculture, Kerouac acted instinctively and impulsively, marrying and separating, moving into the realm of the “hipster,” experimenting with drugs and unconventional sexual arrangements, and living on the edge of danger and mental instability. In 1946, his father died from stomach cancer, driving Kerouac closer to his mother (always known to everyone as Memere), who shared his sense of deep loss resulting from the death of his older brother Gerard in 1926. That same year, he met Neal Cassady, his spiritual “road brother,” and in 1947 he hitchhiked to the West Coast for the first time.

Jack Kerouac

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(National Archives)

After spending nearly two years traveling, Kerouac moved back in with his mother, in what was to become a familiar pattern, and wrote The Town and the City, based on his experiences in New England in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The book was rejected by Scribner’s, but he had already begun another manuscript, the proto-version of On the Road. In 1950, The Town and the City was published by Harcourt Brace, and Kerouac married for the second time. Between April 1 and 25, 1951, Kerouac completed On the Road and separated from Joan Haverty, even though she was pregnant. Robert Giroux, a sympathetic editor, suggested that Kerouac make some changes in his manuscript, and during the next six years Kerouac continued to work on the book as well as on the original forms of a dozen more, although he was unable to publish anything until 1957. His life at that time consisted of trips to visit friends in various parts of the United States, Mexico, and Europe; stretches at his mother’s home in North Carolina, where he did much of his writing; and various odd jobs on railroads, in restaurants, and aboard ships. Alternately inspired by new thoughts and ideas and discouraged by his inability to win any sort of conventional literary acknowledgment, encouraged by friends and envious of their success, Kerouac continued to live between the discipline of his writing and the dissipation of alcoholic binges and sexual entanglements.

On the Road was accepted by Viking Press in 1955 and published in 1957. Kerouac had attended a landmark poetry reading in San Francisco in 1955 (including Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia), which some commentators use as the point in history when the concept of “beatitude” emerged in media consciousness. The publication of On the Road, which has been called the bible of the Beat generation, provided a model for the literary expression and cultural experience of at least two generations of self-styled outlaws, rebels, mystics, and artists.

While establishment literary critics cringed and recoiled from its bold, exuberant projections of linguistic energy and its assaults on conventional form, the novel found a public immediately, and it continues to reach readers who recognize the significance of the facet of the national psyche that Kerouac revealed. Kerouac was never fully at ease with his sudden prominence, but he did enjoy some of the acclaim, particularly since it enabled him to publish in immediate succession The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums (his lucid appreciation of mountaineering with Snyder, combined with a sensitive meditation on the place of Buddhism in Western life), Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and his jazz-poem Mexico City Blues.

However, charges of obscenity, vicious attacks by people whose positions of authority were threatened, and various personal problems (a paternity case, physical decline, drug experimentation with Timothy Leary) clouded Kerouac’s life. He spent more time with his mother and less time with his friends, and he found it steadily more difficult to write. His sister died in 1964, which bound him even more tightly to his mother, and except for an occasional trip, to Paris or New York, he remained at home. In 1966, he married Stella Sampas, the sister of one of his best boyhood friends, and briefly settled in Lowell, where he worked on Vanity of Duluoz, the final chapter to a family/place saga of Faulknerian scope. Neal Cassady died in Mexico in 1968, the year Vanity of Duluoz was published, and, as his old friend John Clellon Holmes put it, Kerouac was “gone in October” in 1969, dying of a hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Florida, in his mother’s house.

Kerouac’s accomplishments as a writer will probably always be in dispute because his unruly, explosive spasms of language and his experiments with form run counter to some of the most cherished precepts of traditional critical dogma. Yet in contrast to the furor generated by On the Road, the sensitivity and clarity of The Dharma Bums has an enduring quality that suggests it may become a kind of quiet classic, its meditative insights balancing the wild energy surges of Kerouac’s most famous book.

Since Kerouac's death in 1969, numerous volumes of his previously unpublished poems, short stories, nonfiction books, and novels, as well as his sole play, have been put into print. Kerouac's correspondence, artwork, and interviews have likewise been published, as fans and scholars alike grapple to understand his life, influences, and significance as a Beat writer.

Kerouac's legacy continues through several institutions named in his honor, including Lowell's annual Jack Kerouac Literary Festival (est. 1985), the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Colorado.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Town and the City, 1950 On the Road, 1957 The Dharma Bums, 1958 The Subterraneans, 1958 Doctor Sax, 1959 Maggie Cassidy, 1959 Tristessa, 1960 Visions of Cody, 1960, 1972 Big Sur, 1962 Visions of Gerard, 1963 Desolation Angels, 1965 Vanity of Duluoz, 1968 Pic, 1971 Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46, 1994 Orpheus Emerged, 2005 And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, 2008 (with William S. Burroughs) The Sea Is My Brother, 2012 Plays: Beat Generation: 3-Act Play, 2005 Poetry: Mexico City Blues, 1959 Scattered Poems, 1971 Old Angel Midnight, 1976 Trip Trap: Haiku along the Road from San Francisco to New York, 1959, 1973 (with Albert Saijo and Lew Welch) Heaven & Other Poems, 1977 Hymn—God Pray for Me, 1985 American Haikus, 1986 Pomes All Sizes, 1992 Book of Blues, 1995 Book of Haikus, 2003 (Regina Weinreich, editor) Book of Sketches, 1952-57, 2006 Collected Poems, 2012 (Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell, editor) Nonfiction: Lonesome Traveler, 1960 The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, 1960 Book of Dreams, 1961, revised 2001 Satori in Paris, 1966 Dear Carolyn: Letters to Carolyn Cassady, 1983 (Arthur and Kit Knight, editors) Good Blondes and Others, 1993, revised and enlarged 1994 Selected Letters, 1940-1956, 1995 (Ann Charters, editor) Selected Letters, 1957-1969, 1999 (Charters, editor) Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958, 2000 Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, 2004 (Douglas Brinkley, editor) Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac, 2005 (Paul Maher Jr., editor) Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, 2008 You’re Genius All The Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, 2009 Jack Kerouac/Allan Ginsberg: The Letters, 2010 (Bill Morgan and David Stanford, editors) Short Fiction: Two Early Stories, 1973 (also titled Brothers) The Haunted Life, and Other Writings, 2014 (Todd Tietchen, editor) Miscellaneous: The Portable Jack Kerouac, 1995 (Ann Charters, editor) Some of the Dharma, 1997 Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings, 1999 Departed Angels: The Lost Paintings, 2004 Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings, 2016 (Todd Tietchen, editor) Bibliography Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A biography by one of Kerouac’s editors, showing how his ambivalent feelings about his sexuality influenced his work. Includes detailed notes and bibliography. Amram, David. OffBeat: Collaborating with Kerouac. Thunder’s Mouth, 2002. This memoir by a member of the Beat circle sheds a friendly light on Kerouac. An engaging account of that generation. Cassady, Carolyn. Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1976. Chronicles Cassady’s relationship with Kerouac from 1952 through 1953 and the ménage à trois between the Cassadys and Kerouac. Reprinted here are letters of Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Carolyn Cassady. Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New York: William Morrow, 1990. A personal account, with many anecdotes and recollections written from Carolyn Cassady’s perspective. Important for its inside view of the Beat movement. Charters, Ann. Kerouac. 1974. Reprint. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. A sympathetic biographical interpretation of his life and work. Clark, Tom. Kerouac’s Last Word: Jack Kerouac in Escapade. Sudbury, Mass.: Water Row Press, 1986. A somewhat expressionistic interpretation, but good analytical material. With a supplement of three articles by Kerouac. French, Warren G. Jack Kerouac. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A standard biography from Twayne’s United States Authors series. Giamo, Ben. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. A study of the Beat poet’s Catholicism-infused Buddhism and his search for enlightenment. Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. An account of Kerouac’s life from a very involved, close perspective. Knight, Arthur, and Kit Knight, eds. Kerouac and the Beats: A Primary Sourcebook. New York: Paragon House, 1988. A useful resource. Lardas, John. The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. A study of the spiritualism of the Beats. McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. New York: Random House, 1979. A well-researched and generally sensitive biography which uses the materials of Kerouac’s own books as well as comments by his friends to present Kerouac’s life. Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983. A comprehensive, biographical account of Kerouac’s life. Highly regarded for background information on Kerouac and the process of his writing. Turner, Steve. Angelheaded Hipster: A Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking, 1996. A copiously illustrated biography with anecdotes that help illuminate the novels. Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. An appraisal of Kerouac’s writing in the context of his cultural milieu.

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