Jack Kerouac was an American novelist, writer, poet, and artist born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack (1889–1946) and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque (1895–1973).
Jack Kerouac's birthplace, 9 Lupine Road, 2nd floor in Lowell, Massachusetts
There is some confusion surrounding his name, partly because of variations on the spelling of Kerouac, and because of Kerouac's own statement of his name as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. His reason for that statement seems to be linked to an old family legend that the Kerouacs had descended from Baron François Louis Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac. Kerouac's baptism certificate lists his name simply as Jean Louis Kirouac, the most common spelling of the name in Quebec. Research has shown that Kerouac's roots were indeed in Brittany, and he was descended from a middle-class merchant colonist, Urbain-François Le Bihan, Sieur de Kervoac, whose sons married French Canadians.
Kerouac's father Leo had been born into a family of potato farmers in the village of Saint-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec. Jack also had various stories on the etymology of his surname, usually tracing it to Irish, Breton, Cornish or other Celtic roots.
In one interview he claimed it was from the name of the Cornish language (Kernewek), and that the Kerouacs had fled from Cornwall to Brittany. Another version was that the Kerouacs had come to Cornwall from Ireland before the time of Christ and the name meant "language of the house". In still another interview he said it was an Irish word for "language of the water" and related to Kerwick. Kerouac, derived from Kervoach, is the name of a town in Brittany in Lanmeur, near Morlaix.
Jack Kerouac later referred to 34 Beaulieu Street as "sad Beaulieu". The Kerouac family was living there in 1926 when Jack's older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever, aged nine. This deeply affected four-year-old Jack, who would later say that Gerard followed him in life as a guardian angel. This is the Gerard of Kerouac's novel Visions of Gerard. He had one other sibling, an older sister named Caroline. Kerouac was referred to as Ti Jean or little John around the house during his childhood.
34 Beaulieu Street where Visions of Gerard was inspired.
Kerouac spoke French until he began learning English at age six; he did not speak English confidently until his late teens. He was a serious child who was devoted to his mother, who played an important role in his life. She was a devout Catholic, who instilled this deep faith into both her sons. Kerouac would later say that his mother was the only woman he ever loved. After Gerard died, his mother sought solace in her faith, while his father abandoned it, wallowing in drinking, gambling, and smoking.
Some of Kerouac's poetry was written in French, and in letters written to friend Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life, he expressed a desire to speak his parents' native tongue again. In 2016, a whole volume of previously unpublished works originally written in French by Kerouac was published as La vie est d'hommage.
On May 17, 1928, while six years old, Kerouac had his first Confession. For penance, he was told to say a rosary, during which he heard God tell him that he had a good soul, that he would suffer in life and die in pain and horror, but would in the end receive salvation. This experience, along with his dying brother's vision of the Virgin Mary (as the nuns fawned over him, convinced he was a saint), combined with a later study of Buddhism and an ongoing commitment to Christ, solidified the worldview which would inform Kerouac's work.
Kerouac once told Ted Berrigan, in an interview for The Paris Review, of an incident in the 1940s in which his mother and father were walking together in a Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York. He recalled "a whole bunch of rabbis walking arm in arm ... teedah- teedah – teedah ... and they wouldn't part for this Christian man and his wife, so my father went POOM! and knocked a rabbi right in the gutter." Leo, after the death of his child, also treated a priest with similar contempt, angrily throwing him out of the house despite his invitation from Gabrielle.
Kerouac's athletic skills as a running back in football for Lowell High School earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame, and Columbia University. He entered Columbia University after spending a year at Horace Mann School, where he earned the requisite grades for entry to Columbia. Kerouac broke a leg playing football during his freshman season, and during an abbreviated second year he argued constantly with coach Lou Little, who kept him benched. While at Columbia, Kerouac wrote several sports articles for the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. He also studied at The New School.
When his football career at Columbia ended, Kerouac dropped out of the university. He continued to live for a time in New York's Upper West Side with his girlfriend and future first wife, Edie Parker. It was during this time that he first met the Beat Generation figures who would shape his legacy and who would become characters in many of this novels, such as Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr and William S. Burroughs.
In 1942, Kerouac joined the United States Merchant Marine, and in 1943 he joined the US Navy. He would serve only eight days of active duty with the Navy before arriving on the sick list. According to his medical report, Kerouac said he "asked for an aspirin for his headaches and they diagnosed me dementia praecox and sent me here." The medical examiner reported that Kerouac's military adjustment was poor, quoting Kerouac: "I just can't stand it; I like to be by myself." Two days later he was honorably discharged on the psychiatric grounds that he was of "indifferent character" with a diagnosis of "schizoid personality".
While serving in the Merchant Marine in 1942, Kerouac wrote his first novel, The Sea Is My Brother. The book was not published until 2011, 70 years after it was written and over 40 years after Kerouac's death. Kerouac described the work as being about "man's simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies." He viewed the work as a failure, calling it a "crock as literature" and never actively seeking to publish it.
In 1944, Kerouac was arrested as a material witness in the murder of David Kammerer, who had been stalking Kerouac's friend Lucien Carr since Carr was a teenager in St. Louis. William Burroughs was also a native of St. Louis, and it was through Carr that Kerouac came to know both Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. According to Carr, Kammerer's homosexual obsession turned aggressive, finally provoking Carr to stab him to death in self-defense. Carr dumped the body in the Hudson River. Afterwards, Carr sought help from Kerouac. Kerouac disposed of the murder weapon and buried Kammerer's eyeglasses. Carr, encouraged by Burroughs, turned himself in to the police. Kerouac and Burroughs were later arrested as material witnesses. Kerouac's father refused to pay his bail. Kerouac then agreed to marry Edie Parker if her parents would pay the bail. (Their marriage was annulled in 1948.) Kerouac and Burroughs collaborated on a novel about the Kammerer killing entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Though the book was not published during their lifetimes, an excerpt eventually appeared in Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (and as noted below, the novel was finally published late 2008). Kerouac also later wrote about the killing in his novel Vanity of Duluoz.
Later, Kerouac lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, after they had also moved to New York. He wrote his first published novel, The Town and the City, and began the famous On the Road around 1949 when living there. His friends jokingly called him "The Wizard of Ozone Park", alluding to Thomas Edison's nickname, "the Wizard of Menlo Park", and to the film The Wizard of Oz.
Kerouac wrote some of his earliest work while living above a drug store (now a flower shop) with his parents in Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens
EARLY CAREER: 1950-1957
The Town and the City was published in 1950 under the name "John Kerouac" and, though it earned him a few respectable reviews, the book sold poorly. Heavily influenced by Kerouac's reading of Thomas Wolfe, it reflects on the generational epic formula and the contrasts of small town life versus the multi-dimensional, and larger life of the city. The book was heavily edited by Robert Giroux, with around 400 pages taken out.
For the next six years, Kerouac continued to write regularly. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled "The Beat Generation" and "Gone on the Road," Kerouac completed what is now known as On the Road in April 1951, while living at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty. The book was largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac's road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late 40s and early 50s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. Although some of the novel is focused on driving, Kerouac did not have a driver's license and Cassady did most of the cross-country driving. He did not learn to drive until the age of 34, but never had a formal license.
454 West 20th Street in New York City where Kerouac finished On The Road
Kerouac completed the first version of the novel during a three-week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. He wrote the final draft in 20 days, with Joan, his wife, supplying him with benzedrine, cigarettes, bowls of pea soup, and mugs of coffee to keep him going. This first full draft was typed on eight long sheets of tracing paper, which he later taped together to form a 120-foot scroll. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks and was much more explicit than the version which would eventually be published. Though "spontaneous," Kerouac had prepared long in advance before beginning to write. In fact, according to his Columbia professor and mentor Mark Van Doren, he had outlined much of the work in his journals over the several preceding years.
Though the work was completed quickly, Kerouac had a long and difficult time finding a publisher. Before On the Road was accepted by Viking Press, Kerouac got a job as a "railroad brakeman and fire lookout" (see Desolation Peak (Washington)) traveling between the East and West coasts of the United States to earn money, frequently finding rest and the quiet space necessary for writing at the home of his mother. While employed in this way he met and befriended Abe Green, a young freight train jumper who later introduced Kerouac to Herbert Huncke, a Times Square street hustler and favorite of many Beat Generation writers. During this period of travel, Kerouac wrote what he considered to be "his life's work": Vanity of Duluoz. Between 1955–1956, he lived on and off with his sister, whom he called "Nin," and her husband, Paul Blake, at their home outside of Rocky Mount, N.C. ("Testament, Va." in his works) where he meditated on, and studied, Buddhism. He wrote Some of the Dharma, an imaginative treatise on Buddhism, while living there.
Publishers rejected On the Road because of its experimental writing style and its sexual content. Many editors were also uncomfortable with the idea of publishing a book that contained what were, for the era, graphic descriptions of drug use and homosexual behavior—a move that could result in obscenity charges being filed, a fate that later befell Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Ginsberg's Howl.
According to Kerouac, On the Road "was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about." According to his biographer, historian Douglas Brinkley, On the Road has been misinterpreted as a tale of companions out looking for kicks, but the most important thing to comprehend is that Kerouac was an American Catholic author – for example, virtually every page of his diary bore a sketch of a crucifix, a prayer, or an appeal to Christ to be forgiven.
In the spring of 1951, while pregnant, Joan Haverty left and divorced Kerouac. In February 1952, she gave birth to Kerouac's only child, Jan Kerouac, though he refused to acknowledge her as his daughter until a blood test confirmed it 9 years later. For the next several years Kerouac continued writing and traveling, taking long trips through the U.S. and Mexico. He often experienced episodes of heavy drinking and depression. During this period, he finished drafts of what would become ten more novels, including The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Tristessa, and Desolation Angels, which chronicle many of the events of these years.
In 1953, he lived mostly in New York City, having a brief but passionate affair with an African-American woman. This woman was the basis for the character named "Mardou" in the novel The Subterraneans. At the request of his editors, Kerouac changed the setting of the novel from New York to San Francisco.
In 1954, Kerouac discovered Dwight Goddard's A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library, which marked the beginning of his study of Buddhism. However, Kerouac had earlier taken an interest in Eastern thought. In 1946 he read Heinrich Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. In 1955, Kerouac wrote a biography of Siddhartha Gautama, titled Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, which was unpublished during his lifetime, but eventually serialized in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 1993–95. It was published by Viking in September 2008.
Kerouac found enemies on both sides of the political spectrum, the right disdaining his association with drugs and sexual libertinism and the left contemptuous of his anti-communism and Catholicism; characteristically, he watched the 1954 Senate McCarthy hearings smoking marijuana and rooting for the anti-communist crusader, Senator Joseph McCarthy. In Desolation Angels he wrote, "when I went to Columbia all they tried to teach us was Marx, as if I cared" (considering Marxism, like Freudianism, to be an illusory tangent).
In 1957, after being rejected by several other publishers, On the Road was finally purchased by Viking Press, which demanded major revisions prior to publication. Many of the more sexually explicit passages were removed and, fearing libel suits, pseudonyms were used for the book's "characters." These revisions have often led to criticisms of the alleged spontaneity of Kerouac's style.
House in Orlando, Florida where Kerouac lived and wrote The Dharma Bums
LATER CAREER: 1957-1969
In July 1957, Kerouac moved to a small house at 1418½ Clouser Avenue in the College Park section of Orlando, Florida, to await the release of On the Road. Weeks later, a review of the book by Gilbert Millstein appeared in The New York Times proclaiming Kerouac the voice of a new generation. Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer. His friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, became a notorious representation of the Beat Generation. The term Beat Generation was invented by Kerouac during a conversation held with fellow novelist Herbert Huncke. Huncke used the term "beat" to describe a person with little money and few prospects. "I'm beat to my socks", he had said. Kerouac's fame came as an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing.
Kerouac's novel is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II Beat Generation and Kerouac came to be called "the king of the beat generation,” a term with which he never felt comfortable. He once observed, "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic", showing the reporter a painting of Pope Paul VI and saying, "You know who painted that? Me."
The success of On the Road brought Kerouac instant fame. His celebrity status brought publishers desiring unwanted manuscripts that were previously rejected before its publication. After nine months, he no longer felt safe in public. He was badly beaten by three men outside the San Remo Cafe at 189 Bleecker Street in New York City one night. Neal Cassady, possibly as a result of his new notoriety as the central character of the book, was set up and arrested for selling marijuana.
In response, Kerouac chronicled parts of his own experience with Buddhism, as well as some of his adventures with Gary Snyder and other San Francisco-area poets, in The Dharma Bums, set in California and Washington and published in 1958. It was written in Orlando between November 26 and December 7, 1957. To begin writing Dharma Bums, Kerouac typed onto a ten-foot length of teleprinter paper, to avoid interrupting his flow for paper changes, as he had done six years previously for On the Road.
Kerouac was demoralized by criticism of Dharma Bums from such respected figures in the American field of Buddhism as Zen teachers Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Alan Watts. He wrote to Snyder, referring to a meeting with D.T. Suzuki, that "even Suzuki was looking at me through slitted eyes as though I was a monstrous imposter." He passed up the opportunity to reunite with Snyder in California, and explained to Philip Whalen "I'd be ashamed to confront you and Gary now I've become so decadent and drunk and don't give a shit. I'm not a Buddhist any more." In further reaction to their criticism, he quoted part of Abe Green's café recitation, Thrasonical Yawning in the Abattoir of the Soul: "A gaping, rabid congregation, eager to bathe, are washed over by the Font of Euphoria, and bask like protozoans in the celebrated light."
Kerouac also wrote and narrated a beat movie titled Pull My Daisy (1959), directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. It starred poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, musician David Amram and painter Larry Rivers among others. Originally to be called The Beat Generation, the title was changed at the last moment when MGM released a film by the same name in July 1959 that sensationalized beatnik culture.
The television series Route 66 (1960–1964), featuring two untethered young men "on the road" in a Corvette seeking adventure and fueling their travels by apparently plentiful temporary jobs in the various U.S. locales framing the anthology-styled stories, gave the impression of being a commercially sanitized misappropriation of Kerouac's story model for On the Road. Even the leads, Buz and Todd, bore a resemblance to the dark, athletic Kerouac and the blonde Cassady/Moriarty, respectively. Kerouac felt he'd been conspicuously ripped off by Route 66 creator Stirling Silliphant and sought to sue him, CBS, the Screen Gems TV production company, and sponsor Chevrolet, but was somehow counseled against proceeding with what looked like a very potent cause of action.
John Antonelli's 1985 documentary Kerouac, the Movie begins and ends with footage of Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on The Steve Allen Show in November 1959. Kerouac appears intelligent but shy. "Are you nervous?" asks Steve Allen. "Naw," says Kerouac, sweating and fidgeting.
In 1965, he met the poet Youenn Gwernig who was a Breton American like him in New York, and they became friends. Gwernig used to translate his Breton language poems into English so that Kerouac could read and understand them : "Meeting with Jack Kerouac in 1965, for instance, was a decisive turn. Since he could not speak Breton he asked me: 'Would you not write some of your poems in English? I'd really like to read them ! ... ' So I wrote an Diri Dir – Stairs of Steel for him, and kept on doing so. That's why I often write my poems in Breton, French and English."
During these years, Kerouac suffered the loss of his older sister to a heart attack in 1964 and his mother suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1966. In 1968, Neal Cassady also died while in Mexico.
Despite the role which his literary work played in inspiring the counterculture movement of the 1960s, Kerouac was not fond of the movement and also openly criticized it. Arguments over the movement, which Kerouac believed was only an excuse to be "spiteful," also resulted in him splitting with Ginsberg by 1968.
Also in 1968, he appeared on the television show Firing Line produced and hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. (a friend of Kerouac's from his college years). Kerouac talked about the counterculture of the 1960s in what would be his last appearance on television.
Kerouac Grave in Edson Cemetery, Lowell
On the morning of October 20, 1969, in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kerouac was working on a book about his father's print shop. He suddenly felt nauseated and went to the bathroom, where he began to vomit blood. Kerouac was taken to St. Anthony's Hospital, suffering from an esophageal hemorrhage. He received several transfusions in an attempt to make up for the loss of blood, and doctors subsequently attempted surgery, but a damaged liver prevented his blood from clotting. He never regained consciousness after the operation, and died at the hospital at 5:15 the following morning, at the age of 47. His cause of death was listed as an internal hemorrhage (bleeding esophageal varices) caused by cirrhosis, the result of longtime alcohol abuse. A possible contributing factor was an untreated hernia he suffered in a bar fight several weeks earlier. He is buried at Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts.
At the time of his death, he was living with his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, and his mother Gabrielle. Kerouac's mother inherited most of his estate.
Jack Kerouac and his literary works had a major impact on the popular rock music of the 1960s. Artists including Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Ben Gibbard, Weezer, Jawbreaker, and The Wonder Years, all credit Kerouac as a significant influence on their music and lifestyles. This is especially so with members of the band The Doors, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek who quote Jack Kerouac and his novel On the Road as one of the band's greatest influences. In his book Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors, Ray Manzarek (keyboard player of The Doors) wrote "I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed." The alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs wrote a song bearing his name, "Hey Jack Kerouac" on their 1987 album In My Tribe. The 2000 Barenaked Ladies song, "Baby Seat", from the album Maroon, references Kerouac. Kerouac’s sensibility and rock ‘n roll each evolved from African-American influences.
As the critic Juan Arabia has written in relation to his work and rock 'n roll: "In order to vindicate the cultural, ideological and aesthetic advancement in Kerouac’s work and its relevance–and the genesis of rock ‘n roll–one must first understand the origins of jazz and its offshoots. The first forms of jazz were formed in New Orleans from a melange of blues, work songs, marches, work songs, African and European music. Bop–the form of jazz that most influenced Kerouac–was created by African-American musicians in New York basements between 1941 and 1945. Bop arose as a reaction to the perception of musical theft perpetrated by white entertainers (e.g., Benny Goodman and his swing band) in an attempt to reclaim the cultural property of the black community which had informed every popular music genre. There has always been an exchange of ideas and musical forms between black and white communities. For example, Elvis sings gospel and blues and white country songs and some black rock n’ roll artists sing in a manner similar to Elvis or borrow elements from European music or folk. Rock n’ roll borrows elements from blues, country-western, boogie, and jazz. This is the scenario that surrounds the dénouement of Kerouac’s work. It’s in 1948 that he finishes his first novel, The Town and the City; very soon after came the birth–and its explosion of popularity in the 1950s–of rock ‘n roll".
In 1974, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was opened in his honor by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa University, a private Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado. The school offers a BA in Writing and Literature, MFAs in Writing & Poetics and Creative Writing, and a summer writing program.
Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts
From 1978 to 1992, Joy Walsh published 28 issues of a magazine devoted to Kerouac, Moody Street Irregulars.
Kerouac's French-Canadian origins inspired a 1987 National Film Board of Canada docudrama, Jack Kerouac's Road: A Franco-American Odyssey, directed by Acadian poet Herménégilde Chiasson.
In the mid-1980s, Kerouac Park was placed in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts.
Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco
A street, rue de Jack Kérouac, is named after him in Quebec City, as well as in the hamlet of Kerouac, Lanmeur, Brittany. An annual Kerouac festival was established in Lanmeur in 2010. In the 1980s, the city of San Francisco named a one-way street, Jack Kerouac Alley, in his honor in Chinatown.
n 1997, the house on Clouser Avenue where The Dharma Bums was written was purchased by a newly formed non-profit group, The Jack Kerouac Writers in Residence Project of Orlando, Inc. This group provides opportunities for aspiring writers to live in the same house in which Kerouac was inspired, with room and board covered for three months.
In 2007, Kerouac was posthumously awarded a honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
In 2009, the movie One Fast Move or I'm Gone – Kerouac's Big Sur was released. It chronicles the time in Kerouac's life that led to his novel Big Sur, with actors, writers, artists, and close friends giving their insight into the book. The movie also describes the people and places on which Kerouac based his characters and settings, including the cabin in Bixby Canyon. An album released to accompany the movie, "One Fast Move or I'm Gone", features Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jay Farrar (Son Volt) performing songs based on Kerouac's Big Sur.
In 2010, during the first weekend of October, the 25th anniversary of the literary festival "Lowell Celebrates Kerouac" was held in Kerouac's birthplace of Lowell, Massachusetts. It featured walking tours, literary seminars, and musical performances focused on Kerouac's work and that of the Beat Generation. This tradition continues every October in Lowell, MA.
In the 2010s, there was a surge in films based on the Beat Generation. Kerouac has been depicted in the films Howl and Kill Your Darlings. A feature film version of On the Road was released internationally in 2012, and was directed by Walter Salles and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Independent filmmaker Michael Polish directed Big Sur, based on the novel, with Jean-Marc Barr cast as Kerouac. The film was released in 2013.
A species of Indian platygastrid wasp that is phoretic (hitch-hiking) on grasshoppers is named after him as Mantibaria kerouaci.
In October 2015, a crater on the planet Mercury was named in his honor.