Jack Kerouac (pronounced /ˈkɛɹəwæk/; was born on 12 March, 1922 and died on 21 October, 1969 at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, one day after being rushed with severe abdominal pain from his St. Petersburg home by ambulance.
Jack Kerouac’s death, at the age of 47, resulted from an internal hemorrhage(bleeding esophageal varices) caused by cirrhosis, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking. At the time of his death, he was living with his 3rd wife Stella, and his mother Gabrielle. Jack Kerouac is buried in his home town of Lowell and was honoured posthumously with a Doctor of Letters degree from his hometown’s University of Massachusetts Lowell on 2 June, 2007.
Jack Kerouac was an American novelist, writer, poet, and artist from Lowell, Massachusetts. Along with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, he is amongst the best known of the writers (and friends) known as the Beat Generation.
Jack Kerouac’s work was very popular, but received little critical acclaim during his lifetime. Today, he is considered an important and influential writer who inspired others, including Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins, Lester Bangs, Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey, and writers of the New Journalism. Jack Kerouac also influenced musicians such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Barenaked Ladies, Tom Waits, Simon & Garfunkel, Ulf Lundell and Jim Morrison. Jack Kerouac’s best-known books are On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, The Subterraneans, and Visions of Cody.
Jack Kerouac was born Jean Louis Kirouac, in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, natives of the province of Quebec, Canada. Like many other Quebecers of their generation, the Lévesques and Kerouacs were part of the Quebec emigration to New England to find employment. Jack Kerouac’s father was related to Brother Marie-Victorin (né Conrad Kirouac), one of Canada’s most prominent botanists and his mother was 2nd cousin to future Quebec premier René Lévesque.
Jack Kerouac often gave conflicting stories about his family history and the origins of his surname. Though his father was born to a family of potato farmers in the village of St-Hubert, he often claimed aristocratic descent, sometimes from a Breton noble granted land after the Battle of Quebec, whose sons all married Native Americans. However, research has shown him to be the descendant of a middle-class merchant settler, whose sons married French Canadians. Jack Kerouac was part Native American through his mother’s largely Norman-side of the family. Jack Kerouac also had various stories on the etymology of his surname, usually tracing it back to Irish, Breton, or other Celtic roots. In one interview he claimed it was the name of a dead Celtic language and in another said it was from the Irish for “language of the water” and related to “Kerwick”. The name, though Breton, seems to derive from the name of one of several hamlets in Brittany near Rosporden.
Jack Kerouac did not start to learn English until the age of 6, and at home, he and his family spoke Joual, a Quebec French dialect. When he was 4 he was profoundly affected by the death of his 9-year-old brother, Gérard, from rheumatic fever, an event later described in his novel Visions of Gerard. Some of Jack Kerouac’s poetry was written in French, and in letters written to friend Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life he expressed his desire to speak his parents’ native tongue again. Recently, it was discovered that Jack Kerouac first started writing On the Road in French, a language in which he also wrote 2 unpublished novels. The writings are in dialectal Quebec French, and predate the 1st plays of Michel Tremblay by a decade.
Jack Kerouac’s athletic prowess led him to become a 100-meter hurdler on his local high school track team, and his skills as a running back in American football earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University. Jack Kerouac entered Columbia University after spending a year at Horace Mann School, where he earned the requisite grades to matriculate to Columbia. Jack Kerouac cracked a tibia playing football during his freshman season, and he argued constantly with coach Lou Little who kept him benched. While at Columbia, Jack Kerouac wrote several sports articles for the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator.
When his football career at Columbia soured, especially because of conflict with Lou Little, Jack Kerouac dropped out of the university, though he continued to live for a period on New York City’s Upper West Side with his girlfriend, Edie Parker. It was during this time that he met the people — now famous — with whom he will always be associated, the subjects injected into many of his novels: the so-called Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs. Jack Kerouac joined the United States Merchant Marine in 1942, and in 1943 joined the United States Navy, but was honorably discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds (he was of “indifferent character” with a diagnosis of “schizoid personality”).
In 1944, Jack Kerouac was arrested as a material witness in the murder of David Kammerer, who’d been stalking Jack Kerouac’s friend Lucien Carr since Lucien Carr was a teenager in St. Louis. (William Burroughs was himself a native of St. Louis, and it was through Lucien Carr that Jack Kerouac came to know both Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.) When David Kammerer’s obsession with Lucien Carr turned aggressive, Lucien Carr stabbed him to death and turned to Jack Kerouac for help. Together, they disposed of evidence. As advised by Burroughs, they turned themselves in. Jack Kerouac’s father refused to pay his bail. Jack Kerouac then agreed to marry Edie Parker if she’d pay it. Their marriage was annulled a year later, and Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs briefly collaborated on a novel about the David Kammerer killing entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Though the book was not published during the lifetimes of either Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs, an excerpt eventually appeared in Word Virus: A William S. Burroughs Reader (and as noted below, the book is now scheduled for publication in late 2008). Jack Kerouac also later wrote about the killing in his novel Vanity of Duluoz.
Beginning of the original typed roll where Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road. The 1st sentence is: “I first met met Neal not long after my father died…” Later it would be replaced by the definitive one: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up”.Later, he lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, after they, too, moved to New York. He wrote his first novel, The Town and the City, and, according to at least John Clellon Holmes, began the famous On the Road around 1949 while living there. Jack Kerouac’s friends jokingly called him “The Wizard of Ozone Park,” a spoof of Thomas Edison’s “Wizard of Menlo Park” nickname while simultaneously alluding to the title character of the film The Wizard of Oz and a shortened form of the word “ozone”.
Jack Kerouac tended to write constantly, carrying a notebook with him everywhere. Letters to friends and family members tended to be long and rambling, including great detail about his daily life and thoughts. Prior to becoming a writer, he tried a varied list of careers. Jack Kerouac was a sports reporter for The Lowell Sun; a temporary worker in construction and food service; a United States Merchant Marine and he joined the United States Navy twice.
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 Jack 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, city. The book was heavily edited by Robert Giroux; some 400pages were taken out.
For the next 6 years, John Kerouac wrote constantly. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled “The Beat Generation” and “Gone on the Road,” Jack Kerouac wrote what is now known as On the Road in April of 1951 while living at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his 2nd wife, Joan Haverty. The book was largely autobiographical and describes Jack Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late-40’s, as well his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. Jack Kerouac completed the 1st version of the novel during a 3 week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. Before beginning, Jack Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 120-foot (37 m) long roll he then fed into the machine. This allowed him to type continuously without the interruption of reloading pages. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks and was much more explicit than what would eventually be printed.
Though “spontaneous”, Jack 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, Jack Kerouac had a long and difficult time finding a buyer. Publishers rejected the manuscript due to its experimental writing style and its sympathetic tone towards minorities and marginalized social groups of post-War America. Many editors were also uncomfortable with the idea of publishing a book that contained, what was for the time, graphic descriptions of drug-use and homosexual behaviour, a move that could result in obscenity charges being filled, a fate that later befell Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Ginsberg’s Howl.
In late 1951, Joan Haverty left and divorced Jack Kerouac while pregnant. In February of 1952, she gave birth to Jack Kerouac’s only child Jan Kerouac, though he refused to acknowledge her as his own until a blood test confirmed it 9 years later. For the next several years Jack Kerouac continued writing and traveling, taking extensive trips though out the U.S. and Mexico and often fell into bouts of depression and heavy drug and alcohol use. During this period he finished drafts for what would become 10 more novels, including The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Tristessa, and Desolation Angels, which chronicle many of the events of these years.
In 1954, Jack Kerouac discovered Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library, which marked the beginning of Jack Kerouac’s immersion into Buddhism. In 1955 Jack Kerouac wrote a biography of Siddhartha Gautama, entitled Wake Up, which was unpublished during his lifetime but eventually serialised in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 1993-95.
In 1957, after being rejected by several other firms, 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 books “characters.” These revisions have often led to criticisms as to the actual spontaneity of Jack Kerouac’s style.
In July 1957, Jack Kerouac moved to a small house at 1418½ Clouser Ave. in the College Park section of Orlando, Florida to await the release of On the Road. A few weeks later, the review appeared in the New York Times proclaiming Jack Kerouac the voice of a new generation. Jack Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer. Jack Kerouac’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, became a notorious representation of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac’s fame would come as an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing. Jack Kerouac’s novel is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac came to be called “the king of the beat generation,” a term that he never felt comfortable with. Jack Kerouac once observed, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.”
The immediate success of On the Road brought Jack Kerouac instant fame. Jack Kerouac soon found he had little taste for celebrity status. After 9 months, he no longer felt safe in public. Jack Kerouac was badly beaten by 3 men outside the San Remo Bar in New York 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 pot.
Publishers were eager for a quick “sequel” to capitalise on On the Road’s success. In response, Jack 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, Florida between 26 November and 7 December, 1957. To begin writing Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac typed onto a 10-foot length of teletype paper, to avoid interrupting his flow for paper changes, as he had done 6 years previously for On the Road.
Jack Kerouac was demoralised by criticism of Dharma Bums from such respected figures in the American field of Buddhism as Zen teacher Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Alan Watts. Jack Kerouac wrote to Snyder, referring to a meeting with D. T. Suzuki, that “even Suzuki was looking at me through slitted eyes as tho I was a monstrous imposter”. He passed up the opportunity to reunite with Snyder in California, and explained to Whalen, “I’d be ashamed to confront you and Gary now I’ve become so decadent and drunk and dontgiveashit. I’m not a Buddhist any more.”
Jack Kerouac also wrote and narrated a “Beat” movie entitled Pull My Daisy in 1959. Originally to be called “The Beat Generation”, the title was changed at the last moment when MGM released a film by the same name which sensationalised “beatnik” culture.
John Antonelli’s 1985 documentary Jack Kerouac, the Movie begins and ends with footage of Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1957. Jack Kerouac appears intelligent but shy. “Are you nervous?” asks Steve Allen. “Naw”, says Jack Kerouac, sweating and fiddling.
Jack Kerouac developed something of a friendship with the scholar Alan Watts (cryptically named Arthur Wayne in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, and Alex Aums in Desolation Angels). Jack Kerouac moved to Northport, New York in March 1958, 6 months after releasing On the Road, to care for his aging mother Gabrielle and to hide from his new-found celebrity status.
In 2007, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of On the Road’s publishing, Viking issued two new editions: On the Road: The Original Scroll, and On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition. By far the more significant is Scroll, a transcription of the original draft typed as one long paragraph on sheets of tracing paper which Kerouac taped together to form a 120-foot (37 m) scroll. The text is more sexually explicit than Viking allowed to be published in 1957, and also uses the real names of Kerouac’s friends rather than the fictional names he later substituted.
(Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay paid $2.43,000,000 for the original scroll and is allowing an exhibition tour that will conclude at the end of 2009. The other new issue, 50th Anniversary Edition, is a reissue of the 40th anniversary issue under an updated title.
In March 2008, Penguin Books announced that the Kerouac/Burroughs manuscript, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks will be published for the first time in November 2008. Previously, a fragment of the manuscript had been published in the Burroughs compendium, Word Virus.
Jack Kerouac is generally considered to be the father of the Beat movement, although he actively disliked such labels, and, in particular, regarded the subsequent Hippie movement with some disdain. Jack Kerouac’s method was heavily influenced by the prolific explosion of Jazz, especially the Bebop genre established by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and others. Later, Jack Kerouac would include ideas he developed in his Buddhist studies, beginning with Gary Snyder. Jack Kerouac called this style Spontaneous Prose, a literary technique akin to stream of consciousness. Although Jack Kerouac’s prose were spontaneous and purportedly without edits, he primarily wrote autobiographical novels (or Roman à clef) based upon actual events from his life and the people he interacted with.
Many of his books exemplified this approach including On the Road, Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur, and The Subterraneans. The central features of this writing method were the ideas of breath (borrowed from Jazz and from Buddhist meditation breathing), improvising words over the inherent structures of mind and language, and not editing a single word (much of his work was edited by Donald Merriam Allen, a major figure in Beat Generation poetry who also edited some of Ginsberg’s work as well). Connected with his idea of breath was the elimination of the period, preferring to use a long, connecting dash instead. As such, the phrases occurring between dashes might resemble improvisational jazz licks. When spoken, the words might take on a certain kind of rhythm, though none of it pre-meditated.
Jack Kerouac greatly admired Gary Snyder, many of whose ideas influenced him. The Dharma Bums contains accounts of a mountain climbing trip Jack Kerouac took with Snyder, and also whole paragraphs from letters Gary Snyder had written to Jack Kerouac. While living with Gary Snyder outside Mill Valley, California in 1956, Jack Kerouac was working on a book centering around Gary Snyder, which he was thinking of calling Visions of Gary.(This eventually became Dharma Bums, which Jack Kerouac described as “mostly about [Snyder]”.)That summer, Jack Kerouac took a job as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades in Washington, after hearing Gary Snyder’s and Philip Whalen’s accounts of their own lookout stints. Jack Kerouac described the experience in his novel Desolation Angels.
Jack Kerouac would go on for hours, often drunk, to friends and strangers about his method. Allen Ginsberg, initially unimpressed, would later be one of its great proponents, and indeed, he was apparently influenced by Jack Kerouac’s free flowing prose method of writing in the composition of his masterpiece “Howl”. It was at about the time that Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans that he was approached by Allen Ginsberg and others to formally explicate exactly how he wrote it, how he did Spontaneous Prose. Among the writings he set down specifically about his Spontaneous Prose method, the most concise would be Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, a list of thirty “essentials.”
Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
Submissive to everything, open, listening
Try never get drunk outside your own house
Be in love with your life
Something that you feel will find its own form
Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
Blow as deep as you want to blow
Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
The unspeakable visions of the individual
No time for poetry but exactly what is
Visionary tics shivering in the chest
In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
Like Proust be an old teahead of time
Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
Write in recollection and amazement for yrself
Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
Accept loss forever
Believe in the holy contour of life
Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
You’re a Genius all the time
Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…”
from On the Road
Some believed that at times Jack Kerouac’s writing technique did not produce lively or energetic prose. Truman Capote famously said about Jack Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” Despite such criticism, it should be kept in mind that what Jack Kerouac said about writing and how he wrote are sometimes seen to be separate. According to Carolyn Cassady and other people who knew him he rewrote and rewrote. Some claim his own style was in no way spontaneous. However it should be taken into account that throughout most of the ’50s, Jack Kerouac was constantly trying to have his work published, and consequently he often revised and re-arranged manuscripts in an often futile attempt to interest publishers, as is clearly documented in his collected letters (which are in themselves wonderful examples of his style). The Subterraneans and Visions of Cody are possibly the best examples of Jack Kerouac’s free-flowing spontaneous prose method.
Although the body of Jack Kerouac’s work has been published in English, recent research has suggested that, aside from already known correspondence and letters written to friends and familly, he also wrote unpublished works of fiction in French. A manuscript entitled Sur le Chemin (On the road) completed in 5 days in Mexico during December 1952 is a telling example of Jack Kerouac’s attempts at writing in Joual, a dialect typical of the French-Canadian working class of the time, which can be summarised as a form of expression utilising both old patois and modern French mixed with modern English words (windshield being a modern English expression used casually by some French Canadians even today). Set in 1935, mostly on the American east coast, The short manuscript (50 pages), explores some of the recurring themes of Jack Kerouac’s literature by way of a narrative very close to, if not identical to the spoken word. It tells the story of a group of men, including a young 13-year-old Jack Kerouac to whom he refers to as Ti-Jean, who agree to meet in New York. Ti-Jean and his father Leo (Jack Kerouac’s father’s real name) leave Boston by car, traveling to assist friends looking for a place to stay in the city. The story actually follows 2 cars and their passengers, 1 driving out of Denver and the other from Boston until they eventually meet in a dingy bar in New York’s Chinatown. In it, Jack Kerouac’s “French” is written in a form which has little regard for grammar or spelling, relying often on phonetics in order to render an authentic reproduction of his French-Canadian vernacular. Jack Kerouac does not only use Joual freely but frequently confuses grammatical word genders and verb tenses, a phenomenon typical to the francophone speech pattern of the assimilated French Canadians of the American east coast at the time. Even though this work shares the same title as one of his best known English novels, it is rather the original French version of a short text that would later become Old bull in the Bowery (also unpublished) once translated to English prose by Jack Kerouac himself. Sur le Chemin is Jack Kerouac’s 2nd known French manuscript, the 1st being La nuit est ma Femme written in early 1951 and completed a few days before he began the original English version of On the Road.
Jack Kerouac’s technique was heavily influenced by Jazz, especially Bebop, and later, Buddhism, as well as the famous “Joan Anderson letter”, authored by Neal Cassady.
The Diamond Sutra was the most important Buddhist text for Jack Kerouac, and “probably 1 of the 3 or 4 most influential things he ever read.” In 1955, he began an intensive study of this sutra, in a repeating weekly cycle, devoting 1 day to each of the 6 Pāramitās, and the 7th to the concluding passage on Samādhi. This was his sole reading on Desolation Peak, and he hoped by this means to condition his mind to emptiness, and possibly to have a vision.
Jack Kerouac is considered by some[who?] as the “King of the Beats”, a title with which Jack Kerouac himself was deeply uncomfortable.
Jack Kerouac’s plainspeak manner of writing prose, as well as his nearly long-form haiku style of poetry have inspired countless modern neo-beat writers and artists, such as painter George Condo, poet and philosopher Roger Craton, and filmmaker John McNaughton.
In 1974 the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was open in his honour by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa University, a private Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado. The school offers an MFA in Writing & Poetics, a BA in Writing and Literature, a Summer Writing Program, and MFA in Creative Writing.
In 1997, the house on Clouser Avenue where Dharma Bums was written was purchased by a newly formed non-profit group entitled The Jack Kerouac Writers in Residence Project of Orlando, Inc. This group continues to this day to provide aspiring writers to live in the same house Jack Kerouac was inspired in, with room and board covered, for 3 months.
In 2007, Jack Kerouac was awarded a posthumous honourary degree from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
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