Jack Kerouac

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Writers and critics

Jack Kerouac

Born: March 12, 1922
Lowell, Massachusetts
Died: October 21, 1969
St. Petersburg, Florida
Occupation(s): Novelist
Nationality: United States
Genre(s): Beat Poets
Literary movement: Beat
Influences: Thomas Wolfe
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Marcel Proust
Influenced: Tom Robbins
Richard Brautigan
Hunter S. Thompson
Ken Kesey
Tom Waits
Thomas Pynchon
Bob Dylan

Jack Kerouac ( pronounced [dʒæk ˈkɛɹəwæk]) ( March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was an American novelist, writer, poet, artist, and part of the Beat Generation.

While enjoying popular but little critical success during his own lifetime, Kerouac is now considered one of America's most important authors. The spontaneous, confessional prose style inspired other writers, including Tom Robbins, Lester Bangs, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Kerouac's best known works are On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Visions of Cody.

He divided most of his adult life between roaming the vast American landscape and living with his mother. Faced with a changing country, Kerouac sought to find his place, eventually rejecting the values of the Fifties. His writing often reflects a desire to break free from society's strictures and to find meaning in life.

This search led him to experiment with drugs and to embark on trips around the world. His books are often credited as the catalyst for the 1960s counterculture. Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the age of forty-seven from an internal hemorrhage caused by his chronic alcoholism.


Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a family of French-Americans. His parents, Leo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, were natives of the province of Québec in Canada. Like many other Québécois of their generation, the Lévesques and Kerouacs were part of the Quebec emigration to New England to find employment.

Jack didn't start to learn English until the age of six and at home, he and his family spoke Quebec French. At an early age, he was profoundly marked by the death of his elder brother Gérard, an event that later prompted him to write the book Visions of Gerard. Kerouac wrote some poems in French and in his letters to Ginsberg, towards the end of his life, he expressed the desire to speak his mother tongue again.

Kerouac's athletic prowess led him to become a star on his local football team, and this achievement earned him scholarships to Boston College and Columbia University. He entered Columbia University after spending the scholarship's required year at Horace Mann School. Kerouac broke a leg playing football during his freshman year, and argued constantly with his coach, who kept him benched.

During Kerouac's time at Columbia University, Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law for failing to report a murder committed by a friend, Lucien Carr; this incident formed the basis of a mystery novel the two collaborated on in 1945 entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (the novel was never published, although an excerpt from the manuscript would be included in the Burroughs compilation Word Virus).

His football scholarship did not pan out and he went to live with an old girlfriend, Edie Parker, in New York. It was in New York that Kerouac met the people with whom he was to journey around the world, the subjects of many of his novels: the so-called Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke, and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac joined the Merchant Marine in 1942 and in 1943 joined the United States Navy, but was discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds (he was of "indifferent disposition").

In between his sea voyages, Kerouac stayed in New York City with friends from Fordham University in The Bronx. He lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighbourhood of the New York City borough of Queens after he was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1943. He wrote his first novel, The Town and the City, as well as the quintessential On The Road while living there. His friends jokingly called him "The Wizard of Ozone Park" as a play on words referring to the film The Wizard of Oz.

"The Town and the City" was published in 1950 under the name "John Kerouac" and earned him some respect as a writer. Unlike Kerouac's later work, which established his Beat style, it is heavily influenced by Kerouac's reading of Thomas Wolfe.

Kerouac wrote constantly but could not find a publisher for his next novel for six years. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled "The Beat Generation" and "Gone On The Road", Kerouac wrote what is now known as On the Road in April, 1951 ( ISBN 0-312-20677-1).

Part of the Kerouac myth is that fueled by Benzedrine and coffee, he completed the first version of the novel during a three week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. This session produced the now famous scroll of On The Road. In fact, according to his Columbia professor and mentor Mark Van Doren, he had outlined much of the work in his journals over several years. His technique was heavily influenced by Jazz, especially Bebop, and later, Buddhism, as well as the famous Joan Anderson letter, authored by Neal Cassady.

Publishers rejected the book due to its experimental writing style and its sympathetic tone towards minorities and marginalized social groups of the United States in the 1950s. In 1957, Viking Press purchased the novel, demanding major revisions ( ).

In 2007, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of On The Road's publishing ( ), an uncensored version of On The Road] will be released by Viking Press, containing text that was removed from the released version because it was deemed too explicit for 1957 audiences. It will be drawn solely from the ( ) original scroll and the only things not included will be things that Kerouac himself crossed out.

The book was largely autobiographical, narrated from the point of view of the character Sal Paradise, describing Kerouac's roadtrip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady, the model for the character of Dean Moriarty. 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 that he never felt comfortable with, and once observed ( ), I'm not a beatnik, I'm a Catholic.

Kerouac's friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, defined a generation. Kerouac also wrote and narrated a "Beat" movie entitled Pull My Daisy in 1958. In 1954, Kerouac discovered Dwight Goddard's A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library, which marked the beginning of Kerouac's immersion into Buddhism.

He chronicled parts of this, as well as some of his adventures with Gary Snyder and other San Francisco-area poets, in the book The Dharma Bums, set in California and published in 1958. The Dharma Bums, which some have called the sequel to On the Road, was written in Orlando, Florida during late 1957 through early 1958.

Kerouac developed something of a friendship with the scholar Alan Watts (cryptically named Arthur Wayne in Kerouac's novel Big Sur, and Alex Aums in Desolation Angels). He also met and had discussions with the famous Japanese Zen Buddhist authority D.T. Suzuki.

Jack Kerouac House, College Park section of Orlando, Florida.
Jack Kerouac House, College Park section of Orlando, Florida.

In July 1957, Kerouac moved to a small house on Clouser Ave. in the College Park section of Orlando, Florida to await the release of On the Road. A few weeks later, the review appears in the New York Times proclaiming Kerouac the voice of a new generation. Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer, and reluctantly as the voice of the Beat Generation. His fame would come as an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing.

John Antonelli's 1985 documentary Kerouac, the Movie begins and ends with footage of Kerouac reading from On the Road and "Visions of Cody" from The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1957. Kerouac appears intelligent but shy. "Are you nervous?" asks Steve Allen. "Naw", says Kerouac, sweating and fiddling.

In 1955 Kerouac wrote a biography of Siddhartha Gautama, entitled Wake Up, which was unpublished during his lifetime but eventually serialised in Tricycle magazine, 1993-95. Shortly before his death Kerouac told interviewer Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times, "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic." After pointing to a painting of Pope Paul VI, Kerouac noted, "You know who painted that? Me." ( ).

He died on October 21, 1969 at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, one day after being rushed, in severe abdominal pain, from his St. Petersburg home by ambulance. His death, at the age of 47, resulted from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a life of heavy drinking. He was living at the time with his third wife Stella, and his mother Gabrielle. He is buried in his home town of Lowell.


Kerouac realized he wanted to be a writer before the age of ten; his father was a linotypist and ran a print shop, publishing The Lowell Spotlight ( ). He 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. He was a sports reporter for The Lowell Sun; a temporary worker in construction and food service; a Merchant Marine and he joined the United States Navy twice. Throughout all of this he led a nomadic lifestyle, never having a home of his own. Alternatively, he lived with his mother, stayed with friends or camped out.


Kerouac is considered by some as the King of the Beats as well as the Father of the Hippies, although it must be said that he actively disliked such labels, and, in particular, regarded the Hippie movement with some disdain. Kerouac's method was heavily influenced by the prolific explosion of Jazz, especially the Bebop genre established by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others. Later, Kerouac would include ideas he developed in his Buddhist studies, beginning with Gary Snyder. He called this style Spontaneous Prose, a literary technique akin to stream of consciousness.

Kerouac's motto was "first-thought=best thought", and 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 was the idea 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.

Gary Snyder was greatly admired by Kerouac, and many of his ideas influenced Kerouac. The Dharma Bums contains accounts of a mountain climbing trip Kerouac took with Snyder. Kerouac took a job as a fire lookout in the North Cascade Mountains (Washington State) one summer on Snyder's recommendation, which was a difficult but ultimately rewarding experience. Kerouac described the experience in his novel Desolation Angels.

He would go on for hours to friends and strangers about his method, often drunk, which at first wasn't well received by Ginsberg. He had an acute awareness of the need to sell literature (to publishers) as much as write it, though Ginsberg would later be one of its great proponents, and indeed was apparently influenced by Kerouac's free flowing prose method of writing in the composition of his masterpiece " Howl". It was at about the time that Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans that he was approached by 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."

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel centre of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You're a Genius all the time
  30. 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.."
—From Kerouac's famous novel "On The Road" which demonstrates his beautiful use of imagery in a beat style.

Some believed that at times Kerouac's writing technique did not produce lively or energetic prose. Truman Capote famously said about Kerouac's work, "That's not writing, it's typing." Despite such criticism, it should be kept in mind that what 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 50's, 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 Kerouac's free-flowing spontaneous prose method of writing.


  • Kerouac was an avid athlete; he was a high school football star and earned a scholarship to play football at Columbia University in New York, and was known to be a fan of boxing.
  • Kerouac mentions his best friends George Apostolos and Sebastian Sampas, killed during World War II, on numerous occasions throughout his writings ( ).
  • Kerouac's boyhood friends George Apostolos and Sammy Sampas were the uncle and cousin, respectively, of Ted Leonsis the prominent businessman. ( ).
  • The 1995 collection of Kerouac letters edited by Ann Charters is dedicated to Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas, Kerouac’s boyhood friend, who died in World War II.
  • Legendarily, On the Road was written in just three weeks, on one continuous roll of teletype paper. (In fact, this is true with qualifications only; see discussion at On the Road.)
  • At the time of his death in 1969, Kerouac's estate was worth little more than ninety-one dollars, but by 2004 had grown to an estimated $20 million.
  • Kerouac did not learn to drive until 1956 (at age 34) and he never had a driver's license.
  • The alley that separates the infamous City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Saloon on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach neighbourhood is officially named by the city as Jack Kerouac Alley. The alley is famous for being a meeting ground for many luminaires of the Beat Generation, including Kerouac who often frequented Vesuvio indulging in alcohol.
  • Kerouac was related to Brother Marie Victorin (born Conrad Kirouac) from his father's side, while his mother was second cousin with Quebec Premier René Lévesque.


Related article: Jack Kerouac in popular culture.

Kerouac is considered by some as the "King of the Beats" as well as the "Father of the Hippies". 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 George Condo (Painter), Roger Craton (Poet and Philosopher), and John McNaughton (filmmaker).


  • "I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down." : Jack Kerouac
  • "If you're working with words, it's got to be poetry. I grew up with [the books of Jack] Kerouac. If he hadn't wrote On The Road, the Doors would have never existed. Morrison read On The Road down in Florida, and I read it in Chicago. That sense of freedom, spirituality, and intellectuality in On The Road — that's what I wanted in my own work." : Ray Manzarek, The Doors' keyboard player
  • "I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else's." : Bob Dylan
  • "Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul [Minnesota] in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language." : Bob Dylan ( ).
  • "Once when Kerouac was high on psychedelics with Timothy Leary, he looked out the window and said, 'Walking on water wasn't built in a day.' Our goal was to save the planet and alter human consciousness. That will take a long time, if it happens at all." : Allen Ginsberg
  • "The world that [Kerouac] trembling stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one". : Michael McClure, San Francisco poet
  • Kerouac was "locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle" in "the gray, chill, militaristic silence, [...] the intellective void [...] the spiritual drabness". : Michael McClure, San Francisco poet


What Happened to Kerouac?

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