| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Jack Kerouac transformed his life into a modern
myth, one that appeals anew to each generation discovering his classic On the
Road (1957). While romanticizing his cross-country travels and writing frankly
about the sex, drugs, and drinking that took up so much of his time, Kerouac
also infused his books with a literary consciousness and brooding spirituality,
proof that he was smarter and deeper than detractors such as Truman Capote (who
claimed Kerouac’s writing was mere “typing”) wanted him to be.
known as a novelist of the open road, he also wrote at length about his
childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, the provincial New England mill town where
he was born Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac to French Canadian immigrant parents
in 1922. Lowell is the basis for the town in The Town and the City (1950), his
first and most traditional novel, modeled after the work of Thomas Wolfe, and it
provides the mystical atmosphere for several of his other novels, including
Visions of Gerard (1963), the account of his nine-year-old brother Gerard’s
illness and death. This book effectively blends the Catholicism of his youth
with the Buddhist principles informing his later years; its free-flowing style
epitomizes the “spontaneous prose” that grew out of the author’s faith in “the
unspeakable visions of the individual.”
graduating from Lowell High School, Kerouac earned a football scholarship to
Columbia College by way of a year at the Horace Mann Preparatory School in New
York. At Horace Mann he enjoyed a charmed life as an athlete and scholar. His
subsequent years at Columbia did not go so smoothly. An injury derailed his
football career, and he eventually dropped out of school and enlisted in the
U.S. Navy and later the Merchant Marine. In the midst of this indecisive time,
he made the friends with whom he would instigate the literary trend and liberal
lifestyle known as the Beat movement.
Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (a Harvard graduate) were brilliant, driven,
and often self-tormented, like Kerouac himself. In New York City’s jazz clubs
and gay bars and among the criminal elements of Times Square they found a
bracing alternative to workaday jobs and conventional family life. The hustler
Herbert Huncke introduced them to “beat,” a slang term for a drug deal gone
bad. Kerouac applied the musically resonant word to his down-and-out but
spiritually questing (“beatific”) peers. In 1948 he told his friend John
Clellon Holmes that their post-war generation of outsiders evinced “a weariness
with all the forms, all the conventions of the world....So I guess you might
say we’re a beat generation.”
following year, Kerouac took to the road with Neal Cassady, a charismatic con
man who personified all things beat. The model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road
and Cody in Visions of Cody (1972), Cassady lived as spontaneously as Kerouac
wanted to write. In On the Road, he applauds the fictional counterparts of
Cassady and Ginsberg, “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.”
the publication of On the Road and The Dharma Bums (1958), the successful
follow-up novel based on his friendship with the poet Gary Snyder, Kerouac
drifted on a sea of distracting fame. Though he continued to publish both prose
and poetry, his drinking and often outlandish behavior cost him the critical
recognition that he craved. He died of stomach hemorrhaging at age forty-seven
in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the company of his mother and his third wife,
Stella Sampas Kerouac of Lowell.
embodied many of the contradictions and paradoxes that have long animated
American society. He was a homebody and vagabond, bottle-swigging hedonist and
Thoreau-quoting hermit, all-American hero and hard-luck hobo. All of these
personas show up in his compelling, recklessly honest writing.
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
In the Heath Anthology
The Last American Hero
The Beat Generation Map of America
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A regularly updated webzine about Kerouac's life and writing.
A detailed chronology of Kerouac's life.
A hypertext biography.
Official Web Site of Jack Kerouac
Offers a list of primary works, biography, photos and links.
Sounds of Jack Kerouac reading (and singing) his prose
Several audio files of Kerouac reading his haikus and other works.
Ann Charters, Kerouac: A Biography, 1974
Ann Charters, Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America,1983
College Literature 27:1 (Winter 2000): Special Issue on Teaching Beat Literature
Clark Coolidge, Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac and the Sounds, 1999
Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (rev. ed.), 1994
Robert Holton, On the Road: Kerouac's Ragged American Journey, 1999
Tim Hunt, Kerouac's Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction, 1981
James T. Jones, A Map of Mexico City Blues, 1992
James T. Jones, Jack Kerouac's Duluoz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction, 1999
Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, 1983
Regina Weinreich, The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction, 1986