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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Jack Kerouac

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.

Though 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.”

After 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.

Allen 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.”

The 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.”

After 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.

Kerouac 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.

Hilary Holladay
University of Massachusetts, Lowell

In the Heath Anthology
The Last American Hero  

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Beat Generation Map of America

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A regularly updated webzine about Kerouac's life and writing.

Kerouac Kronology
A detailed chronology of Kerouac's life.

Literary Kicks
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.

Secondary Sources

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