See A. Charters, ed., Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 (1995) and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1957-1969 (1999); D. Brinkley, ed., Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954 (2004); H. Cunnell, ed., On the Road: The Original Scroll (2007); biographies by A. Charters (1973), B. Gifford and L. Lee (1978, repr. 1994), D. McNally (1980), G. Nicosia (1988), and B. Miles (1998); studies by T. Hunt (1981), R. Weinreich (1986), I. Gewirtz (2007), J. Leland (2007), and P. Maher, Jr. (2007).
(born March 12, 1922, Lowell, Mass., U.S.—died Oct. 21, 1969, St. Petersburg, Fla.) U.S. poet and novelist. He was born to a French Canadian family and attended Columbia University, where he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and others who would become part of the Beat movement, a term Kerouac coined. Kerouac served as a merchant seaman and roamed the U.S. and Mexico before his first book, The Town & the City (1950), was published. On the Road (1957), his best-known novel and the first he wrote in the spontaneous style that he advocated, enjoyed huge success among young readers, for whom Kerouac became a romantic hero. All his works, including The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958), and Desolation Angels (1965), are autobiographical. Alcoholism contributed to his death at age 47.
Learn more about Kerouac, Jack with a free trial on Britannica.com.
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, Haruki Murakami, and writers of the New Journalism. Kerouac also influenced musicians such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Death Cab For Cutie, The Barenaked Ladies, Tom Waits, Simon & Garfunkel, Ulf Lundell and Jim Morrison. 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. His father was related to Brother Marie-Victorin (né Conrad Kirouac), one of Canada's most prominent botanists and his mother was second cousin to future Quebec premier René Lévesque.
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. He was part Native American through his mother's largely Norman-side of the family. He 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.
Kerouac did not start to learn English until the age of six, and at home, he and his family spoke Joual, a Quebec French dialect. When he was four he was profoundly affected by the death of his nine-year-old brother, Gérard, from rheumatic fever, an event later described in his novel Visions of Gerard. 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 his desire to speak his parents' native tongue again. Recently, it was discovered that Kerouac first started writing On the Road in French, a language in which he also wrote two unpublished novels. The writings are in dialectal Quebec French, and predate the first plays of Michel Tremblay by a decade.
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. He entered Columbia University after spending a year at Horace Mann School, where he earned the requisite grades to matriculate to Columbia. 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, Kerouac wrote several sports articles for the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator.
In 1944, Kerouac was arrested as a material witness in the murder of David Kammerer, who'd been stalking Kerouac's friend Lucien Carr since Carr was a teenager in St. Louis. (William Burroughs was himself a native of St. Louis, and it was through Carr that Kerouac came to know both Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.) When Kammerer's obsession with Carr turned aggressive, Carr stabbed him to death and turned to Kerouac for help. Together, they disposed of evidence. As advised by Burroughs, they turned themselves in. Kerouac's father refused to pay his bail. Kerouac then agreed to marry Edie Parker if she'd pay it. Their marriage was annulled a year later, and Kerouac and Burroughs briefly collaborated on a novel about the Kammerer killing entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Though the book was not published during the lifetimes of either Kerouac or 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). Kerouac also later wrote about the killing in his novel Vanity of Duluoz.
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. His 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".
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, city. The book was heavily edited by Robert Giroux; some 400 pages were taken out.
For the next six years, Kerouac wrote constantly. 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 of 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-40's, as well his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. He completed the first version of the novel during a three week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 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", 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 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 behavior, a move that could result in obscenity charges being filed, a fate that later befell Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Ginsberg's Howl.
In late 1951, Joan Haverty left and divorced Kerouac while pregnant. In February of 1952, she gave birth to 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 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, Kerouac discovered Dwight Goddard's A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library, which marked the beginning of Kerouac's immersion into Buddhism. In 1955 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 Kerouac's style.
The immediate success of On the Road brought Kerouac instant fame. He soon found he had little taste for celebrity status. After nine months, he no longer felt safe in public. He was badly beaten by three 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 capitalize on On the Road's success. 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, Florida between November 26 and December 7, 1957. To begin writing Dharma Bums, Kerouac typed onto a ten-foot length of teletype 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 teacher 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 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.
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 sensationalized "beatnik" culture.
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 Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1957. Kerouac appears intelligent but shy. "Are you nervous?" asks Steve Allen. "Naw", says Kerouac, sweating and fiddling.
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). Kerouac moved to Northport, New York in March 1958, six 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 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 million 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.
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.
Kerouac greatly admired Gary Snyder, many of whose ideas influenced him. The Dharma Bums contains accounts of a mountain climbing trip Kerouac took with Snyder, and also whole paragraphs from letters Snyder had written to Kerouac. While living with Snyder outside Mill Valley, California in 1956, Kerouac was working on a book centering around Snyder, which he was thinking of calling Visions of Gary. (This eventually became Dharma Bums, which Kerouac described as "mostly about [Snyder]".) That summer, Kerouac took a job as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades in Washington, after hearing Snyder's and Philip Whalen's accounts of their own lookout stints. Kerouac described the experience in his novel Desolation Angels.
He 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 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."
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 '50s, 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.
Although the body of 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 five days in Mexico during December 1952 is a telling example of Kerouac's attempts at writing in Joual, a dialect typical of the French-Canadian working class of the time, which can be summarized 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 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 Kerouac to whom he refers to as Ti-Jean, who agree to meet in New York. Ti-Jean and his father Leo (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 two cars and their passengers, one driving out of Denver and the other from Boston until they eventually meet in a dingy bar in New York's Chinatown. In it, 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. 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 Kerouac himself. Sur le Chemin is Kerouac's second known French manuscript, the first 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.
The Diamond Sutra was the most important Buddhist text for Kerouac, and "probably one of the three or four most influential things he ever read. In 1955, he began an intensive study of this sutra, in a repeating weekly cycle, devoting one day to each of the six Pāramitās, and the seventh 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.
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 honor 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. From 1978 to 1992, Joy Walsh published 28 issues of a magazine devoted to Kerouac, Moody Street Irregulars.
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 Kerouac was inspired in, with room and board covered, for three months.