Crowned "the King of the Beat Generation" upon publication of his landmark 1957 novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac became the reluctant spokesman for America's first homegrown literary movement. With friends Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, whom he had met while a student at New York's Columbia University, Kerouac turned his back on the middle-class propriety, conservatism, repression and xenophobia that had begun to taint the American experience in the boom years following the World War II. Through a rejection of materialism, travel, copious drug use and unbridled sexual license, Kerouac hoped to achieve a state of Zen grace, a beat-ness that he could reconcile with the hardwired Roman Catholicism of his Massachusetts birthplace, but a string of failed marriages, the unyielding spotlight of fame, and a gnawing dependence on alcohol soured the dream before he was 40. A prolific if uneven writer even during his darkest days, Kerouac continued to chronicle his experiences on and off the road until his untimely death in October 1969 at the age of 47. In the decades following his passing, Kerouac's legend grew through the music of such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Tom Waits, while "beat" was repurposed in the musical movements of punk and grunge rock. Immortalized in song, feature films, stage plays and television dramas, Jack Kerouac endured posthumously as one of the most important writers of the 20th century and the patron saint of the American independent spirit.
Jean-Louis Kerouac was born in the Massachusetts river town of Lowell on March 12, 1922. His parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, had emigrated as children from Quebec and assimilated easily into a working-class immigrant community of this manufacturing hub located 30 miles northwest of Boston. Kerouac was the third and last child born into a family that also included an older brother and sister. At home, he was known as Ti Jack, or Little Jack, and his first language was French. In 1926, Kerouac's older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever. The event would scar and inspire Kerouac for life, his memories of Gerard informed by his mother's strict and often rhapsodic Roman Catholicism. An introspective but shy child, Kerouac was educated by Jesuit nuns in a number of area schools. He was driven inward by tensions between his parents related to his father's drinking and associated financial problems. To compensate, he lost himself in games he created alone in his bedroom, in cartoons that he drew and newspaper stories and dime novels that he wrote and illustrated.
Kerouac's self-confidence was boosted by a family move to Lowell's Pawtucketville section, where he had his first school classes in English and became friends with a number of local boys, with whom he would recreate moments from "The Shadow" and other radio dramas as well as invent his own characters and adventures. At Lowell High School, he was a popular and celebrated athlete, a key player on the baseball, football and track teams. Offered athletic scholarships to both Boston College and Columbia University, Kerouac accepted the latter, into which he enrolled in September 1940 after a year of college preparatory courses at the private Horace Mann School for Boys in the Manhattan borough of the Bronx. While playing on the Columbia football team against Rutgers University that October, Kerouac suffered a cracked tibia. Laid up in bed to heal, he began reading the novels of Thomas Wolfe and listening to jazz on the radio. While jazz gave Kerouac a rhythm to his thinking, Wolfe's novels opened up his perception of America and were a direct inspiration for his own writing.
It was at Columbia that Kerouac met many of the writers with whom he would be grouped in the Beat Generation literary movement of the next decade, including budding poet Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who had studied anthropology at Harvard, psychology at Columbia and medicine in Vienna but who worked as a bartender in Greenwich Village. During his sophomore year, Kerouac left school to travel to other towns and cities by foot and by bus. He signed on with the merchant marines during the Second World War, serving as a dishwasher on the S.S. Dorchester as it ferried machinery to Greenland. After three months, Kerouac returned to Lowell and was called up to serve with the U.S. Navy. Discharged from his service for psychiatric reasons, he returned to Columbia, where he immersed himself in bebop, read voraciously, and dove headfirst into the vice joints and brothels of Harlem. In 1944, his friendship with Columbia undergrad Lucian Carr found him implicated in a murder charge when Carr stabbed to death a former teacher who had been stalking him. Kerouac escaped jail time by marrying girlfriend Edie Parker, whose family posted bail on condition that the two be wed.
The marriage to Edie Parker would not last but the social circle in which Kerouac found himself would have a profound effect on his life. Experimenting with narcotics and homosexuality while associating with prostitutes and drug dealers, Kerouac became fascinated by a lifestyle that a petty hood acquaintance coined as "beat." To him, the phrase symbolized society's downtrodden: hobos, junkies, homosexuals, madmen and criminals. Kerouac also saw this quality in a friend of a friend, Neal Cassidy, whose Denver childhood had been one of privation and abandonment and whose adult life was divided between monastic readings of philosophy and literature and the thrills of pool hustling, car stealing and myriad sexual conquests. The death of Kerouac's father in 1946 urged him toward completing his first novel, the largely autobiographical The Town and the City, which he signed as John Kerouac. Published in 1950, the novel was not a success, but in the interim, Kerouac had crisscrossed the country several times, with and without Cassady, and amassed a wealth of adventures and misadventures that he cobbled together into the book that remained his masterpiece.
Pounded out on a manual typewriter in manic Benzedrine-fueled bursts over the course of three weeks in 1951, On the Road took 10 years to find a publisher, during which time Kerouac drafted the rambling narrative three times. By the time it became a bestseller in 1957, hailed by The New York Times and an influence on such budding talents as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac had aged a decade, weathered another failed marriage, fathered a child he never knew, and was gripped by an addiction to alcohol that would shorten his life. He would publish novels and collections of poetry over the next decade but none had the cultural significance of On the Road. Plans to film the novel surfaced and sank over the course of the next 40 years. Kerouac's 1958 novella The Subterraneans was turned by MGM into a 1960 feature film starring George Peppard and Leslie Caron, with cameo appearances by jazz greats Art Pepper and Gerry Mulligan. A significant bastardization of Kerouac's original work, the film was trashed by the critics while audiences stayed away in droves.
In 1959, Kerouac provided narration for Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's experimental short film "Pull My Daisy," which also assigned roles to Allen Ginsberg and other Beat Generation luminaries, such as poet Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers and musician David Amram. That same year, Kerouac made an appearance on "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC, 1956-1960), but as he entered middle-age he grew progressively disenchanted with the course of the American counterculture which he had helped to nurture. Disagreeing on principal with the anti-American screed of Vietnam War protesters and the so-called hippies, Kerouac withdrew into conservative postures, albeit filtered through his own interests in Buddhism and Zen philosophies. He also felt that the hit TV series "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64), which chronicled the picaresque adventures of two young men riding across the continent in a convertible sports car, had borrowed heavily from his writings. He made no further TV or film appearances until 1968, when he arrived in an inebriated state for a taping of the political talk show "Firing Line" (1966-1971), where he was grilled by characteristically condescending host William F. Buckley.
In 1968, Neal Cassady died, dissolute and alone in Mexico. Married for the third time, living in St. Petersburg, FL, and caring for his invalid mother, Kerouac suffered an esophageal hemorrhage and died on Oct. 21, 1969. He was only 47 years old. Over time, the sad particulars of Kerouac's last decade were forgotten and his legend was carried forward, directly or indirectly, in the songs of The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead, King Crimson and Tom Waits. In films, actor John Heard played Kerouac in John Byrum's "Heart Beat" (1980), which chronicled the three-way love affair of Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Cassady's wife Carolyn. He figured prominently in Noah Buschel's "Neal Cassady" (2007), in which he was played by Glenn Fitzgerald, and in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Howl" (2010), which focused on the 1957 obscenity trial attending the publication of Allen Ginsberg's famous 1955 poem, with Todd Rotondi as Kerouac. On the small screen, Kerouac was played by John Belushi in a 1977 airing of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and appeared in spirit in episodes of such diverse TV series as "Quantum Leap" (NBC, 1989-1993), "Brooklyn Bridge" (CBS, 1991-93) and The 1997 History Channel miniseries "The Fifties." In 1996, Kerouac's only child, Jan Kerouac, a writer and poet in her own right, died of kidney disease at the age of 44.
By Richard Harland Smith