Jack Kerouac’s beatnik persona has reached near mythical levels. But the author of “On the Road” never enjoyed his celebrity status, and lived a life that was often lonely and tortured. His intriguing legacy continues to inspire restless writers and cross-country road trips alike.
Jack Kerouac’s Early Days
To many readers, Jack Kerouac’s cross-country road trips and brash artistic ambition epitomize Americana. But the beatnik author was born on March 13, 1922, to French-Canadian parents, in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was named Jean-Louis and spoke a local French dialect before learning English, according to the American Museum of Beat Art. Jack was the youngest child of three, and lost his older brother to rheumatic fever when they were still children. According to the site, Jack “was heartbroken” by his brother’s death, and while growing up seemed “intense and serious.” Jack was also “devoted” to his mother, and had an early penchant for creating stories.
Sources in this Story
- The American Museum of Beat Art: Jack Kerouac
- NPR: Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again
- The New York Times: For Kerouac, Off the Road and Deep Into the Bottle, a Rest Stop on the Long Island Shore
- San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Road’ author still inspires 35 years later
- University of Pennsylvania: Belief & Technique for Modern Prose
Kerouac’s Notable Accomplishments
Jack earned a football scholarship to Columbia University, and planned to work in insurance after finishing school, according to the Beat Museum, which goes into detail about Kerouac’s rise to literary and cultural stardom. But his life only took a more hectic turn once he arrived in New York City, and he quickly clashed with his football coach. Jack dropped out of school, joined the Merchant Marines and then fell in with New York’s literary crowd, including Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Around this time, Kerouac took several cross-country road trips with friend Neal Cassady that would later inspire his seminal work, “On the Road.”
NPR celebrated the 50th anniversary of “On the Road” in 2007 by discussing the work with Kerouac scholars, including Paul Marion. Despite the “legend” that the manuscript was written in just three weeks, “the book actually had a much longer, bumpier journey from inspiration to publication.” The bumpier journey included rewrites, rejections, and a dog who reportedly ate the end of the scroll.
Marion told NPR, “Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man, and that everything that he ever put down was never changed, and that’s not true. He was really a supreme craftsman, and devoted to writing and the writing process.”
The Man and His Work
- “On the Road: The Original Scroll” by Jack Kerouac
- “On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition” by Jack Kerouac
- “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac
- “The Jack Kerouac Collection” by Jack Kerouac
- “Why Kerouac Matters” by John Leland
The Rest of the Story
The New York Times documented Kerouac’s worsening alcohol addiction in a 2006 article, which features interviews with residents of Northport, Long Island, where Kerouac moved with his mother in 1958. At that point, he’d already become a “literary celebrity,” and was spending much of his time drinking in local bars and walking around barefoot. He was “disillusioned by his celebrity,” the Times reports, “and growing apart from his radical friends and artistic colleagues” in New York City.
Kerouac died of internal bleeding related to alcoholism on October 21, 1969. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Kerouac “was known to consume 17 shots of Johnny Walker Red per hour, washed down with Colt malt liquor.”
His friends and scholars say Kerouac never considered himself or wanted to be a leader of the beat generation. “Jack will be remembered for the energy of his writing. His prose is outstandingly fresh, and it carried people along,” Kerouac friend and poet Gary Snyder told the Chronicle.
Read Kerouac’s “Belief and Technique in Modern Prose,” a list of 30 bits of wisdom for writers, posted by the University of Pennsylvania.
This article was originally written by Sarah Amandolare; it was updated January 19, 2017.