While enjoying popular but little critical success during his own lifetime, Kerouac is now considered one of America's most important authors. Kerouac's spontaneous, confessional language style inspired other writers, including Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, and Bob Dylan.
Most of his life was spent in the vast landscapes of America or in the apartment of his mother, with whom he lived most of his life. Faced with a changing country, Kerouac sought to find his place, eventually bringing him to reject the values of the fifties. His writing often reflects a desire to break free from society's mold and to find meaning in life. This search may have led him to experiment with drugs (he used psilocybin, marijuana, and benzedrine, among others), to study spiritual teachings such as Buddhism, and to embark on trips around the world. His books are sometimes credited as the catalyst for the 1960s counterculture. Kerouac's best known works are On the Road and The Dharma Bums.
Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a family of Franco-Americans. His parents, Leo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Levesque, were natives of the province of Quebec in Canada. Like many other Quebecers of their generation, the Levesques and Kerouacs were part of the Quebec emigration to New England to find employment. Jack didn't start to learn English until the age of six. At home, he and his family spoke Quebec French. At an early age, he was profoundly marked by the death of his elder brother Gerard, later prompting him to write the book Visions Of Gerard.
Later, his athletic prowess led him to become a star on his local football team, and this achievement earned him scholarships to Boston College and Columbia University in New York. He entered Columbia University after spending the scholarship's required year at Horace Mann School. It was in New York that Kerouac met the people with whom he was to journey around the world, and the subjects of many of his novels: the so-called Beat Generation, which included people such as Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac broke his leg playing football, and he argued with his coach; his football scholarship did not pan out. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1942. In 1943, he joined the United States Navy, but was discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds, he was of "indifferent disposition."
During Kerouac's time at Columbia University, Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law for failing to report a murder; this incident formed the basis of a mystery novel the two collaborated on in 1945 entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks (the novel was never published, although an excerpt from the manuscript would be included in the Burroughs compilation Word Virus). In between his sea voyages, Kerouac stayed in New York with friends from Fordham. He started writing his first novel, called The Town and The City. It was published in 1950 under the name "John Kerouac" and earned him some respect as a writer. Unlike Kerouac's later work which establish his Beat style, "The Town and the City" is heavily influenced by Kerouac's reading of Thomas Wolfe.
Kerouac wrote constantly, but did not publish his next novel, On the Road, until 1957. It was published by Viking Press. Narrated from the point of view of the character Sal Paradise, this mostly autobiographical work of fiction described his roadtrip adventures across the United States and into Mexico with Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in the book. In a way, the story is an offspring of Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn, though in On the Road the narrator (Sal Paradise) is twice Huck's age, and Kerouac's story is set in the America of about a hundred years after. The novel is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II jazz, poetry, and drug affected Beat Generation; it made Kerouac "the king of the beat generation." Using Benzedrine and coffee, Kerouac wrote the entire novel in only three weeks in an extended session of spontaneous prose, his original writing style, heavily influenced by Jazz (especially Bebop), and later Buddhism. Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer, and reluctantly as the voice of the Beat Generation. His fame would come as an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing.
His friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, defined a generation. Kerouac also wrote and narrated a "Beat" movie titled Pull My Daisy in 1958. In 1954, Kerouac discovered Dwight Goddard's A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library, which then marked the beginning of his studies of Buddhism and his own personal quest for enlightenment. He chronicled parts of this, as well as some of his adventures with Gary Snyder, in the book The Dharma Bums, set in Northern California and published in 1958. 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). He also met and had discussions with the famous Japanese Zen Buddhist authority D.T. Suzuki. At some point in his life Kerouac wrote Wake Up, a biography of Siddhartha Gautama (better known as the Buddha) that remains unpublished. Shortly prior to his death Kerouac told interviewer Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times, "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic." After pointing to a painting of Pope Paul VI, Kerouac noted, "You know who painted that? Me."
He died on October 21, 1969 at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47, the unfortunate result of a life of heavy drinking. He was living at the time with his third wife Stella, and his mother Gabrielle. He is buried in his home town of Lowell.
Kerouac realized his desire to be a writer when he was in his teens, probably influenced by his father, a linotypist with a command of words. His unique style of writing wouldn't emerge until after his college years, after he wrote his first novel, "The Town and the City". He would often write while intoxicated with some substance, usually Benzedrine strips he would purge from over-the-counter inhalers, marijuana, and alcohol. He claimed that they, particularly "Bennies", enhanced his writing by giving him the tremendous energy that this kind of writing required. Kerouac is considered by some as the "King of the Beatniks" as well as the "Father of the Hippies". Kerouac publicly disavowed the Beatniks, who didn't identify with his blue-collar roots, and disliked the Hippies, largely because his politics shifted to the right in the 1960s and he supported the Vietnam War. He also accused former associate Allen Ginsberg of "raping" his mind.
Kerouac's method was heavily influenced by the prolific explosion of Jazz, especially the Bebop genre established by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others. Later, Kerouac would include ideas he developed in his Buddhist studies. He called this style Spontaneous Prose, a literary technique akin to stream of consciousness. Kerouac's motto was "first-thought=best thought", and 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 was the idea 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. 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.
He would go on for hours to friends and strangers about his method, often drunk, which wasn't well received by Ginsberg, who had an acute awareness of the need to sell literature (to publishers) as much as write it; though he'd later be one of its great proponents. 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."
* 1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
* 2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
* 3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
* 4. Be in love with yr life
* 5. Something that you feel will find its own form
* 6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
* 7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
* 8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
* 9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
* 10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
* 11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
* 12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
* 13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
* 14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
* 15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
* 16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
* 17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
* 18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
* 19. Accept loss forever
* 20. Believe in the holy contour of life
* 21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
* 22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
* 23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
* 24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
* 25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
* 26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
* 27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
* 28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
* 29. You're a Genius all the time
* 30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
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."
A DVD entitled "Kerouac: King of the Beats" features several minutes of his appearance on Firing Line, William F. Buckley's television show, during Kerouac's later years when alcoholism had taken control. He is seen often incoherent and very drunk. Books also continue to be published that were written by Kerouac, many unfinished by him. A book of his haikus and dreams also were published, giving interesting insight into how his mind worked. In August 2001, most of his letters, journals, notebooks and manuscripts were sold to the New York Public Library for an undisclosed sum. Presently, Douglas Brinkley has exclusive access to parts of this archive until 2005. The first collection of edited journals, Wind Blown World, was published in 2004.