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Jack Kerouac

The guru and unofficial spokesman for the Beat Generation, Jack Kerrouac rose to mythical literary proportions based mainly upon the publication of a single work.  But what a work it was.  It not only established the author as a mainstay in American literature but also set a new tone for writing for decades to come.  Today, Kerouac is as revered by proponents of the "new verse" as he was before his death.

Born Jean-Louis on March 12, 1922, in Lowell Massachusetts, Kerouac grew up in a French-Canadian family.  He didn't learn to speak fluent English until junior high school.  He skipped classes at Lowell High to go to the library to read the classics, as well as the works of William Saroyan, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. 

Strong and athletic, Kerouac was a talented football player.  In the Thanksgiving Day football game during his senior year, he scored the game-winning touchdown.  The ball was tipped, he stretched out and grabbed it just inches from the ground, and he bulled his way into the end zone.  The fans went crazy, and several college scouts in the stadium couldn't help but be impressed.  Kerouac accepted an athletic scholarship to Columbia University, where he met William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City (1950), had been a commercial flop.  He was trying to find something new to write about when he met a man named Neil Cassady, a drifter who had actually been born in a car and who became a car thief when he was fourteen years old.  By the time Kerouac had met him, Cassady had stolen more than five hundred cars.  He loved driving them at top speed across the highways of the West.  Kerouac viewed him as a mythic figure, an American folk hero, and he followed Cassady across the country for several years, meeting hobos, con men, jazz musicians, and prostitutes along the way.

When they returned home, Kerouac wanted to use his experiences in a novel, but he struggled with various fictional plotlines: a man in search of his father, a convict in search of his runaway daughter, a young man in search of his lost love, two people in search of excitement.  He finally decided how to write the book after receiving a series of mad, rambling letters from Cassady, one of which was 40,000 words long.  He realized the novel had to be written about Cassady in Cassady's own voice.

In April of 1951, Kerouac sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, turned on an all-night Harlem jazz radio station, and in twenty days wrote the first draft of his new novel.  He changed Cassady's name to "Dean Moriarity" and his own name to "Sal Paradise" and told the mostly true story of their adventures together.  Kerouac's manuscript was a continuous scroll, 120 feet long, the text single-spaced, with no commas or paragraph breaks.  He showed it to various publishers and said he would only publish it if it could be published unrevised.  They all turned him down.

Kerouac spent the next several years working on other novels.  Finally, in 1957, he published a revised and more accessible version of his novel about his travels with Neil Cassady.  He considered many different titles, including Souls on the Road, American Road Night, Home and the Road, Love on the Road, and Along the Wild Road, before he finally chose the simplest title: On the Road.

The book came out on September 5, 1957, and a glowing review appeared in The New York Times that said, "Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation."

Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road, "The only people for me are the mad ones, 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, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."

On the Road won critical acclaim as an unconventional masterpiece, defining a post-World War II generation of drugged-up intellectual outlaws on an aimless odyssey across the U.S. landscape.  While some, including The Times, praised its publication, others dismissed it.  "That's not writing.  That's typing," author Truman Capote said in a review of Kerouac's book.

Kerouac and the Beat Generation sprouted from the back alleyways and apartments of New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1950's when a small, tightly connected group of young writers who demonstrated a carefree, often reckless yet undeniably fresh approach to literature took a demonstrative social stance toward what was commonly called "The Establishment." 

The term "Beat" became common around the time that writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were beginning to get noticed.  It, along with spin-offs such as "beatnik," quickly became part of the pop vernacular following World War II.  Some people believed the word was an abbreviation for "beatitude," a state of supreme happiness that, through their unconventional writing and appreciation for drugs, jazz, and socially questionable behavior, the beats strove to achieve. 

Great Chicago glowed red before our eyes. We were suddenly on Madison Street among hordes of hobos, some of them sprawled out on the street with their feet on the curb, hundreds of others milling in the doorways of saloons and alleys.  "Wup! wup! look sharp for old Dean Moriarty there, he may be in Chicago by accident this year."  We let out the hobos on this street and proceeded to downtown Chicago. Screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried food and beer in the air, neons winking--"We're in the big town, Sal! Whooee!" First thing to do was park the Cadillac in a good dark spot and wash up and dress for the night.  Across the street from the YMCA we found a redbrick alley between buildings, where we stashed the Cadillac with her snout pointed to the street and ready to go, then followed the college boys up to the Y, where they got a room and allowed us to use their facilities for an hour.  Dean and I shaved and showered, I dropped my wallet in the hall, Dean found it and was about to sneak it in his shirt when he realized it was ours and was right disappointed.  Then we said good-by to those boys, who were glad they'd made it in one piece, and took off to eat in a cafeteria.  Old brown Chicago with the strange semi-Eastern, semi-Western types going to work and spitting.  Dean stood in the cafeteria rubbing his belly and taking it all in.  He wanted to talk to a strange middle-aged colored woman who had come into the cafeteria with a story about how she had no money but she had buns with her and would they give her butter.  She came in flapping her hips, was turned down, and went out flipping her butt.  "Whoo!" said Dean.  "Let's follow her down the street, let's take her to the ole Cadillac in the alley. We'll have a ball." But we forgot that and headed straight for North Clark Street, after a spin in the Loop, to see the hootchy-kootchy joints and hear the bop.  And what a night it was.  "Oh, man," said Dean to me as we stood in front of a bar, "dig the street of life, the Chinamen that cut by in Chicago.  What a weird town--wow, and that woman in that window up there, just looking down with her big breasts hanging from her nightgown, big wide eyes.  Whee.  Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there." - from On the Road

When some of his friends criticized On the Road, Kerouac began writing inserts to patch up the work.  They grew into a new book.  Although Ginsberg considered the book a "holy mess," he likened its rambling style and discontinuous structure as having the improvisational quality of jazz.  New Directions published short selections from it in 1959, but the complete work was rejected as pornographic.  It finally appeared posthumously in digital format in 2000 as Orpheus Emerged, Kerouac's first full-length work of fiction since Visions of Cody, which was also published posthumously, in 1972.  It had been written 20 years earlier.

On May 22, 2001, the original manuscript for On the Road was sold at auction for $2.43 million, a record for a literary manuscript, to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team.  Yellowed with age, smudged with editing marks and the author's own ink-covered fingerprints, the scroll is a relic of a literary phenomenon.  It is currently making a cross-country, 13-stop road trip that will end with a three-month stay at the New York Public Library. 

"It's the way that it was written that, in many ways, is more important than what it really is," said Howard Collinson, director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, which was scheduled to show the scroll in 2005.  "That it kind of just spewed out of him is what it's all about."

Jack Kerouac suffered an abdominal hemorrhage while vomiting in his lavatory and died in 1969 at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he had moved to escape the pressures of life in Greenwich Village.  Several months earlier, Neal Cassady's nude corpse had been discovered in Mexico. 

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