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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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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