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Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) - original name Jean-Luis Lebris de Kerouac

 

American novelist and poet, leading figure and spokesman of the Beat Generation. Kerouac's search for spiritual liberation produced his best known work, the autobiographical novel On the Road (1957). The first beat novel was based on Kerouac's travels across America with his friend Neal Cassidy. Its importance was compared to Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, generally seen as the testament of the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s.

"I stuck my head out of the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments. The madman was a brakeman with the Southern Pacific and he lived in Fresno; his father was also a brakeman. He lost his toe in the Oakland yards, switching, I didn't quite understand how. He drove me into buzzing Fresno and let me off by the south side of town. I went for a quick Coke in a little grocery by the tracks, and here came a melancholy Armenian youth along the red boxcars, and just at that moment locomotive howled, and I said to myself, Yes, yes, Saroyan town." (from On the Road)

Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the third child of working-class French-Canadian èmigrés. His father, Leo, owned a print shop – he died of stomach cancer in 1946. Kerouac learned English as a second language, and first the French-Canadian dialect joual. When he was four, his beloved older brother Gerard died. Kerouac believed that Gerard followed him as a guardian angel. Kerouac went to parochial school where he was educated by Jesuits. In high school he was a star athlete.

In 1939 Kerouac entered Columbia University on a football scholarship, but soon dropped out and joined the Navy. Lacking the capacity of subordination he was discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds. To a Navy shrink he said that the only thing he believed was "absolute personal freedom at all times."

Kerouac served as a merchant seaman and roamed United States and Mexico with the intent to become a writer. During this period he wrote the unpublished The Sea Is My Brother, about his maritime adventures. His first novel, The Town & City (1950), an account of the decline of his own family, received good critics but Kerouac judged the novel as a failure.

Of all beat Beat writers, Kerouac was the one who was most affected by jazz. "I want to be considered a jazz poet," he said in Mexico City Blues (1959), "blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday." His heroes were Charlie Parker ("Musically as important as Beethoven/Yet not regarded as such at all"), Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk. Observations about the Bebop scene, the spontaneity and rough energy of the music, are scattered throughout Kerouac's writings.

While hanging around Columbia campus in 1944, Kerouac began to mix with a group of New York based intellectuals including William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, whose Bohemian life style and search for new philosophy profoundly influenced him. Usually they met in the apartment of Joan Wollmer, the daughter of a factory manager, and Edie Palmer. Burroughs accidentally shot Vollmer in Mexico City in 1951. For a short time Kerouac was married with Edie, who earned $27,50 a week as a cigarette girl and shared this sum with him. A prostitute named Vickie Russell showed the group how to make lozenges or tea from the papers in Benzedrine inhalers. Kerouac was hospitalized after excessive use of Benzedrine. Most of his life he was addicted to the drug.

The poet Diane di Prima, who became friends of the "new bohemians," described later in her erotic autobiography Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) an orgy involving Kerouac, Ginsberg, herself, and two others as being "warm and friendly and very unsexy – like being in a bathtub with four other people." Kerouac's second wife was Joan Virginia Haverty, whom he encouraged to write. The marriage lasted eight months. Joan refused to abort their unplanned child, Jan. Kerouac did not meet her until she was ten. Joan wrote throughout her life, but destroyed most of writings. Her unfinished autobiography, Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats appeared in 2000. Jan Kerouac published her first novel, Baby Driver, in 1981. 

In the early 1950s, Kerouac took a job in Washington State with the U.S. Forest Service as a fire watcher in a one-room fire lookout. In 1957, nine months before becoming famous with the publication of On the Road, he had an affair with Joyce Johnson (Glassman), who wrote about their relationship in Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 (2000). She was twenty-one. On the night of their first blind date in January 1957, Kerouac couldn't even afford to buy her a cup of coffee. "He told me how he'd promised his father that someday he'd buy his mother a house – maybe he'd really be able to do that eventually. He also hoped critics would admire his breakthrough into spontaneous, unfettered prose." (from Door Wide Open) Kerouac moved to her apartment, which she shared with a tomcat named Smoke; he called it Ti Gris, after a cat he once had in Lowell. Johnson later recalled that as a lover he was somewhat reticent. Kerouac did not like blondes.

As a writer Johnson did not gain such fame as the young men of the beat generation, proving perhaps with her fate the masculine character of the movement. "It's funny the way you and Allen and Peter came to town this winter and shook us all up," she notes in a letter. Just before the publication of On the Road Burroughs went with Ginsberg to Tangiers, where Burroughs was writing his most famous novel, The Naked Lunch.

On the Road was inspired by the drug-fuelled cross-country car rides that Kerouac made with Neal Cassady (1926-1968). The narrator, Sal Paradise, accompanies his friends on four separate trips as they travel the country, spending time in Colorado, California, Virginia, New York and Mexico. Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady is Dean Moriarty, who tells Sal: "... I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it is the same in every corner. I know the people, I know what they do. We give and take and go in the incredibly complicated sweetness zigzagging every side." William Burroughs, who wrote under the pseudonym of William Lee about his heroin addiction, was Old Bull Lee - "... he was a teacher, and it may be said that he had every right to teach because he spent all his time learning; and the things he learned were what he considered to be and called "the facts of life," which he learned not only out of necessity but because he wanted to."

The headlong style of the narrator underlines the description of lifestyle based on beauty, alcohol, jazz, sex, drugs, and mysticism. Kerouac wrote the book, at his kitchen table on West 20th Street, over a period of just 20 days on a single roll of telegraph paper. In the process he reinvented "automatic writing," which marked the writings of Surrealistic circles in Paris in the 1920s. Kerouac presented a new, spontaneous, unpolished style, the 'sound of the mind', similar to almost theatrical performance. It appealed subculture folksingers, hipsters, mystics, and writers. Truman Capote condemned to work, "That's not writing, that's typewriting," but it made Kerouac celebrated television personality and Neal Cassidy a model for an alternative lifestyle.

Kerouac´s The Dharma Bums (1958) paved way for Zen Buddhism as the philosophy for the bohemian artists´ communities of San Francisco´s North Beach, southern California´s Venice West and New York City´s Greenwich Village. The novel contained a portrait of the poet Gary Snyder, on whom the character Jaffe Ryder was based. The protagonist is Ray Smith, whose friend Ryder sees a vision of "thousands, or even millions of young Americans wandering around refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming all that crap they didn't really want anyway, such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars, certain hair oils and deodorants, etc." Smith starts to meditate, he rejects the society, and then returns to the world with the "vision of the freedom of eternity."

Disappointed by the way his works were misunderstood Kerouac retired to childhood town of Lowell, where he was looked after by his mother, Gabrielle, known as "Mémêre." When she had a paralysing stroke, Kerouac nursed her. Kerouac felt his role as a spokesman for the beat generation something of a burden, but occasionally participated to the cross-country adventures. More regularly he visited his home town's bars and clubs. He also married a local girl Stella Sampas, the older sister of his best friend from childhood. During these years he wrote a series of autobiographical novels. Trying to stop his nightly ramblings, she hide his shoes. Kerouac went out anyway.

Visions of Gerard (1963) was based on his childhood and depicted the last months in the life of the narrator's 9-year-old brother Gerard. "It is as though Kerouac believes that if only one were to write really bad prose, the result, with any kind of luck at all, would be literature, and disturbingly beautiful," wrote Saul Maloff in the New York Times (September 8, 1963). Satori in Paris (1966) was an account of his quest for his Breton ancestors. "Somewhere during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany) I received an illumination of some kind that seems to've changed me again, towards what I suppose'll be my pattern for another seven years or more: in effect, a satori: the Japanese word for 'sudden illumination,' 'sudden awakening' or simply 'kick in the eye.'" The Subterraneans (1958), was written in three days with the help of Benzedrine. It depicted Kerouac's – Leo Percepied in the book – affair with Mardou Fox, a mulatto woman. Critics were hot happy with its disintegration of syntax. In Big Sur (1962) Kerouac's alter ego was Jack Duluoz. The book was part of the author's massive series The Duluoz Legend, in which he told the story of his life from 1922 to the summer of 1965.

Kerouac suffered abdominal hemorrhage whilst vomiting in his lavatory and died at home on October 21, 1969, in St. Petersburg, Florida. A few month earlier Neal Cassady's nude corpse had been discovered in Mexico. Kerouac's novel Visions of Cody was published posthumously in 1972, but it was composed already in 1951-52. When his friends did not like On the Road, Kerouac started to write inserts to patch up the work. These grew into a new book. Although Ginsberg considered it a "holy mess," he did not change its rambling style and discontinuous structure which had the improvisational quality of jazz. New Directions published short selections from it in 1959, but rest of the work was rejected as pornographic. In 2000 appeared in digital format Orpheus Emerged, the first full-length work of fiction after Vision of Cody. The novella was originally completed in 1945; in the new format the work includes also an introduction by the poet and scholar Robert Creeley, photographs, biography of the author, excerpts from Kerouac's journals, bibliographies, etc.

For further reading: Kerouac: A Biography by A Charters (1973); Jack Kerouac by R.A. Hipkiss (1976); Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by B. Gifford and L. Lee (1978); "On the Road": Text and Criticism, ed. by S. Donaldson (1979); Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac by Gerald Nicosia (1994); Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight (1996); Jack Kerouac's Duluoz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction by James T. Jones (1999); Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 by Joyce Johnson (2000); Nobody's Wife by Joan Haverty Kerouac (2000); Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics by Regina Weinreich (2002); Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road by Isaac Gewirtz (2008) - Note: Originally the term "beat" meant "weary," but it was later connected to jazz music like the "hip" vocabulary and cool manners of the Counter Culture artists´. "Beat" also appeared in Norman Mailer's essay The White Negro (1957): 'The words are man, go, put down, make, beat, cool, swing, with it, crazy, dig, creep, hip, square.' Several magazines published articles on the Beats and lexicons of their jargon. Teenage followers were called 'beatniks" – it was the time when the Soviet Union put the satellite Sputnik in space. (See The Atlas of World Literature, 1996). Jack Kerouac was among the first – perhaps the first – who coined the phrase 'the beat generation,' source of the word 'beatnik.' The 'beats' rebelled against the conformity of 1950s society and valued artistic and personal freedom of expression.

Selected works:

  • The Town & City, 1950
  • On the Road, 1957
    - Matkalla (suom. Markku Lahtela, 1964)
    - Film 2012, prod. MK2 Productions, Film4, SPAD Films, screenplay Jose Rivera, dir. Walter Salles, starring Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
  • The Dharma Bums, 1958
    - Dharmapummit (suom. Markus Jääskeläinen, 2001)
  • The Subterraneans, 1958
    - Maanalaiset (suom. Kimmo Lilja, 2002)
  • The Floating World, 1959
  • Mexico City Blues, 1959
  • Excerpts from Visions of Cody, 1959
  • Maggie Cassidy, 1959
  • Doctor Sax, 1959
  • The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, 1960
  • Lonesome Traveler, 1960 (drawings by Larry Rivers)
    - Yksinäinen matkamies (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2005)
  • Tristessa, 1960
    - Tristessa (suom. Elina Koskelin, Seppo Lahtinen ja Vesa-Matti Paija, 2006)
  • Pull My Daisy, 1961 (text ad-libbed by Jack Kerouac for the film by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, introd. by Jerry Tallmer)
  • Book of Dreams, 1961
  • Big Sur, 1962
    - Tuuliajolla Big Surissa (suom. Markus Jääskeläinen, 2002)
  • Visions of Gerard, 1963
  • Desolation Angels, 1965 (introd. by Seymour Krim)
    - Desolationin enkelit (suom. Jaakko Yli-Juonikas, 2004)
  • Satori in Paris, 1966
  • Some of the Dharma, 1997
  • Vanity of Duloutz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46 , 1968
    - Turha mies Duluoz (suom. 2009)
  • Pic: A Novel, 1971
  • Scattered Poems, 1971
  • Visions of Cody, 1972 (introd. by Allen Ginsberg)
  • Home at Christmas, 1973
  • Trip Trap: Haiku along the Road from San Francisco to New York, 1959, 1973 (with Albert Saijo and Lew Welch, with recollections by Albert Saijo and Lew Welch)
  • Two Early Stories, 1973
  • Junk, 1976
  • Heaven & Other Poems, 1977
  • Hymn: God Pray for Me, 1985
  • American Haikus, 1986
  • Pomes All Sizes, 1992 (introduction by Allen Ginsberg)
  • Good Blonde & Others, 1993 (edited by Donald Allen, preface by Robert Creeley)
  • Old Angel Midnight, 1993 (edited by Donald Allen, prefaces by Ann Charters & Michael McClure)
  • The Portable Jack Kerouac, 1995 (edited by Ann Charters)
  • Selected Letters, 1940-1956, 1995 (edited with an introduction and commentary by Ann Charters)
  • Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings, 1999 (edited with an introduction and commentary by Paul Marion)
  • Selected Letters, 1957-1969, 1999 (edited with an introduction and commentary by Ann Charters)
  • Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 / Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, 2000 (with an introduction and commentary by Joyce Johnson)
  • Orpheus Emerged, 2000 (published in digital format by LiveREADS)
  • Book of Haikus, 2003 (ed. by Regina Weinreich)
    - Haikujen kirja (suom. Arto Lappi, 2006)
  • Departed angels: [the lost paintings], 2004 (text by Ed Adler)
  • Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, 2004 (ed. by Douglas Brinkley
  • Beat Generation: 3-Act Play, 2005 (introduction by A.M. Homes)
  • Book of Sketches, 1952-57, 2006 (introduction by George Condo)
  • On the Road: The Original Scroll, 2007
    - Matkalla: alkuperäinen versio (suom. Markku Lahtela, Markus Jääskeläinen, 2007)
  • Road Novels, 1957-1960, 2007 (edited by Douglas Brinkley)
  • And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, 2008 (with William S. Burroughs, written in 1945)
    - Ja virtahevot kiehuivat altaissaan (suom. 2010)
  • Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head, 2009 (edited by Nick Thurston ; introduction by Kenneth Goldsmith)
  • You're a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, 2009 (foreword by Regina Weinreich)
  • Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, 2010 (edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford)
  • The Sea is My Brother, 2012 (introduction by Dawn Ward)


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