Who is Jack Kerouac?

To my shame the other day I found out that my education has been sadly lacking. I had never heard of Jack Kerouac. Words such as pioneer, iconoclast, quintessential, spontaneous prose, stream of consciousness are some of the words that drip off the pages I have looked at when researching just who this man was.

Jack, born in 1922, it seems, was a man ahead of his time. Raised a Catholic, he bucked against the systems in which he grew up.

After years of rejection, his iconic  novel On The Road was finally published. Jack was one of several starving counter culture writers of what is now known as the Beat Generation.

Kerouac is generally considered to be the father of the Beat movement, although he actively disliked such labels. 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 included ideas he developed from his Buddhist studies that began with Gary Snyder. He often referred to his style as “spontaneous prose.”

Jack Kerouac and his literary works had a major impact on the popular rock music of the 1960s. Artists including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, the Grateful Dead, and The Doors all credit Kerouac as a significant influence on their music and lifestyles. This is especially so with members of the band The Doors, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek who quote Jack Kerouac and his novel On the Road as one of the band’s greatest influences. In his book Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors, Ray Manzarek(keyboard player of The Doors) wrote “I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed.” The alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs wrote a song bearing his name, “Hey Jack Kerouac” on their 1987 album In My Tribe.

Largely autobiographical the book describes his road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late 40s and early 50s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. He completed the first version of the novel during a three-week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. The final draft was written in 20 days, with Joan, his wife, supplying him with benzedrine, cigarettes, bowls of pea soup and mugs of coffee to keep him going. Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a typewriter, and taped them together into a 120-foot long roll which he then fed into the machine. This allowed him to type continuously without the interruption of reloading pages. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks and was much more explicit than the published version. .

Though the work was completed quickly, he had a long and difficult time before Viking Press eventually published it. Publishers rejected On the Road because of its experimental writing style and its sexual content. Many editors were also uncomfortable with the idea of publishing a book that contained what were, for the era, graphic descriptions of drug use and homosexual behavior—a move that could result in obscenity charges being filed.

According to Kerouac, On the Road “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco, and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about.”

His sudden celebrity was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him, because his moral and spiritual decline in the next few years was shocking. Trying to live up to the wild image he’d presented in ‘On The Road,’ he developed a severe drinking habit that dimmed his natural brightness and aged him prematurely….His health was destroyed by drinking. He died at home in 1969 from an abdominal hemorrhage caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking. He was 47 years old.

Since his death, Jack’s literary prestige has grown, and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, including The Town and the CityOn the RoadDoctor SaxThe Dharma BumsMexico City BluesThe SubterraneansDesolation AngelsVisions of CodyThe Sea Is My Brother, and Big Sur.

I have now met Jack Kerouac. What a sad life for a man with such talent.

Jack Kerouac Quotes –

  • I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.
  • Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.
  • Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.
  • My witness is the empty sky.
  • My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.
  • A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.
  • Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
  • Maybe that’s what life is… a wink of the eye and winking stars.
  • Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.
Raili Tanska
Steps for Peace
All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.
Jack Kerouac

20 thoughts on “Who is Jack Kerouac?

  1. So glad you’ve discovered Jack. Reread On The Road summer before Jim died…my gypsy soul was itching to hit the road even then….

    “Be in love with your life, every minute of it” is one of my favs of his….it’s Always the beginning introduction when I start a new journal 😊

  2. That is sad. How is it that so many artist and writers create from a place of pain rather than joy? Does their own unhappiness make them compensate? Maybe there is artistry in happy ordinary people too, but they just couldn’t be bothered to express it? After all, if you are happy there is very little to say! Just thinking……

  3. Nice post. I enjoyed reading it. I probably won’t make any friends in saying this, but I don’t think that you were missing much by not having read Kerouac earlier.
    I find Kerouac and the other beat writers to be absolutely fascinating subjects, very interesting to read about, but I struggle to get enthused over Kerouac’s writing. I want to like his books, I really do. I’ve read “On the Road”, “Big Sur” and “Dharma Bums” but found them all to be hard work rather than books I felt the need to sit up all night enthusiastically reading. His fellow beat writer and friend William S Burroughs once refered to Kerouac rather caustically, saying in his eyes Kerouac was” little more than a salesman for jeans and espressos, and Cassady only cared about going places fast and not about any human beings”.
    Then again they all had problems with drink and drugs, or suffered from mental problems/identity crisis….and of course Burroughs killed his own wife in a drink/drug fuelled game of “William Tell” that went very wrong.
    The beats of the 1950’s were very similar in attitude to the punks of the 1970’s. Rebels who cared little for the rules and were out to shock the public. I apologise to any fans of Jack’s. I guess we can’t all like the same writers. Just my opinion – no offence meant.

    1. No offence taken. Thank you for you enlightening take on the beat writers. I must say, have researched Jack, and found his story interesting and so sad, I feel no curiosity in tracking down his books.

  4. Thank you for your reply. I agree Kerouac’s own life story is very interesting and quite tragic. As are the lives of a number of the beat writers of the time. Probably more interesting to read about them and their lives than to read their actual writing…..although I’m sure some of their books will make good reading. I am fascinated by “the beats” and about the time they lived in…places they visited/hung out etc. I’m planning a trip over to San Francisco next year to visit the likes of City Lights bookstore (owned by poet and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti) – where Ginsberg’s “Howl” was published to much controversy – and will visit other beat hangouts in the area and lots and lots of indie bookstores. Who knows I may actually find one of Jack’s books that makes me change my opinion of his writing. Best wishes to you.

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