Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac!

 

Kerouac quote 2

He was a wide spirit, a dazzling voice that revealed a landscape of art and metaphor, a believer in humanity, a dreamer, a doer and an explorer of metaphysical consciousness. He was also a recluse, socially awkward, a drug abuser, an alcoholic and a man who became so overwhelmed with his own fame it ultimately destroyed him.

Yet to my thinking there are two types of people in this world; those that ‘get’ Kerouac, and those that do not. I am in the first category, of course 🙂

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac (aka Jack) was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell Massachusetts to French Canadian parents who had emigrated from Quebec.  Little Jack spoke French as a child and reportedly did not learn English until he was six years old. Yet he went on to become one of the most prolific and controversial American  writers of the 20th century.

Kerouac’s childhood was a mix of working class roots and Catholic spirituality. When Jack was just four years old, he lost his older brother Gerard to rheumatic fever. He never quite recovered from the loss and believed Gerard followed him around as a guardian angel. After meeting  Neal Cassady in the late 1940’s, the two developed a close bond and Jack always felt that Neal was possibly the reincarnation of Gerard.

Jack played football and earned a scholarship to Columbia University. It was there he met fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Jack-Kerouac (1)

Jack broke his leg playing football, lost his scholarship and dropped out of school but nevertheless he, Ginsberg and Burroughs became known as the founders of the Beat Generation. Jack went on to serve in the Merchant Marine and the Navy, later taking a series of odd jobs. All the while he was writing, writing and writing more. Some of his early books were not published until after his death.

Ironically, when people think of the word Beat, they associate it with Beatniks — those cool-cat-hip beret-wearing bongo players who eventually took over the poetry cafe scene. This idea was, however, not what Kerouac & company intended. The true meaning of Beat, Kerouac insisted, was the feeling his generation had after being ‘beat down’ by World War 2. It also referred to beatific, as in the Beatitudes of the Bible. The Beats were a marginalized segment of American society; leftover hobos, shell shocked veterans, ramshackle misfits — the exact types of characters Jack met during his cross country adventures. They shared a longing for the Divine.

His masterpiece novel ‘On The Road’ was published in 1957.  It brought him almost instant fame and success. That success was, in reality, hard earned, as Kerouac had spent most of his life as a poor drifter and outcast bum. Fame and fortune overwhelmed and eventually devastated him.

A restless heart, often accused of misogyny, Kerouac was married three times and had one daughter. His life followed a nomadic pattern that he could never quite resolve.  He made his home in various places around the country, never truly settling down. On The Road is a thinly disguised memoir of his trips between the East and West coasts. He often traveled with best friend Neal Cassady.

The Beat movement represented a certain type of freedom, patriotism and love for the land. Apple pie diners, Colorado cowboys, Frisco jazz clubs, purple mountains, red rock deserts and the tranquility of nature.  Jack began to study Buddhism in his quest for spirituality.  In later years, the peace loving Hippies of Haight Ashbury would pay tribute to  the Beats.

Jack may have had a guardian angel, but his demons never left him.

Jack-Kerouac

After he achieved literary success, his privacy became a thing of the past. He was now a celebrated author, the spotlight forced upon him.  Still socially awkward, Jack took to heavy drinking. He once told his friend and fellow poet Fran Landesman that he would have liked to commit suicide, but because his Catholic faith prevented him from doing so, he had decided to simply drink himself to death.

It worked. Jack Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at the young age of 47.  The official cause of his death was internal bleeding due to alcohol abuse. Jack had once said he wrote his novels because “we’re all gonna die.”  Luckily for us, his words live on.

Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs wrote this musical tribute ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’:

This short documentary (30 minutes) captures some of the most important parts of Kerouac’s life. Hope you enjoy it!

 

 

 

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15 comments on “Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac!

  1. I currently live in Lowell, Massachusetts. I often hang out at the Kerouac Park.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. johncoyote says:

    A legend. His book is above me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anthony says:

    I definitely enjoyed your post. I must admit that I both get and don’t get Kerouac. This is a rhythmic thing with me that happens sometimes when rereading books. When I get him, I understand his rhythm. When I don’t get him….well, I am more blues than Jazz.
    I hate to nitpick, but I am curious about your line about him being one of the most prolific. I certainly think he was great and he has written more books than most people know about…but that is a big statement.
    Away from the nitpicking.
    I have trouble with the Dean Moriarity character. I guess I am supposed to see him as the muse, or the prime mover, but I have difficulty with that. I just read Carolyn Cassady’s book and I couldn’t find enough sympathy for the man or the character. Obviously, I am missing something because so many others would be quick to jump to his defence.
    Let me know what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anthony, thanks for reading and for the comment! I would agree that there is definitely a rhythm to Kerouac’s writing and it is Jazz worthy. I believe he has a way of writing — a style of overuse and abundance of words, but very interesting words, a stream of consciousness and a great use of imagery — that is what I meant by ‘prolific’. There are certainly many authors who have written a lot more books, but I meant more his use of words.

      I think Kerouac and Neal had a love hate relationship that was probably darker than Jack let people believe… hence, Dean Moriarty IS problematic. (I thought Sal was the more interesting of the two, and Old Bull Lee was probably my favorite, haha.) However, the relationship between Jack and Neal was what fueled the entire story. I read Carolyn Cassady’s book a few years ago and loved it – a really enlightening look at all the relationships and road time. I think Neal had many issues that were not properly addressed at the time. (Nowadays he would probably be in counseling and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) He was playing a role that he did not fit. Sometimes one’s ‘image’ becomes bigger than one’s actual self. I think that is what happened to Neal.

      Again, thanks so much for reading! It is hard to find people who have even read these books, let alone want to discuss them in detail! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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