He was a wide spirit, a dazzling voice that revealed a landscape of 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.
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 sensibilities 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 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 Beat Literature. 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.
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!