Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac is known as the father of the Beat Generation literary movement. His work feels spontaneous and adventurous while also touching on autobiographical experiences and contemporary political sentiments. He is most well known for his 1957 book, On the Road.

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Table of contents

    Jack Kerouac+ Typewriter/Jack Kerouac biography +StudySmarterKerouac wrote many books and poems over his lifetime. Pixabay.

    Biography of Jack Kerouac

    Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was born to French Canadian parents and spoke mainly French in his childhood. When Kerouac was four years old his older brother, Gerard, died of rheumatic fever which affected Kerouac for the rest of his life.

    In 1963, Jack Kerouac published the novel Visions of Gerard (1963), which was inspired by his brother's death. The novel explores different perspectives of the world through the death of Gerard.

    Kerouac was also deeply influenced by his mother's faith. She was Catholic and made sure her sons also had a deep sense of faith. Kerouac learned English at the age of six and the majority of his literary works later in life were written in English.

    While in high school, Kerouac proved to be a talented football player and was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. While in high school he became friends with Seymour Wyse who he credits with introducing him to a type of jazz known as Bebop, or Bop. While at Columbia, Kerouac broke his leg while playing football and so he wrote many articles about sports for the Columbia Daily Spectator, a student newspaper. Not long after his injury, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia University and lived on the Upper West Side of New York City with his future wife, Edie Parker. Here he met many important literary figures such as Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassady, and Lucien Carr who were central to the Beat Generation literary movement.

    Jack Kerouac belonged to the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation was a literary movement that originated in the 1950s. Beat Generation writers wrote about American politics and culture in the post-war era and were highly influential in shaping American culture. They sought to write in a way that went against traditional narrative structures and oftentimes included taboo themes such as drugs, sex, and spirituality. They were focused on understanding the human condition.

    Jack Kerouac+ Upper west side/Jack Kerouac biography +StudySmarterKerouac met many Beat Generation authors in New York's Upper West Side. Pixabay.

    In 1942, between July and October, Kerouac served as a US merchant marine on the SS Dorchester. During this time he wrote his first book, The Sea is My Brother (2011), which wasn't published until 2011. By 1943, Kerouac had joined the US Navy Reserves. However, his military career didn't last long. Eight days into active duty, Kerouac was transferred to the sick list and was honorably discharged for psychiatric reasons.

    Kerouac's friend, Lucien Carr stabbed David Kammerer, an aggressive and obsessive stalker. During the trial, after Carr turned himself in, Kerouac served as a material witness. Kerouac helped dispose of the weapon which led to his arrest. Kerouac had to be bailed out by his girlfriend Edie Parker's parents only because she agreed to marry him. This experience inspired two novels by Kerouac, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (Published posthumously in 2008) and Vanity of Duluoz (1968).

    Kerouac's marriage was annulled in 1948, and he moved in with his parents in Queens, New York. He wrote his first published book in 1949 called The Town and the City (1950), which did not sell very well. It was also during this time that Kerouac began writing, On the Road (1957), which would become one of his most famous books.

    Kerouac completed On the Road in 1951, and it was highly autobiographical. Kerouac drew inspiration from his crazy road-tripping adventures across the United States and Mexico with his friend, Neal Cassady, another Beat Generation writer.

    Due to the graphic, sexual, and taboo content of On the Road, Kerouac had a hard time finding a publisher. To earn money he worked as a railroad brakeman, which required him to travel between the East and West coasts quite often. In 1951, his pregnant wife divorced him, and in 1953, Kerouac began an affair with a woman who became the inspiration for the character of Mardou in his novella, The Subterraneans (1958).

    During the mid to late 1950s, Kerouac traveled often throughout the United States and Mexico, struggling with bouts of depression and heavy drinking. He also wrote ten drafts of books he would later publish. In 1954, Kerouac discovered Buddhism and studied it quite heavily, writing two books: Some of the Dharma (1997) and Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha (2009).

    Jack Kerouac+ buddha/Jack Kerouac biography +StudySmarterKerouac spent many years studying Buddhism. Pixabay.

    Kerouac was also heavily criticized politically. Left-leaning political groups disagreed with his anti-communist views, Catholicism, and support of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Right-leaning political groups disagreed with his drug use and sexual liberalism. His political nature fueled many of his writings which are what made him such a prolific, and important Beat Generation writer.

    Kerouac was living in Orlando, Florida when a 1957 review of On the Road in The New York Times proclaimed Kerouac as the voice of a new generation in America. From that moment on, Kerouac enjoyed fame. He began writing Dharma Bums (1958) and published it in 1958. However, Dharma Bums was heavily criticized by many Buddhist-American thinkers.

    Kerouac, despite belonging to the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s, heavily criticized the counterculture, stating over and over that he was Catholic.

    The Death of Jack Kerouac

    Jack Kerouac was living in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1969. On October 20, 1969, Kerouac was in his father's print shop when he began to vomit blood. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with an esophageal hemorrhage, which is when blood flow to the liver is obstructed. Kerouac received an emergency operation but never woke up. He died of complications with cirrhosis which was caused by his heavy drinking.

    Works by Jack Kerouac with Quotes

    Jack Kerouac was a prolific author, writing many books and poems. Below are his most famous pieces.

    Books by Jack Kerouac

    Jack Kerouac+ books/Jack Kerouac biography +StudySmarterKerouac wrote many books over his lifetime. Pixabay.

    Jack Kerouac is most well known for his books, On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962).

    On the Road

    Jack Kerouac used many of his own stories of travel and adventures with his friends in his novel On the Road. The story follows the travels of Sal Paradise as he crosses America in the aftermath of WWII. Paradise is intrigued by his friend Dean Moriarity who motivates Paradise's crazy adventures. The book is set against a backdrop of counterculture including jazz, drugs, and sexual experimentation. The book explores themes such as the search for freedom and the search for meaning in life.

    But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me because the only people for me are the mad ones..." (Chapter 1).

    The protagonist Sal tries to find meaning in his life through the craziness of others so he follows those he thinks are mad, as it gives him a sense of adventure and freedom from his own life.

    Dharma Bums

    Dharma Bums was written during a period in Kerouac's life when he was discovering Buddhism and heavily studying it. It follows the growing friendship between Smith and Ryder. Smith is struggling with the emptiness he feels in the American middle-class way of living, which has caused him great spiritual conflict and turmoil. He befriends Ryder who he sees as a spiritual model. Dharma Bums explores themes of enlightenment, freedom, and friendship.

    Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said, "God, I love you" and looked to the sky and meant it. "I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other." To the children and the innocent it's all the same” (Chapter 30).

    In this excerpt, Smith, who had struggled with emptiness and sought spiritual freedom, finally finds what he is looking for: a love for God who can now care for him. It is a moment of enlightenment.

    Big Sur

    Kerouac's 1962 book is partially autobiographical and follows his alter ego, Jack Duluoz. Duluoz begins to feel overwhelmed by his success and finds it hard to cope. The story follows him as he alternates between alcohol-fueled wildness in San Francisco and peace and serenity in an isolated cabin on the coast of California. There he attempts to clear his mind and spirit. The book contains themes such as madness and transformation, isolation, and spirituality.

    If someone's to ask him 'Let's drive to New York' he'd jump right for it without a word -- On a sort of pilgrimage, see, with all that youth, us old fucks oughta take a lesson from him, in faith too, he has faith, I can see it in his eyes, he has faith in any direction he may take with anyone just like Christ I guess" (Chapter 14)

    The main character Jack Duluoz is characterized by his multiple ways of living. One on hand he is spontaneous and fueled by alcohol, and on another hand, he is isolated and calm. What we learn from this excerpt, is that when Jack is in a spontaneous mindset, he does so because he has faith that he will go where he needs to.

    The Poems of Jack Kerouac

    As well as being an author of books, Kerouac also wrote quite a lot of poetry. His poetry was heavily influenced by Jazz, Blues, Catholicism, and Buddhism. He even invented the American Haiku which consists of three lines rather than the traditional five lines. He did not want his poetry to feel restrictive, but rather for it to flow spontaneously.

    Here is a list of some of Kerouac's poems:

    • "10th Chorus Mexico City Blues" (1959)
    • "241st Chorus" (1959)
    • "Bus East" (1954)
    • "Haiku (Birds singing...)" (2003)

    Birds singingin the dark—Rainy dawn" (Haiku: Birds Singing).

    This is an example of Kerouac's American Haiku Style which consists of three lines with a syllable construction of 2-3-2. Here one can also find Kerouac's signature use of an em dash rather than a period, emphasizing the spontaneity of his work.

    Genre and Writing Style of Jack Kerouac

    Jack Kerouac belongs to the Beat Generation literary movement that infused their counterculture writing with politics and taboo subjects. Kerouac, as well as other Beat Generation writers, were inspired by Jazz, Bebop, and improvisation. Kerouac also used his Catholic and Buddhist beliefs to inspire his writing.

    There are a few key characteristics of Kerouac's writing style that make his writing unique. He even wrote a list of 30 essential writing tips that even Ginsburg used to write his poem, "Howl" (1956).

    Spontaneous Prose

    Kerouac considered his writing as spontaneous prose which means that he wrote undisturbed. He simply let his mind babble onto the typewriter without interruption, even if the writing became chaotic and wild. It was the idea that one had to be submissive to their writing and allow ideas to form freely. Kerouac was also known for scribbling on notebook papers to get his ideas down.

    According to Kerouac, he would stitch long sheets of paper together so he could write on his typewriter uninterrupted. His manuscripts would be one long sheet of paper. Jack supposedly wrote On the Road (1957) on a 120-foot typewriter scroll, typing 100 words per minute (Jim Canary, Indiana University). You can actually see the 120-foot scroll which is on display at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City.

    Breath and Improvisation

    Taken from the concept of breathing in Jazz and meditative breathing in Buddhism, Kerouac would sometimes eliminate the need for a period. Instead, he would insert an em dash which would provide a quick breath tempo.

    An em dash is a type of punctuation that takes the role of a comma, parentheses, or colon. It looks like this: —

    The function of the words between the dashes is to resemble improvisation and spontaneity of thought.

    It is now" (looking at his watch) "exactly one-fourteen. I shall be back at exactly three- fourteen, for our hour of reverie together, real sweet reverie, darling, and then, as you know, as I told you and as we agreed, I have to go and see the one-legged lawyer about those papers - in the middle of the night, strange as it seems and as I tho-ro-ly explained" (On the Road, Chapter 7).

    In this excerpt from On the Road, the reader can see Kerouac's use of commas and em-dashes rather than relying on periods. Each comma can be seen as a breath mark which provides a rhythm that mimics Jazz. The use of the dash at the end of the excerpt marks a spontaneous thought.

    Removal of Emphasis on Grammar and Syntax

    Kerouac believed that writing should focus less on carefully constructed grammatical and syntactical rules and focus more on free-flowing, uninterrupted thought. Writing, according to Kerouac, should be based on an internal monologue the author makes external on the page without too much concern for any literary mistakes that may come from it.

    Jack Kerouac - Key takeaways

    • Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents in 1922.
    • Kerouac had many careers such as a football player in college, a member of the US Navy, and a worker on the railroad before his success as a writer.
    • He became famous for his book, On the Road, which came to symbolize counterculture in America and explored taboo subjects such as madness, sex, and drugs.
    • Kerouac is considered a father of the Beat Generation, and his writing style was what he called spontaneous prose. His writing style was heavily influenced by Jazz and Buddhism.
    • As well as a writer of books, Kerouac was also a poet and invented the American Haiku style.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Jack Kerouac

    How did Jack Kerouac die? 

    Kerouac died of complication with cirrhosis, which was caused by heavy drinking. 

    Who was Jack Kerouac? 

    Jack Kerouac is known as the father of the Beat Generation and is the author of many famous works, such as his 1957 book, On the Road

    What did Jack Kerouac believe in? 

    Jack Kerouac was a devout Catholic but also studied Buddhism for a period of his life.

    Why was Jack Kerouac important? 

    Jack Kerouac is important for influencing many writers and for his writing style, particularly his use of spontaneous prose and focus on breath and improvisation.

    What was Jack Kerouac's most famous work? 

    Jack Kerouac's most famous work is his book On the Road (1957).

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