Lowell, Massachusetts-native Jack Kerouac was among the most prominent American writers of the 20th century.
Kerouac, whose full name was Jean-Louis, was born on March 12, 1922 to French-Canadian parents who immigrated to the US from Quebec, Canada. As a child, Kerouac spoke mostly French and only spoke English when he was a teenager. In fact, some of his works were written in French, and “On the Road,” his most popular work, was initially written also in French.
When he was in high school, Kerouac played for the Lowell High School’s football team as a running back. He accepted the scholarship offer by the prestigious Columbia University by 1939; however, he eventually dropped out of college after his football career got derailed when he suffered an injury. Aside from football, Kerouac also wrote for the student paper and was part of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.
After leaving Columbia, Kerouac moved to New York City. It was here where he met newfound friends in fellow writers Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke, and William S. Boroughs – prominent figures of the Beat Generation, a phrase which was used “to characterize a perceived underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York.”
In 1942, after his very brief stint serving in the US Navy, Kerouac penned “The Sea is My Brother”, his first novel. However, it was only published in 2011, with Kerouac himself deeming the novel a “failure.”
Two years later, Kerouac was arrested due to his involvement in the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr, a friend of Kerouac’s, reportedly stabbed Kammerer in self-defense after his obsessive, longtime stalking turned “aggressive.” Kerouac played a part by helping with the disposal of the evidence when Carr asked for his help. Later on, Kerouac and Boroughs would collaborate on a novel about the killing, “And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks”.
After the ordeal, Kerouac lived with his parents in Queens, where he wrote his first published novel, “The Town and the City”. It was also around this time, 1949, when he started writing “On the Road”. “On the Road” chronicled Kerouac’s road trips across the US and Mexico with Cassady and his “relationships with other Beat writers and friends.” He completed the novel in 1951, which was typed on a 120-foot roll of paper. However, Kerouac had trouble looking for a publisher because the original manuscript for “On the Road” was said to have contained controversial ideas like “graphic” descriptions of drug use and homosexuality.
In between finishing “On the Road” and finally having it published in 1957 by the Viking Press after having undergone major revisions, Kerouac wrote “The Vanity of Duluoz”.
The early 50s saw Kerouac traveling extensively around the US and Mexico while finishing drafts of about 10 more novels including “Doctor Sax” and “Desolation Angels”. During this period, Kerouac was said to have “often fell into bouts of depression and heavy drug and alcohol use.”
Come the mid-50s, Kerouac found himself being immersed in Buddhism. He even wrote a biography of Siddharta Gautama in 1955, titled “Wake Up.” It was posthumously published initially as a series in “Tricycle: The Buddhist Review” from 1993-1995, and in full again by Viking in September 2008.
The publication of “On the Road” was an immense success, with Kerouac being hailed as “the voice of the new generation” in a review of the novel on the New York Times, and as a “major American writer.” His widespread popularity even caused publishers to seek his previously rejected works for publication.
Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” was published in 1958. However, it was said to have been heavily criticized by prominent figures in the field of American Buddhism.
Kerouac was also involved in filmmaking, as he wrote and narrated “Pull My Daisy” in 1959. It was directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, and starred Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, among other artists. In 1962, Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur” was published.
The last 10 years of his life had Kerouac facing the deaths of his older sister and his friend Cassady, and his mother suffering a stroke.
Kerouac died on this day in 1969 after suffering internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis, which was “the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking, along with complications from an untreated hernia and a bar fight he had been involved in several weeks prior to his death.” Even after his death, Kerouac remained an important figure in American literature and widely regarded as “the father of the Beat movement.”
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