This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac, one of the most iconic and influential American writers of the 20th century. The author, born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, inspired millions with his spontaneous prose and autobiographic tales of travel, spirituality, jazz, and fellowship through his two most well-known and beloved works, On the Road and The Dharma Bums.
His childhood and early adulthood were marked by loss: his brother Gerard died in 1926, at age nine. Kerouac’s childhood friend Sebastian Sampas died in 1944 and his father, Leo, in 1946. Kerouac was married three times: to Edie Parker (1944); to Joan Haverty (1951), with whom he had a daughter, Jan Michelle; and to Stella Sampas (1966), the sister of Sebastian, who died during World War II.
Kerouac realized he wanted to be a writer as a young boy; his father ran a print shop, publishing The Lowell Spotlight. He tended to write constantly, carrying a notebook with him everywhere. Letters to friends and family members were long and rambling, including great detail about his daily life and thoughts.
He tried a multitude of careers. He was a sports reporter for The Lowell Sun, a temporary worker in construction and food service, a Merchant Marine, and served with the United States Navy twice. Throughout all of this, he led a nomadic lifestyle, never having a home of his own. He lived with his mother, stayed with friends, or camped out.
In 1940, Kerouac enrolled at Columbia University, where he soon met Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs. Together with Kerouac, they became the leading figures in the literary revolution known as the Beat Writers, rebelling against the conventions of conservative mainstream American life, capitalist values, and the elite academia. Other well-known members of the Beat Generation include poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, and Diane Di Prima.
Kerouac is considered the father of “modern spontaneous prose,” a kind of stream of consciousness writing he began with “On the Road.” The original manuscript, a scroll written in a three-week blast in 1951, is legendary: composed of approximately 120 feet of paper taped together and fed into a manual typewriter, the scroll allowed Kerouac the fast pace he was hoping to achieve. He had also hoped to publish the novel as a scroll so that the reader would not be encumbered by having to turn the pages of a book. Rejected for publication at first, it finally was printed as a book in 1957.
Kerouac’s motto was “first-thought=best thought”, and many of his books including On the Road, Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur, and The Subterraneans played on this theme. The central feature of this writing method was the idea of breath (borrowed from Jazz and from Buddhist meditation breathing), improvising words over the inherent structures of mind and language. Connected with his idea of breath was the elimination of the period, using a long, connecting dash instead. As such, the phrases occurring between dashes might resemble improvisational jazz licks. When spoken, the words take on a certain kind of rhythm. Below is his explanation of his technique.
He went on to write 15 novels, numerous short stories and novellas, and a multitude of poems, poetry collections, and collaborations.
Sadly Jack Kerouac passed away at the age of 47 in 1969, in St. Petersburg, FL. There is so much written and discussed about him still today, and his influence and rebellion against mainstream conservative culture is as relevant today as it was then…in writing, art, poetry, and music. If you’re interested in reading his work, I would suggest starting with On the Road or The Dharma Bums.