JACK KEROUAC Biography - Writers


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Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Kerouac, a French-Canadian child in             
working-class Lowell, Massachusetts. Ti Jean spoke a local dialect of             
French called joual before he learned English. The youngest of three             
children, he was heartbroken when his older brother Gerard died of               
rheumatic fever at the age of nine.                                               
Ti Jean was an intense and serious child, devoted to Memere (his mother)         
and constantly forming important friendships with other boys, as he would         
continue to do throughout his life. He was driven to create stories from a       
young age, inspired first by the mysterious radio show 'The Shadow,' and         
later by the fervid novels of Thomas Wolfe, the writer he would model             
himself after.                                                                   
Lowell had once thrived as the center of New England's textile industry,         
but by the time of Kerouac's birth it had begun to sink into poverty.             
Kerouac's father, a printer and well-known local businessman, began to           
suffer financial difficulties, and started gambling in the hope of               
restoring prosperity to the household. Young Jack hoped to save the family       
himself by winning a football scholarship to college and entering the             
insurance business. He was a star back on his high school team and won           
some miraculous victories, securing himself a scholarship to Columbia             
University in New York. His parents followed him there, settling in Ozone         
Park, Queens.                                                                     
Things went wrong at Columbia. Kerouac fought with the football coach, who       
refused to let him play. His father lost his business and sank rapidly           
into alcoholic helplessness, and young Jack, disillusioned and confused,         
dropped out of Columbia, bitterly disappointing the father who had so             
recently disappointed him. He tried and failed to fit in with the military       
(World War II had begun) and ended up sailing with the Merchant Marine.           
When he wasn't sailing, he was hanging around New York with a crowd his           
parents did not approve of: depraved young Columbia students Allen               
Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, a strange but brilliant older downtown friend           
named William S. Burroughs, and a joyful street cowboy from Denver named         
Neal Cassady.                                                                     
Kerouac had already begun writing a novel, stylistically reminiscent of           
Thomas Wolfe, about the torments he was suffering as he tried to balance         
his wild city life with his old-world family values. His friends loved the       
manuscript, and Ginsberg asked his Columbia professors to help find a             
publisher for it. It would become Kerouac's first and most conventional           
novel, The Town and the City, 'which earned him respect and some                 
recognition as a writer, although it did not make him famous.                     
It would be a long time before he would be published again. He had taken         
some amazing cross-country trips with Neal Cassady while working on his           
novel, and in his attempt to write about these trips he had begun                 
experimenting with freer forms of writing, partly inspired by the                 
unpretentious, spontaneous prose he found in Neal Cassady's letters. He           
decided to write about his cross-country trips exactly as they had               
happened, without pausing to edit, fictionalize or even think. He                 
presented the resulting manuscript to his editor on a single long roll of         
unbroken paper, but the editor did not share his enthusiasm and the               
relationship was broken. Kerouac would suffer seven years of rejection           
before 'On The Road' would be published.                                         
He spent the early 1950's writing one unpublished novel after another,           
carrying them around in a rucksack as he roamed back and forth across the         
country. He followed Ginsberg and Cassady to Berkeley and San Francisco,         
where he became close friends with the young Zen poet Gary Snyder. He             
found enlightenment through the Buddhist religion and tried to follow             
Snyder's lead in communing with nature. His excellent novel 'The Dharma           
Bums' describes a joyous mountain climbing trip he and Snyder went on in         
Yosemite in 1955, and captures the tentative, sometimes comic steps he and       
his friends were taking towards spiritual realization.]                           
His fellow starving writers were beginning to attract fame as the 'Beat           
Generation 'a label Kerouac had invented years earlier during a                   
conversation with fellow novelist John Clellon Holmes. Ginsberg and Snyder       
became underground celebrities in 1955 after the Six Gallery poetry               
reading in San Francisco. Since they and many of their friends regularly         
referred to Kerouac as the most talented writer among them, publishers           
began to express interest in the forlorn, unwanted manuscripts he carried         
in his rucksack wherever he went. 'On The Road' was finally published in         
1957, and when it became a tremendous popular success Kerouac did not know       
how to react. Embittered by years of rejection, he was suddenly expected         
to snap to and play the part of Young Beat Icon for the public. He was           
older and sadder than everyone expected him to be, and probably far more         
intelligent as well. Literary critics, objecting to the Beat 'fad,'               
refused to take Kerouac seriously as a writer and began to ridicule his           
work, hurting him tremendously. Certainly the Beat Generation was a fad,         
Kerouac knew, but his own writing was not.                                       
His sudden celebrity was probably the worst thing that could have happened       
to him, because his moral and spiritual decline in the next few years was         
shocking. Trying to live up to the wild image he'd presented in 'On The           
Road,' he developed a severe drinking habit that dimmed his natural               
brightness and aged him prematurely. His Buddhism failed him, or he failed       
it. He could not resist a drinking binge, and his friends began viewing           
him as needy and unstable. He published many books during these years, but       
most had been written earlier, during the early 50's when he could not           
find a publisher. He kept busy, appearing on TV shows, writing magazine           
articles and recording three spoken-word albums, but his momentum as a           
serious writer had been completely disrupted.                                     
Like Kurt Cobain, another counter-culture celebrity who seemed to be truly       
(as opposed to fashionably) miserable, Kerouac expressed his unhappiness         
nakedly in his art and was not taken seriously. In 1961 he tried to break         
his drinking habit and rediscover his writing talents with a solitary             
nature retreat in Big Sur. Instead, the vast nature around him creeped him       
out and he returned to San Francisco to drink himself into oblivion. He           
was cracking up, and he laid out the entire chilling experience in his           
last great novel, 'Big Sur.'                                                     
Defeated and lonesome, he left California to live with his mother in Long         
Island, and would not stray from his mother for the rest of his life. He         
would continue to publish, and remained mentally alert and aware (though         
always drunken). But his works after 'Big Sur' displayed a disconnected           
soul, a human being sadly lost in his own curmudgeonly illusions.                 
Despite the 'beatnik' stereotype, Kerouac was a political conservative,           
especially when under the influence of his Catholic mother. As the               
beatniks of the 1950's began to yield their spotlight to the hippies of           
the 1960's, Jack took pleasure in standing against everything the hippies         
stood for. He supported the Vietnam War and became friendly with William         
F. Buckley.                                                                       
Living alone with his mother in Northport, Long Island, Kerouac developed         
a fascinating set of habits. He stayed in his house most of the time and         
carried on a lifelong game of 'baseball' with a deck of playing cards. His       
drink of choice was a jug of the kind of cheap, sweet wine, Tokay or             
Thunderbird, usually preferred by winos. He became increasingly devoted to       
Catholicism, but his unusual Buddhist-tinged brand of Catholicism would           
hardly have met with the approval of the Pope.                                   
Through his first forty years Kerouac had failed to sustain a long-term           
romantic relationship with a woman, though he often fell in love. He'd           
married twice, to Edie Parker and Joan Haverty, but both marriages had           
ended within months. In the mid-1960's he married again, but this time to         
a maternalistic and older childhood acquaintance from small-town Lowell,         
Stella Sampas, who he hoped would help around the house as his mother             
entered old age.                                                                 
He moved back to Lowell with Stella and his mother, and then moved again         
with them to St. Petersburg, Florida. His health destroyed by drinking, he       
died at home in 1969. He was 47 years old.