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A Brief Biography of Jack Kerouac
Photo courtesy of: wordsareimportant.com
Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922 in small town Lowell, Massachusetts to a French-Canadian family. Early on in life his one sibling, an older brother named Gerard, died of a rheumatic fever, a traumatic experience that contributed greatly to his battles with depression later in life and led to a book he entitled Visions of Gerard.
As a young boy, Kerouac was greatly influenced by his mother, Gabrielle. His father was somewhat of a disappointment. When the family fell on hard times, Kerouac’s father took to gambling in order to restore some of the financial stability that had been lost. Jack himself at the time was a star on the high school football team who hoped to win a scholarship in order to attend college to obtain a business degree and ultimately help to support his mother and father financially. And Jack did in fact receive a scholarship to Columbia University in New York where his parents followed him to settle in Queens.
At Columbia, Kerouac found life even more difficult. His parents became even more impoverished when his father lost his business and sank into an alcoholic depression. Jack had problems with his football coach at Columbia and dropped out altogether. Both father and son were severely disappointed in one another. It was then that Jack joined up with the Merchant Marine. When he wasn’t off sailing, Jack was with his new pals, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. This group of New Yorkers would soon become the force and inspiration behind the Beat Movement in the 1950s, a movement that functioned as the counter-culture to the conformity and stifling post-war lifestyle that had pervaded the country.
After the publication of his first novel, The Town and the City, a book that earned him some respect but not fame, Kerouac began criss-crossing the country with Neal Cassady. The two drove back and forth from New York to San Francisco numerous times, meeting different people, experiencing many sights and sounds, experimenting with drugs and alcohol all the while searching for something unnamed. This journey became Jack’s next and most popular novel, On the Road. This novel was not an immediate success however. Jack tried in vain for seven years to get On the Road published, but was rejected again and again because of the rambling, incoherent form in which he had written it. Publishers simply did not take it seriously.
Kerouac continued to write during this period. He wrote more novels and carried them around, unpublished, wherever he went. It was then, in the early 1950s that Kerouac went with his friends Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady to San Francisco again and found Buddhism, a religion that would become an integral part of his philosophy and being for the rest of his life. His novel Dharma Bums details much of his newfound religion through a journey through Yosemite with fellow Zen writer, Gary Snyder. After Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder had become somewhat popular as underground poets, the Beat Generation, a term Kerouac had come up with years earlier, was gaining notoriety. With this attraction came publishers clamoring for more work. Finally, in 1957, On the Road was published and become the most popular and well-known work to come out of the movement. Kerouac himself did not know how to react to this success and fame. He was not prepared to be the poster boy for a movement he didn’t even intend to become popular. Literary critics bashed Kerouac and his novels at the time which hurt him and furthered his alienation from the world around him. Kerouac simply could not continue to live up to the image he had created of his life in On the Road and forever after his spirit and charm declined. Kerouac eventually turned to drinking.
Defeated and lonely, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island at the end of the 1950s where he remained for the rest of his life. He continued to drink and turned some of his bitterness on the emerging hippies of the 1960s. He stood against their liberal lifestyle and maintained a more conservative mind (he actually supported the Vietnam War). After two failed marriages that lasted only a couple months each, Jack married Stella in the mid 60s, a native from his own town Lowell, Mass. They lived together with his mother in New York, and then eventually moved to St. Petersburg, Florida where, destroyed by years of drinking, Jack Kerouac died October 21, 1969.
Here are two clips that give a little more insight into Kerouac from the people who knew him. The first is of longtime friend Gregory Corso who illuminates what exactly Kerouac was doing and who he was as a poet.
The second is the opening clip from the movie Kerouac directed by John Antonelli in 1985.
Biographical information courtesy of:
Weinreich, Regina. "Jack Kerouac Biography." Bio: True Story. Web. Encyclopedia Britannica. 1994-2010. <http://www.biography.com/articles/Jack-Kerouac-9363719?part=0>.
Asher, Levi. "Jack Kerouac." Literary Kicks: Opinons, Observations, Research. Web. 23 July 1994. <http://www.litkicks.com/JackKerouac>.
"Jack Kerouac." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Web. 9 September 2010. <http://www.notablebiographies.com/Jo-Ki/Kerouac-Jack.html>.