Jack Kerouac Essay, Research Paper
In the beginning Jack Kerouac lived a wild and exciting life outside the realm of
everyday "normal" American life. Though On the Road and The Dharma Bums were
Kerouac’s only commercial sucesses, he was a man who changed American literature and
pop-culture. Kerouac virtually created a life-style devoted to life, art, literature, music,
and poetry. When his movement grew out of his control, he came to despise it, and died
lonely on the other side of what he once loved and cherished above all else. But, on the
way he created a style of writing which combined elements of all the great writers, with
speed, common language, real people, and the reality of his life.
In a public junior high school he began to read feverishly. In English classes he
flourished, but socially he did not. Impressed deeply by Mark Twain and Jack London,
Kerouac created his own imaginary world, which he recorded in hand-written
"newspapers." These led to his first "novel" Jack Kerouac Explores the Merrimack,
which he wrote in a notebook at the age of twelve (Clark, 22).
Skipping classes at Lowell High School, in Lowell Massachusetts, Kerouac was
exposed to the work of Thomas Wolfe by a fellow student Sammy Sampas. They
encouraged writing in each other, and Kerouac began writing seriously. Since the
Kerouacs could not afford college, a local priest suggested he try for a football
scholarship (Clark, 32). He was offered two; one from Colombia University and the
other from Boston College.
Kerouac opted for Columbia and first spent one year, by the request of the
university, at the Horace Mann School for Boys. Here he didn’t fit in with the rich prep-
school crowd, but he was exposed to Hemmingway (Clark, 37). Here, also, in a school
publication his work was first printed (Clark, 39).
After two years of school at Columbia Kerouac made a decision that would
change his life. He always believed he learned more outside of the classroom than in; and
so after a series of arguments with his coach, he quit the team. Not long after he dropped
out of school as well. He served briefly in the navy, and drinking heavily, was discharged
on psychiatric grounds(Clark, 52). Upon his return home he got a job with as a Merchant
Marine. When he wasn’t working he spent his time with Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr,
William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady (Jack Kerouac, 1). His family’s disapproval of
his friends led him to a life balancing his friends and family. This is recorded in The
Town and the City, a novel which Ginsberg’s professors got published.
Not long after Kerouac began making the now famous series of cross-country trips
with Cassady immortalized in On the Road (On the Road). But it would be seven years
before On the Road would be published (Jack Kerouac, 2). During these trips Kerouac
made several literary discoveries that changed the American Novel. First and foremost he
developed a "sketching" style of writing, inspired by an artist friend named Ed White and
the speed of bop music. Here the main goal was to write on the spot. This became what
he called "the great moment of discovering my soul," (Clark, 102).
Later this "sketching" developed into a style of writing unlike any other. He
would write either on the spot or from memory, but always on many levels; imagination
and reality, psychic and social, poetry and narrative, but always complete honesty. To
Kerouac this was "the only way to write." This style is evident first in Visions of Cody,
Kerouac’s tribute to Cassady (Clark, 110).
In 1952 Kerouac lived briefly in Mexico City with Burroughs. Here he wrote Dr.
Sax, which was considered shocking even by Ginsberg who told Kerouac it would never
be published because it was "so personal, so full of sex language," (Clark, 115). Later
Kerouac said Ginsberg was mishandling his career and didn’t take advantage of the sex
and drug revolution that was sweeping the country in paperbacks(Clark, 117). Ginsberg
was wrong though. Dr. Sax was published, but not until 1959 (Clark, xvii).
That fall he took a job with the Southern Pacific rail road. On the trains he
developed another adaptation to his writing style. He called this "speed writing" which
was supposed to "clack along all the way like a steam engine pulling a 100-car freight
with a talky caboose at the end." He also became well practiced in describing the
American land-scape, to the point where it almost becomes more of a character than a
The job on the rail road, and his writing led him to an isolation that brought a
beauty to his writing similar to Dickinson. This is very evident when comparing On the
Road with later works such as The Dharma Bums and Big Sur. But, Ginsberg believed
the isolation was making him too focused on "self as subject matter" but, this is what had
earlier drawn Ginsberg to Kerouac’s writing (Clark,119).
In 1953 Viking Press was still considering publishing Kerouac, Malcom Cowley
rejected three of his books, but still considered him "the most interesting writer who is
not being published today." Still On the Road remained unavailable to the American
public (Clark, 123).
Meanwhile, Kerouac was perfecting his "spontaneous writing" style by combining
it with his new "spontaneous prose". Falling deeper into the New York underground
Kerouac began using heroin, dopophine, and barbiturates in addition to the marijuana and
alcohol he had become accustomed to. This experience was recorded in The
Subterraneans which Kerouac wrote in just one 72 hour sitting in which he lost 15
pounds. This was as Jack described "really a fantastic athletic feat as well as mental,"
(Clark, 127). The manuscript thoroughly impressed Burroughs and Ginsberg who asked
Kerouac to give them a detailed statement on his new style. Kerouac replied with a list
titled The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. This still remains the best explanation of
Kerouac’s style; writing "without consciousness in semi-trance… excitedly, swiftly… from
within, out -to be relaxed," (Clark, 128).
In 1954 Kerouac had possibly the most important interview of his life. John
Holmes of The New York Times quoted Jack’s refferal to his group of writer and artist
friends as "the beat generation." This became the title of the article in which Holmes
stated "it was Jack Kerouac who invented the phrase, and his unpublished narrative On
the Road is the best record of their lives," (Clark, 133).
A new chapter in Kerouac’s life began when he found religion in Buddhism.
Kerouac moved again to Mexico City. Here he wrote some of his longest poems. These
were combined into the 242 choruses of Mexico City Blues. This is described as "an
extended sequence of free-association, spontaneous poems. He also began work on
Tristessa which was not completed until the following year (Clark, 139).
From Mexico City Kerouac moved to Berkley and became good friends with Gary
Snyder, a Zen poet, (Jack Kerouac, 2). Kerouac spent a great deal of time during this
period on long hikes with Snyder, who was the complete opposite of Cassady. Snyder’s
influence was good for Kerouac’s spirituality as well as his writing (Palmer). This time is
recorded in the beautiful descriptions in The Dharma Bums (The Dharma Bums).
1955 was also the time of the now famous Six Gallery Poetry Reading. It is now
considered the night of "the birth of the San Francisico Poetry Renaissance." Here many
of the "beat generation" writers and artists first gained fame. They were sad to see the
man they regarded as the most talented of them so unhappy, carrying his life’s work
around in a tattered rucksack (Jack Kerouac, 2).
Finally, in 1957 On the Road was published and it became a best-seller. One
Times critic referred to the publication as a "historic occasion in so far as the exposure of
an authentic work of art is of any great moment." Kerouac was rapidly gaining fame, but
after six years of literary rejection, he didn’t know how to handle it. He was older, sadder,
and smarter than the public had expected. He tried to live up to his wild On the Road
image, which only lead him down the dark spiral of alcoholism (Jack Kerouac, 2). The
publication of On the Road coincided with Ginsberg’s launch of the "united front," a
media campaign to join east and west coast artists. Ginsberg quietly slipped away to
Europe and allowed Kerouac to bear the full force of the popular media. The media
portrayed him as advocating illegal and immoral activities, but Kerouac was too drunk
most of the time to intelligently deal with the criticisms and confrontations. He felt like
"a kid dragged in by a cop," (Clark, 164).
His fame was beginning to grow, but this hindered his writing. He became
involved with the wife of respected literary critic Kenneth Rexroth. Initially Rexroth had
regarded Kerouac as "the peer of Celine," (Clark, 147). Needless to say, as Kerouac’s
fame spread Rexroth’s opinion of him continued to decline until the point where Kerouac
was regarded as "more pitiful than ridiculous." Eventually, Kerouac fell into disregard
with most critics (Jack Kerouac, 2). The critics, as well as Kerouac, believed the "beat
generation" was simply a fad, but Kerouac believed his writing was above the fad (Jack
Kerouac, 2). But by the time The Subteraneans was published critics were saying "The
best way to read Kerouac is with an oxygen mask." But, he
Back in Lowell in 1961 Kerouac was hardly writing any more. The ladies of the
town had organized a movement to get Kerouac’s books removed from the stores and
libraries. Fed up, he moved with his mother to Florida. His last major writing effort
began and in 10 days he finished Big Sur, the story of the alcohol delirium, paranoia, and
madness he had suffered on a 1960 trip to California. It was written mainly as an apology
and an explanation to everyone he had wronged during that time (Big Sur).
By 1964 many of Cassady and Ginsberg were associating themselves more and
more with the hippies of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and The Electric Kool-Aid
Acid Test fame (The Electric…). Kerouac, though, was a conservative at heart and
avoided the psychedelic drug movement (Clark, 193). This eventually to Kerouac being
despised by even those who’s careers he began, and lives he had changed. In one meeting
one of the Merry Pranksters had covered a couch with a flag. Ginsberg watched Kerouac
slowly fold it up and "marveled sadly… history was… out of Jack’s hands now," (Clark,
Neal Cassady died of a drug overdose in Mexico in 1968. Not long after, Jack
Kerouac died of an abdominal hemorrhage and cirrhosis of the liver, he had literally
drunk himself to death. He was only 47. He died a lonely death. A sad ending to the sad
writer who gave so much of himself in his belief that "writing was his duty on earth."
Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac: A Biography. Paragon House.
"Jack Kerouac." 3 Oct.1998 <http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn/People/JackKerouac.
Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. New York: Viking Press, 1959.
— The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking Press, 1958.
— On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.
Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.