Jack Kerouac is often known as ”The King of the Beats” and
is celebrated as the very first, original “Beat”.
He was born in 1922 in the industrial town Lowell, Massachusetts, to a French-Canadian family, French speaking. It was only in high school that Kerouac felt at home in the English language. His character and writing were deeply affected by his childhood experiences in Lowell: the impoverished immigrant and working class districts of the Depression, the strict Catholicism, as well as sport and the new popular culture in films and on the radio. Despite his success as an athlete, he was a shy sensitive boy, who soon learnt to make up for his loneliness by escaping into a world of the imagination. In his teens he started writing and publishing stories.
After a year at a private school outside New York, where he felt an outsider, he was admitted to Columbia University. Kerouac never completed his education, yet through his wide reading he received powerful impressions that were to shape him as a writer, not least from the romantic and autobiographical novels of Jack London and Thomas Wolfe. Equally formative were the jazz clubs of Harlem, then playing radical bebop jazz. When World War II broke out, he left Columbia to serve in the American Merchant Marine.
The last war year was decisive for him. In the area around Columbia University he met kindred spirits, and together they formed a group. Among these were Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke – intellectual rebels with contacts in the underworlds of drugs and crime, who made plans for an alternative culture liberated from the arts establishment and institutions. It was Kerouac who some years later, in 1948, defined this rebellion as that of a generation, and called it “The Beat Generation.”
In the immediate post-war years Kerouac was continually on the move all over the USA and in Mexico, writing his first novel, The Town and the Country (1950), an autobiographical roman à clef based on his early years in Lowell and his bohemian life in New York. Shortly afterwards he completed what was to be his most well-known novel, On the Road, based on his nomadic peregrinations in the previous years, often with the bohemian rebel Neal Cassaday, central to the novel as the hero Dean Moriarty. The book was not published until 1957, when it immediately attained the status of a modern classic.
In the 1950s Kerouac lived in New York, California and North Carolina when he was not travelling all over North America, Mexico or Europe. In the mid-50s he developed a strong interest in Buddhism. He wrote ceaselessly, but was for a long time rejected by publishers. In was only when On the Road appeared and created a furore in the USA and internationally that he was accorded the recognition he had long waited for. Among his best known books are the novels The Subterraneans (1958), The Dharma Bums (1959), Doctor Sax (1959), Maggie Cassiday (1959), Tristessa (1960), Visions of Gerard (1963), Desolation Angels (1965), and Visions of Cody (1972). He also published a celebrated poetry cycle, Mexico City Blues (1959), some short prose and essays on the Beat Generation, on jazz and literature. In time Kerouac became seriously affected by long-term alcohol abuse. He died in Florida in 1969.
From the start with On the Road one can clearly see Kerouac’s ambition to create a new spontaneous prose style. His stylistic experiments became even more striking in the following years, culminating in Visions of Cody, published posthumously. His stylistic ideal was the improvised jazz solo, like that of the saxophonist Charles Parker, and visual artists’ “sketching”. The aim was to break down the distinction between life and art in order to present reality and experience as directly as possible. For this reason Kerouac’s art is highly autobiographical and based on his exceptionally acute and sense-derived memory. Even though political issues are not openly proclaimed in his books, the underlying theme is apparent – a protest against any kind of conformity and an ode to the freedom of the individual, seen by him and the Beat Generation as under threat from post-war America that was dominated by cold war, consumerism and bureaucracy. In a struggle of this kind against conformity and streamlining the aesthetic of spontaneity in itself becomes part of the individual’s liberation process.