Created | Updated Jan 20, 2012
Jack Kerouac, thought of by many as the father of the beat movement, is considered one of the most influential American writers of the 20th Century. The innovator of what he called 'spontaneous bop prosody', his frenetic fast-paced writing seemed to embody the energy and spirit of the post WW2 youth. Kerouac wrote like a jazz musician plays: fast and free, paying no attention to the rules. His lack of proper punctuation and sentence structure once prompted Truman Capote to say of his work, 'That's not writing, that's typing.'
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on 12 March, 1922. He began working for his father in his printing shop at the age of 10, thus beginning his love of the printed word. He attended both Catholic and public schools, and was a star athlete. He eventually won a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York. While at Columbia, he fell in with a literary crowd, befriending Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. After a leg injury ended his shot at football stardom in his sophomore year, Jack dropped out of Columbia and joined the Merchant Marines. He also tried to join the Navy but was discharged shortly afterwards. Kerouac than went back to New York and began writing the somewhat autobiographical tales that would define the Beat Generation.
The term 'Beat' was coined by Kerouac during a conversation with Alan Ginsberg. He said their generation was a 'Beat Generation'. But the term 'beat' also fit well in describing that generations musical influence of the day: jazz.
Kerouac is best known for his novels, Subterraneans, On the Road, and Dharma Bums. Subterraneans is a short novel that can be both rewarding and somewhat difficult to read at times due the unconventional punctuation. Sentences can run on for pages, interrupted by paragraphs of side thoughts and distractions contained within parenthesis and brackets. Dashes are used almost as places to pause and catch ones breath. But it's Kerouac's use of such breathless prose that so perfectly describes the jazz club experiences that he is writing about.
On the Road, originally published in 1955, is about a writer named Sal Paradise (actually Kerouac) who meets and becomes obsessed with the character of Dean Moriarity. Dean is the fictional equivalent of Neal Cassady, a Beat icon who never published a word during his lifetime, but appears either as himself or is characterised in the literary works of John Clellon Holmes, Alan Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe, and is even memorialized in the music of The Grateful Dead. Sal spends the novel hitchhiking across America, joy riding with Dean to Mexico, and basically experiencing the freedom of being on the road in post war America. Perhaps his best novel, On the Road may soon be gracing the silver screen. The movie rights to the novel were bought some years back by Francis Ford Coppola, and if the rumour mill is correct, pre-production may have already begun. The Researcher remembers reading a newspaper article some time ago describing hundreds of young hopefuls who waited for hours in the freezing rain for the chance to audition for the roles of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity in New York. Let's hope the rumours are true and that a film version is being made. If anyone can do On the Road justice, Francis Ford Coppola can.
Dharma Bums is one of Kerouac's better novels. It fictionalizes Kerouac's experiences of hanging out in Northern California with Poet Gary Snyder. Called Japhy in the novel, Snyder tutors Kerouac's character in the teachings of Zen Buddhism. Many of these teachings take place on hiking trips to the tops of the Sierra Cascades. Later in the novel, Kerouac's character meditates on these teachings, learning what it's like to commune with nature during a summer-long exercise in isolation when he takes employment as a mountain-top fire lookout in Washington state.
While Kerouac is best known as the 'Father of the Beats' he really didn't live the lifestyle of the beats for long. As many of his friends got involved in the radical politics of the '60s, Kerouac began to distance himself from his former colleagues. A political conservative, Jack actual found himself at odds with the hippies by supporting the War in Vietnam.
In his later life, Kerouac became an alcoholic recluse, living with his ailing mother in Northport, Long Island. Kerouac died an alcoholic's death in 1969 at the age of 47. While commercially, Kerouac could be considered a prolific writer, much of his writing is unpublished. He began writing journals and diaries at a very young age and continued to do so until his death. He was also a very prolific letter writer. These journals, notebooks, and letters had previously been kept private in the vaults of the Kerouac estate, but they have recently been turned over to historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley is currently working on a massive multi-volume edition of this previously unpublished work, and will also pen a biography of Kerouac based on the insights of his journals.