Jack Kerouac was the James Dean of the literary world. He was the rash and ruthless bad boy loved by adventurous women all over America. With his good looks, he became the poster-boy for the sensitive and enlightened Beat generation. Like his peers, Kerouac spent his life trying to find comfort in sex, drugs, and literature. His life, his romances, and his highs were unnatural, fast, and furious, and the tortured soul found behind the pretty face could never be calmed.
On March 12, 1922, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born to middle-class French-Canadians Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack Kerouac spent much of his childhood restricted to his cloistered house under the wings of his French-speaking mother. Until Kerouac was five years old, he could only speak a Franco-American tongue. Thus he followed a relatively solitary life, enacting silent movies by himself for entertainment. Kerouac also spent much time with his sick brother Gerard, whom he believed to be a saint. Gerard, five years his elder, was born with a rheumatic heart. Physically, the two were opposites - Jack, burly and strong, Gerard, frail and pasty.
The Kerouacs tended to Gerard night and day until Gerard died when Jack was only four years old. After his brother's death, Jack was haunted by nightmares, and took to sleeping with his mother, leading to an unnatural dependence on the woman who would one night tell him he was the one who should died.
Following his brother's death, Kerouac was finally forced to have a social life, as his parents enrolled him in Catholic school. He remained shy, but he ultimately learned English and even received good grades throughout his school days. Around the age of twelve, Kerouac began writing long, secret stories about his personal life. Oftentimes, these writings would be followed by ritual masturbation sessions. Biographer Steven Watson claims that, even from the beginning, writing was a 'self-stimulating process' for Kerouac.
Jack continued to write throughout his high school years to preserve his childhood memories and private thoughts. However, what his peers came to know him for was his athletic prowess. Physical strength put Kerouac at a great advantage. From the age of sixteen, he was blessed with a stocky, muscular body. He played football at Lowell High School, becoming a town hero and celebrity as he scored touchdown after touchdown. His skill attracted the attention of many prestigious schools around the east coast, and in 1940 Kerouac left Lowell for Columbia, attracted by its distinguished English department and the big-city life. There, he injured his right tibia and thus retired his football dreams. Nonetheless, his good looks garnered him much attention, and Kerouac became much more outgoing than he had been in the past. Still, he spent much time alone, listening to classical music, smoking his pipe, and reading Thomas Wolfe novels. Academically, his successes were erratic. His grades ranged from A's in literature classes to F's in science classes. During his sophomore year, Kerouac vowed to become an artist. He quit football and Columbia for good.
In 1943, Kerouac joined the Navy after experimenting with several odd jobs. This too proved to be a short stint, as he was discharged from service as an "indifferent character" a few months later. However, throughout this transitional stage, Kerouac remained dedicated to the art of literature and writing, keeping a journal and reading voraciously.
Kerouac returned to New York in September of 1943 to live with Edie Parker and Joan Vollmer. Kerouac had met Parker, an art student, at Columbia, and the two quickly began a romance. At this apartment, Kerouac was introduced to an interesting circle of intellectuals who would later form the group known as the "Beat" writers.
Among the characters Kerouac met was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg quickly fell in love with Kerouac and his small-town vulnerability. While Kerouac did not return the affection, he did open up to Ginsberg, whose tolerance he respected and admired. Kerouac even fooled around with Ginsberg from time to time, but never became comfortable with these homosexual experiences. At about the same time, Kerouac also made the acquaintance of William S. Burroughs, who would become Kerouac's greatest mentor. Meanwhile, Edie Parker fell hard for Kerouac, dreamily talking about marriage with him. Alarmed at such thoughts, Kerouac attempted to distance himself from Parker, but he was forced to turn to her for help when he was booked as a material witness in the murder of David Kammerer, by his good friend Lucien Carr. Kerouac had helped Carr destroy a murder weapon and other evidence in Morningside Park, and he was arrested accordingly. His bail was set for $2,500. Kerouac promised Parker that he would marry her if she provided bail. She did, and the two were married on August 22. Soon after, the couple traveled to Gross Pointe, Michigan, home of Parker's bourgeois family to establish a more domestic life. Here, Kerouac worked in a factory as a ball-bearing inspector, and Parker worked as a riveter. But Kerouac felt stifled by this new environment and separated from Parker a few months later.
In 1945 Kerouac returned to the Columbia area with Burroughs and Ginsberg. The trio lived communally at Vollmer's apartment once again, eating, sleeping, loving, and philosophizing with one another. Burroughs, serving as the group's psychoanalyst, determined that Kerouac was too dependent on his mother. This bothered Kerouac, who admitted it as true. Also during this time, Kerouac became addicted to Benzedrine, a euphoric stimulant. He would wander the streets of New York, high on Benzedrine, in search of jazz joints where Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker often played. However, the Benzedrine was destroying his body: Kerouac's hairline receded, and his muscles turned to flab.
Kerouac also became obsessed with establishing a personal and unique writing style. He preferred a frenzied method of writing, which he called "Self-Ultimacy." He would first fall into a deep trance of thought and then make a mad dash to his typewriter to purge all his ideas at once. At one point, Kerouac even cut himself and wrote in his own blood.
In December 1945, Kerouac collapsed and was admitted to Queens VA Hospital, where he was diagnosed with thrombophlebitis. He was released to his parents' care in Ozone Park, Queens. At home, Kerouac was bedridden next to his father, who himself had been fighting stomach cancer. Nonetheless, he continued abusing Benzedrine in order to inspire his writings. During this time, Kerouac's relationship with his father grew progressively closer, but his father considered him a failure, as his writing career was going nowhere and his friends seemed pathetic.
After his father's death, Kerouac started his first published novel The Town and the City, which was finished three years later and printed a year after that. Kerouac quickly assumed the role of family provider after receiving a considerable advance on the novel, buying his mother a home in suburban Denver, though she eventually felt stranded and friendless and returned to the east.
Kerouac soon descended into a deep depression after writing The Town and the City. He considered "giving up" on life, writing, and relationships, but unexpectedly began writing a new book, On the Road. Jack went on the road himself with Neal Cassady in the winter of 1948. The two spontaneously drove across the country at lightning speed, visiting old friends and seeing new places, all the while obtaining gas, money, and food by any means necessary. It was a chaotic time for the Beats. After much partying in New York, a crew composed of Kerouac, Cassady, Cassady's ex-wife Luanne, and the group's friend Al Hinkle set out for a cross-country trip to San Francisco on January 19, 1949 - just for the fun of it. It was this trip that inspired much of the writing of On the Road. The group stole food, money, and gas, sold basic belongings for spare change, blasted the music, and worried about nothing. It was this nothingness that William Burroughs criticized Kerouac for when the group made a pit-stop in Algiers, Louisiana. Burroughs doubted the worth of the trip and of Cassady altogether, but Jack ignored his guru and continued on with Cassady.
Upon their arrival in San Francisco, the crew was penniless and exhausted. Cassady coldly and illogically dropped the crew, offering them little explanation for this decision, and returned to a domestic life with his wife. Shortly thereafter, Kerouac returned to his mother's home in Denver.
In late 1950 Kerouac married Joan Haverty, whom he had known only for a few weeks. Their marriage did not last long, but it did produce a child. On February 16, 1952, their daughter Janet Michelle was born. Jack was a poor father who dodged child-support payments and altogether denied paternity. He saw his daughter only twice in her life, at the age of nine and fifteen. That same year, he visited the Cassady residence in San Francisco, where he began an affair with Carolyn. He proposed that the two leave for Mexico, but instead Jack returned to his mother's home once again.
In May 1952 Kerouac left for Mexico City for a short visit with William Burroughs. Afterward, he returned to his mother's home and continued to write, but his novels remained unpublished. Furthermore, his romantic relationships with random women continually failed. Eventually, he turned to Buddhism for faith. He quickly embraced Buddhist doctrines and lived a life of renunciation. He meditated and studied, grew potatoes and beans in his backyard, swore off sex and alcohol, and limited himself to one meal a day.
In 1954, he hopped a bus to visit Neal and Carolyn Cassady again, studying Buddhist writings on the trip. Kerouac stayed with the couple for two months this time around and left on bad terms after a skirmish concerning marijuana. He then turned to Ginsberg for company, teaching Ginsberg what he had learned about Buddhism.
In 1955 Kerouac moved to San Francisco with various other Beat artists. Here, the group became immersed in writing, art, and philosophy. In 1957 Burroughs asked Kerouac to come to Tangiers and help with the manuscript for Naked Lunch. He went, but soon became unnerved by Burroughs's erratic behavior. After helping Burroughs put the chaotic work in some order, Kerouac left. He returned to San Francisco, and soon after On the Road, published by Viking, became a bestseller. Kerouac's novel received great reviews, and he was soon receiving much attention. The media was fascinated with the Beat lifestyle, and women regarded Kerouac as a sex symbol. As Cassady noted, "Everything exploded." Kerouac went on a drunken rampage in New York and began to fear the public. Five years after its inception, the successful and now-famous San Francisco Renaissance group dispersed, and Kerouac returned again to his mother.
Although he despised his pop-icon status, he used his fame to publish his novels. The blockbuster On the Road was followed by such novels as Dharma Bums (1958), Kerouac's Beat-Buddhist connection novel, and The Subterraneans (1958), his bop novel. In 1959, the film Pull My Daisy, which Kerouac wrote and originally called the Beat Generation, was released, offering one of the most authentic and realistic looks at the Beat artists, with the actual artists acting all the parts. The film was seen as a sort of cinematic skit or home movie, although it was carefully produced. Kerouac narrated, and the film premiered in New York on November 11, 1959. The film flopped at the time, but it is seen as an American independent film classic today.
With time, Kerouac's works faded into the background, and he became regarded as a has-been. Nonetheless, he had earned enough money to pay off his debts and support his mother. Simultaneously, financial comfort allowed him to fall into a depressing stupor filled with alcohol and television. Women also faded into the background, while with time, his mother's presence became more important to him. She controlled Kerouac's finances and tended to him as if he were a child, making him snacks and refusing to let him see his old Beat friends.
In 1966 Kerouac married Stella Sampas, the sister of a close childhood friend, and the couple moved back to Lowell, where Kerouac tried to buy the home in which he was raised. However, the town of Lowell was disgusted by Kerouac's antics: their local hero had turned into a rambling lush. Eventually, Jack settled down and began writing his last novel, which he called the Vanity of Duluoz. In this work, he evaluated his Beat experiences with peaceful indifference.
Kerouac grew bitter with time and became increasingly distant from his friends. On October 21, 1969, Jack Kerouac died, addicted to Johnny Walker Red and Dexedrine, but his friends had been visited by his ghost long before. At Kerouac's funeral in Lowell, Ginsberg and other friends showed up arm-in-arm to pay their respects.
Excerpted from The Birth of the Beat Generation
Literature majors are likely to read the Beat Generation authors like Jack Kerouac as part of their curriculum. College students looking for scholarships can apply for one through the Matthew Neuenhaus Foundation. Scholarships from the Matthew Neuenhaus charitable organization may be used to pursue any academic discipline including English and literature.
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