This Day In Literary History
On March 20th, 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the classic novel by the legendary American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published. Like most novels of the time, it first appeared in a serialized version. It was published by The National Era, an abolitionist magazine.
The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her husband, Calvin Stowe, were both ferocious abolitionists and dedicated their home to the Underground Railroad - the famous secret network of safe houses for fugitive slaves traveling en route to free states.
In 1850, Congress, bowing to pressure from the South, tried to tighten the screws on the Underground Railroad by passing the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal for people - even those living in free states - to assist fugitive slaves.
The law also compelled local law enforcement to arrest fugitive slaves and provide assistance to the vicious bounty hunters privately hired to track runaway slaves.
The free states reacted with outrage to the Fugitive Slave Act, which resulted in gross abuses. Many openly defied it. Several free states passed laws granting personal liberties, including the right to a fair trial, to fugitive slaves.
Wisconsin's state Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. The law failed to disrupt the Underground Railroad; by the time it was passed, the network had become far more efficient. Afterward, it grew as the unjust law inspired scores of moderate abolitionists to become passionate activists.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act - to educate people about the horrors of slavery. The novel told the unforgettable story of a kind and noble slave whose faith and spirit cannot be broken by the evils of slavery.
The novel opens on a Kentucky farm owned by Arthur and Emily Shelby, who like to think that they're kind to their slaves. However, when he needs money, Arthur has no problem selling two of his slaves without regard to where they might end up.
The slaves are Uncle Tom, a wise and compassionate middle-aged man, and Harry, the son of Emily's maid, Eliza. The Shelbys' son George, who looked upon Uncle Tom as a friend and mentor, hates to see him go.
Uncle Tom and Harry are sold to a slave trader and shipped by riverboat down the Mississippi. While on the boat, Uncle Tom strikes up a friendship with Eva, a little white girl. When she falls into the river, he saves her life.
Her grateful father, Augustine St. Clare, buys Uncle Tom from the slave trader and takes him to his home in New Orleans. There, the friendship between Uncle Tom and Eva deepens. Sadly, Eva becomes severely ill and dies - but not before sharing her vision of heaven.
Moved by how much Uncle Tom meant to Eva, her father vows to help him become a free man. His racist cousin Ophelia is moved to reject her prejudice against blacks. Unfortunately, Augustine St. Clare is killed at a tavern, and his wife reneges on his promise to help Uncle Tom.
She sells him at auction to Simon Legree, who owns a plantation in Louisiana. Legree is an evil, perverse, sadistic racist who tortures his male slaves and sexually abuses the women. When Uncle Tom refuses to follow Legree's order to whip another slave, Legree beats him savagely.
The beating fails to break Uncle Tom's spirit or his faith in God. The sight of Uncle Tom reading his bible and comforting other slaves makes Legree's blood boil. He determines to break Uncle Tom and nearly succeeds, as the daily horrors of life on the plantation erode the slave's faith and hope.
Just when it seems that Uncle Tom will succumb to hopelessness, he has two visions - one of little Eva and one of Jesus himself. Moved by these visions, Uncle Tom vows to remain a faithful Christian until the day he dies.
He encourages two fellow slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to run away. Later, when Simon Legree demands that Uncle Tom reveal their whereabouts, he refuses. A furious Legree orders his overseers to beat Uncle Tom to death.
As he lay dying, Uncle Tom forgives the overseers, which inspires them to repent. George Shelby arrives with money to buy Uncle Tom's freedom. Sadly, it's too late. Uncle Tom dies before he can become a free man.
George returns to his parents' farm in Kentucky and frees their slaves, telling them to always remember Uncle Tom's sacrifice and unshakable faith. That's actually just a bare outline of this classic epic novel.
The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin caused a national uproar. In the North, it was regarded as the bible of abolitionism and inspired many closet abolitionists to come out and join in the fight against slavery.
In the South, the book was regarded as an outrage. It was called utterly false and slanderous - a criminal defamation of the South. Many Southern writers who supported slavery wrote literature dedicated to debunking Harriet Beecher Stowe's expose of the horrors of slavery.
Their writings, called "anti-Tom" literature, portrayed white Southerners as benevolent supervisors of blacks, who were depicted as a helpless, child-like people unable to survive without the direct supervision of their white masters.
To defend herself against the South's accusations of slander and defamation, Stowe wrote and published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), a non-fiction book documenting the horrors of slavery that she both witnessed herself and researched, which inspired her to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The book included surprisingly graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse of female slaves, who, in addition to being molested or raped by their white masters and overseers, were also prostituted and forced to "mate" with male slaves to produce offspring that would fetch a good price on the auction block.
When Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared in book form in 1852, it was published in an initial press run of 5,000 copies. That year, it sold 300,000 copies. Its London edition sold 200,000 copies throughout the United Kingdom. It became a hit throughout Europe as well.
Ironically, by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the book was out of print in the United States, as Stowe's original publisher had gone out of business. She found another publisher, and when the book was republished in 1862, the demand for copies soared.
That same year, Harriet Beecher Stowe was invited to Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said to her, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."
The novel would be adapted many times for the stage, screen, radio, and television. In the 20th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin courted a new controversy that continues to this day. African-American activists have accused the abolitionist novel of being racist itself, with racial stereotypes and epithets.
This, like the accusations of racism leveled against Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), comes from a failure to place the novel in its proper historical context and consider its overall message.
Quote Of The Day
"I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation." - Harriet Beecher Stowe on her classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Today's video features a complete reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Enjoy!
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On March 19th, 1933, the famous American writer Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were of Ukrainian-Jewish descent. Roth graduated from Newark's Weequahic High School in 1950. He attended Bucknell University and earned a degree in English.
For his graduate studies, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned a Master's degree in English and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's creative writing program.
Roth continued his teaching career, teaching creative writing at the University of Iowa and Princeton University. Later, he would teach comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania until he retired from teaching in 1991.
While at the University of Chicago, Roth met legendary novelist Saul Bellow and Margaret Martinson, who would become his first wife. Though they separated in 1963 and she was killed in a car accident five years later, she would have a huge impact on his writings and be the inspiration for female characters in several of his novels.
Philip Roth began his writing career by publishing short stories and reviews in various magazines. He reviewed movies for The New Republic. In 1959, his first book was published, and it established him as a major talent.
Goodbye, Columbus contained the title novella and five short stories, all of which were steeped deep in Judaism - specifically Jewish American culture and customs.
The title novella told the story of Neil Klugman, an intelligent college graduate who has remained a poor, working class Jew with a low-paying job. He works at a library and lives with his aunt and uncle.
Neil falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, a student at Radcliffe who comes from a wealthy Jewish family. What at first seems to be a simple summer romance evolves into a complex story of existential angst, as class differences begin to derail Neil and Brenda's relationship.
Goodbye, Columbus won Roth the National Book Award. It would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1969, starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw as Neil and Brenda. The book may have been celebrated by critics and most readers, but some Jewish groups objected to Roth's less than flattering portrayal of some Jewish characters.
In the short story Defender of the Faith, a Jewish American Army sergeant resists when three lazy draftees try to manipulate him into granting them special favors because they are fellow Jews.
In 1962, Philip Roth and the acclaimed black novelist Ralph Ellison appeared on a panel to discuss minority representation in literature. The questions directed at Roth soon turned into denunciations, and he was accused of being a self-loathing Jew.
The label dogged him for most of his career, but Roth would strike back at his Jewish critics with his classic 1969 novel, Portnoy's Complaint, a scathing, raunchy black comedy. It's an experimental novel that takes the form of one long monologue.
The neurotic, middle-aged Alexander Portnoy pours his heart out to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel in a monologue loaded with neuroses, complexes, and of course, sexual hang-ups. He rages at his inability to enjoy sex.
Portnoy is a self-loathing Jew who rages at the injustice of having to grow up Jewish in a gentile dominated country. He rages at his overbearing mother, which burdens him with the heavy chains of guilt. It's sex that frustrates him most of all.
As a teenager, Portnoy masturbated excessively, not out of lust, but as a form of narcissism. Both attracted to and repelled by gentile women, he uses and abuses them and gives them demeaning nicknames such as "the Pumpkin" and "the Monkey."
Portnoy's absurdly funny sexual exploits are described graphically - so graphically that the novel proved to be quite a shocker for readers in 1969. The book was banned in Australia. When publisher Penguin Books defied the ban and secretly printed copies of the book, the authorities tried to prosecute them and failed.
Philip Roth would write many more great novels. He is most famous for his series of Zuckerman novels, which are narrated by Roth's alter ego, Jewish writer Nathan Zuckerman. The first Zuckerman book was The Ghost Writer, published in 1979.
His 1997 Zuckerman novel, American Pastoral, won him the Pulitzer Prize. In it, Zuckerman attends his 45th high school reunion and runs into his old friend, Jerry Levov, who tells him the tragic life story of his older brother, Seymour "Swede" Levov, who recently died.
Most of the story deals with the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 70s, as Swede's teenage daughter Merry protests the horrors of the Vietnam War by becoming a domestic terrorist and bombing a post office. Years later, she remains in hiding.
Other Roth novels of note include The Human Stain (2000), where Nathan Zuckerman tells the story of his new neighbor, Coleman Silk, a 71-year-old college professor who falls victim to an unjust accusation.
Silk is accused of racism by two black students, which leads to his resignation. It is later revealed that Silk is actually a light-skinned black man who, for most of his life, has been passing himself off as a white Jew to escape racist persecution.
The Plot Against America (2004) is a fascinating piece of "what if" historical fiction. In it, national aviation hero Charles Lindbergh (who in real life was an anti-Semite and Hitler supporter) defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election and becomes President of the United States.
As Lindbergh establishes a cordial relationship with Hitler and keeps the U.S. out of the war, American Jews - including Roth's family - worry about what will become of them.
One of Lindbergh's top cronies is car magnate Henry Ford, who in real life was a virulent anti-Semite and the author of a racist nonfiction book called The International Jew - the World's Foremost Problem.
In addition to his novels and short stories, Roth wrote nonfiction works, including an autobiography. His final novel, Nemesis, was released in October of 2010. Set in 1944, it told the story of a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey struggling to cope with a polio epidemic.
Philip Roth died in May of 2018 at the age of 85.
Quote Of The Day
"Literature isn't a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts." - Philip Roth
Today's video features a documentary on Philip Roth. Enjoy!
Monday, March 18, 2019
I've published another story with a very long writing history. Stray Cat in Venice was written by hand, in a notebook, in 1997, while I sat on a bench in the park where the story takes place. The piece was workshopped by another writer's group sometime before the turn of the millennium.
Pretty much forgotten until I rewrote it last summer, it was only rejected four times before a small Canadian online journal picked it up. The story has a very unlikable narrator but, don't worry, he gets what's coming to him.
Joanna M. Weston
I'm happy to have a triolet up at Stanzaic Stylings.
Friday, March 15, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On March 15th, 1956, My Fair Lady, the acclaimed hit musical based on the classic play Pygmalion by the legendary Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, opened on Broadway.
It premiered at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York City. The production then moved to the Broadhurst Theatre, and finally, to the Broadway Theatre, where it closed in 1962 after 2,717 performances.
Set in Edwardian London, My Fair Lady told the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who meets a young flower seller named Eliza Dolittle when she tells off a young man named Freddy Eynsford-Hill for spilling her violets.
The ill-mannered Eliza speaks with an ear-torturing Cockney accent, her words filled with slang expressions and colloquialisms.
Professor Higgins makes a wager with his linguist friend Colonel Pickering, betting that Eliza could be taught to speak and act like a proper lady, after which, he will introduce her at the Embassy Ball. Pickering doesn't believe that he can make a lady out of such a vulgar girl.
Eliza moves into Higgins' house and begins taking lessons from him. Her father soon pays a visit, concerned that the Professor is compromising her virtue. Higgins buys him off with five pounds.
As Eliza's lessons progress, she grows frustrated and fantasizes about killing Higgins. But soon, the flower seller begins to bloom.
Eliza's first public presentation, at the Ascot Racecourse, proves successful, but then she suffers a relapse, returning to her Cockney vulgarity. This charms Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the young man she had met and scolded earlier. He falls in love with her.
Higgins continues with Eliza's lessons. She faces her final test at the Embassy Ball and passes with flying colors. Afterward, Colonel Pickering praises Higgins for his triumph in making a lady out of Eliza.
When she learns of their bet, she feels that Higgins used her and is now abandoning her. Their relationship ends in a huff when Higgins insults Eliza and she storms off. Soon, even Colonel Pickering becomes annoyed with Higgins, who has always been a self-absorbed misogynist.
When Eliza plans to marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Higgins realizes that he loves her, but can't bring himself to confess his true feelings to her. The musical ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting a possible reconciliation between Higgins and Eliza.
My Fair Lady became a huge hit, one of Broadway's most famous and popular musicals. It was written by the legendary team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe.
The original cast featured Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins, and a young, virtually unknown British actress named Julie Andrews as Eliza. The Original Cast Recording became the best selling album of 1957 and 1958.
George Bernard Shaw died in 1950; he never lived to see the Broadway musical adaptation of his play, Pygmalion. If he had, there wouldn't have been a musical for him to see.
In 1908, Shaw's classic play The Chocolate Soldier was adapted as an operetta, and he hated it so much that he vowed that none of his plays would ever be set to music again. He kept that vow for the rest of his life.
In 1964, eight years after the musical debuted on Broadway, My Fair Lady was adapted as a feature film, directed by George Cukor.
Rex Harrison reprised his role as Professor Higgins, but producer and studio boss Jack Warner decided to cast Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Dolittle instead of Julie Andrews.
This decision angered fans of the musical, but Warner was concerned that casting Andrews would be risky because she had no film experience. Then he found that Audrey Hepburn couldn't sing, so her vocals had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon.
But Julie Andrews got the last laugh - she gave an Oscar winning performance in the classic Disney movie musical Mary Poppins - beating Hepburn for the Academy Award!
Quote Of The Day
"All great truths begin as blasphemies." - George Bernard Shaw
Today's video features the first act of a recent Broadway revival of My Fair Lady. Enjoy!
Thursday, March 14, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On March 14th, 1916, the famous American playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote was born. He was born Albert Horton Foote, Jr in Wharton, Texas. When he was ten years old, he determined to become an actor.
By the age of sixteen, Foote had convinced his parents to let him go to acting school. So, he moved to California, where he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Two years later, he moved to New York City to continue his studies and begin his acting career in the theater. He scored several minor roles that got him noticed, but good parts were few and far between.
Foote decided that the best way to get good parts was to write his own plays, so he took up play writing. His first play, Wharton Dance, debuted in 1940. It was the first of many plays that were set in his Texas hometown.
Wharton Dance and Foote's other early plays would be produced Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and at many local theaters. He often acted in his own plays. In 1944, he debuted on Broadway with his play Only the Heart.
Although Horton Foote had originally become a playwright to help his acting career along, he found that he got far better reviews for his writing than his acting. So, he decided to become a full time playwright, and spent the rest of the 1940s writing for the theater. He wrote both mainstream and experimental plays.
By 1948, Foote found a new dramatic medium that he could write for, which would allow him to support himself and subsidize his theatrical career. It was called television, and in its golden age, live TV theater was hugely popular.
Foote wrote his first "teleplay" for the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1948. He would also write for other celebrated live drama series, including The United States Steel Hour and Playhouse 90, where Rod Serling made his name as a playwright before he created the legendary TV series, The Twilight Zone.
Besides writing original teleplays, Foote also adapted classic novels as teleplays. His skill at adapting novels as teleplays would lead him to become a screenwriter. He would also adapt his own plays for the screen and write original screenplays as well.
In 1962, Foote adapted Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird as a feature film. The movie, which starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and featured an incredible performance by 8-year-old Mary Badham as Scout Finch, is rightfully considered one of the greatest films of all time and one of the greatest novel adaptations of all time.
Foote personally recommended a young actor named Robert Duvall for the part of Boo Radley, and Duvall's stunning performance made his name as an actor. Gregory Peck would win the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Atticus Finch.
Horton Foote also won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation, but he didn't go to the Oscars ceremony because he was sure that he wouldn't win. It was a mistake that he wouldn't make again.
Years later, in 1984, Foote won another Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay for Tender Mercies, which featured his old friend Robert Duvall as a broken down, has-been country singer struggling to rebuild his troubled personal life. This time, Foote attended the ceremony and accepted his Oscar in person.
Actress Tess Harper, who co-starred as Rosa Lee in Tender Mercies, famously described Horton Foote as "America's Chekhov," saying that "If he didn't study the Russians, he's a reincarnation of the Russians. He's a quiet man who writes quiet people."
The year after his original screenplay for Tender Mercies won him a second Oscar, he was nominated for a third Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of his own play, The Trip to Bountiful, which he wrote in 1962.
Throughout his incredible theatrical career, Horton Foote wrote nearly 60 plays. He was most famous for The Orphans' Home Cycle, a trilogy of plays that were each comprised of three one act plays.
All these works were written between the early 1960s and mid 1990s. They were set in Foote's Texas hometown and took place between the turn of the 20th century and the early 1930s.
In 1995, Foote brought back characters from The Orphans' Home Cycle for a new play called The Young Man From Atlanta that would win him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Horton Foote died in March of 2009, ten days short of his 92nd birthday. The following year, the last feature film he wrote was released. It was called Main Street.
Quote Of The Day
"I've redone plays of mine and made changes. A play is a living thing, and I'd never say I wouldn't rewrite years later. Tennessee Williams did that all the time and it's distressing, because I'd like the play to be out there in its finished form. And then you also have new interpretations. At the same time, you do realize how much you are at the mercy of your interpreters." - Horton Foote
Today's video features the first part of a 3+ hour interview with Horton Foote. Enjoy! Note: you can watch the whole interview on this site.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On March 13th, 1891, Ghosts, the classic play by the legendary Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, opened in London. Like Ibsen's previous classic play, A Doll's House, it dealt with women suffering at the hands of self-centered, hypocritical, weak men.
However, Ghosts proved to be even more of a shocker to Victorian English audiences and critics because it also dealt with adultery, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia.
The play opens with the widowed Helene Alving about to open an orphanage she built in dedication to her late husband, the respected Captain Alving. She also built the orphanage to prevent her son Oswald, a degenerate painter, from inheriting his father's wealth.
It turns out that the late, respected Captain Alving was far from respectable. He was a compulsive philanderer who died of syphilis. His wife Helene's clergyman, Pastor Manders, advised her not to leave her husband, believing that Helene's love would ultimately reform him. It never happened.
Still, Helene remained with her husband, but not because she still loved him. Her top priority was to protect the family's reputation from scandal. So, she projected a phony air of respectability and superiority. But now, she's paying the price for her moral smugness.
Her son, Oswald, has inherited Captain Alving's depraved character. He's having an affair with Regina Engstrand, his family's serving maid. His mother soon learns that Oswald has also inherited his father's syphilis, condemning him to the same fate: progressive, incurable insanity and death.
Helene's wall of denial finally crumbles when it's revealed that Regina Engstrand's real father wasn't Jacob Engstrand, the carpenter who raised her - it was Captain Alving. Oswald has committed incest with his own half-sister.
At the end of the play, knowing that he will suffer the same fate as his father, Oswald asks his mother to euthanize him. Helene is left to contemplate her decision, and the audience never knows what that is.
Ghosts was perhaps the most controversial play of its time, shunned by most European theaters. Even copies of the play script were banned, but that didn't stop young libertines from gathering for secret readings and impromptu performances.
How then, you might ask, did the play's London producers get around the Lord Chamberlain - England's ferociously strict theater censor - and stage an uncensored production of Ghosts?
The same way they got around the censor to put on other controversial plays like George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. They formed a private club called the Theatre Society and bought their own private theater where they staged plays behind closed doors for members only.
Speaking of Shaw, he attended the premiere of Ghosts, which was a one-night-only performance, due to its extremely controversial nature. He described the audience as being "awe-struck" throughout the play.
Critics, who were either Theatre Society members themselves or guests of members, also attended. They reacted with absolute horror. Ghosts was described as:
An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly... gross, almost putrid indecorum... Nastiness and malodorousness laid on thickly as with a trowel... As foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre... Maunderings of nook-shotten Norwegians... If any repetition of this outrage be attempted, the authorities will doubtless wake from their lethargy.
The author, Henrik Ibsen, was described as "a gloomy sort of ghoul, bent on groping for horrors by night," and his London audience was comprised of "lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety."
The critics also expressed outrage that the Lord Chamberlain would allow such plays to be staged even behind closed doors for the members of a private club. Fortunately, he didn't move to censor private theatrical clubs.
Years later, Ibsen's Ghosts would be staged again in London, and the legendary Irish writer James Joyce saw the play. He loved it. Remembering how he had been denounced by moralists over his classic epic novel, Ulysses, Joyce was inspired to write a poem called Epilogue to Ibsen's Ghosts:
... Since scuttling ship Vikings like me
Reck not to whom the blame is laid,
Y.M.C.A., V.D., T.B.,
Or Harbourmaster of Port-Said.
Blame all and none and take to task
The harlot's lure, the swain's desire.
Heal by all means but hardly ask
Did this man sin or did his sire.
The shack's ablaze. That canting scamp,
The carpenter, has dished the parson.
Now had they kept their powder damp
Like me there would have been no arson.
Nay, more, were I not all I was,
Weak, wanton, waster out and out,
There would have been no world's applause
And damn all to write home about.
Quote Of The Day
"People want only special revolutions, in externals, in politics, and so on. But that's just tinkering. What is really is called for is a revolution of the human mind." - Henrik Ibsen
Today's video features a complete performance of Henrik Ibsen's classic play, Ghosts, starring Dame Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh, which aired as an episode of the BBC TV series, Theatre Night. Enjoy!
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On March 12th, 1922, the legendary American writer Jack Kerouac was born. He was born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts, to French Canadian parents who had emigrated from Quebec. They called him "Ti Jean," which meant "little Jean."
Kerouac's parents were both devout Catholics and ferocious anti-Semites. In an interview with the Paris Review, Kerouac recalled a time when his father assaulted a rabbi for allegedly disrespecting him.
When Jack Kerouac was four years old, his older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of nine, which he would write about in his 1963 novel, Visions of Gerard.
The loss of his brother would have a profound effect on him. He didn't speak English until he was six years old and began formal schooling. He continued to speak French at home.
As a teenager, Jack's athletic talents led him to become a hurdler on the high school track team and a running back on the football team. His football skills earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Columbia University, and Notre Dame.
He went to Columbia. During his freshman year, he cracked a tibia playing football and argued constantly with his coach, Lou Little, who kept him on the bench. So, he dropped out of university.
Kerouac moved to New York City, where he would meet his friends and fellow Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Huncke. He began a relationship with Edie Parker, whose friend and roommate, Joan Vollmer, would later marry Burroughs.
Kerouac joined the Merchant Marine in 1942. A year later, he joined the Navy and was honorably discharged - for psychiatric reasons. They diagnosed him as having a schizoid personality. By 1944, he was back in New York, where he found himself caught up in a murder case.
His friend, Lucien Carr, called him for help after killing another friend, David Kammerer. When Carr, who was not gay, spurned Kammerer's sexual advances and declarations of love, the obsessed Kammerer refused to take no for an answer.
Carr ended up stabbing him to death, supposedly in self-defense, but was afraid to call the police. So, Kerouac helped him dispose of the evidence and dump Kammerer's body in the Hudson River. Later, on the advice of William Burroughs, Kerouac and Carr turned themselves in.
Jack's father refused to pay his bail and disowned him. His girlfriend Edie's parents bailed him out and he married her in return. Since Kammerer was seen as a disturbed, predatory homosexual, Carr would serve only two years in prison.
Kerouac, who had been charged as a material witness and possible accessory, was cleared of wrongdoing. Free of legal trouble, Jack began his literary career. He collaborated on a novel with William Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.
A fictionalized account of the killing of David Kammerer, it wouldn't be published in its entirety until 2008. It was a raw early work that demonstrated the burgeoning talents of Burroughs and Kerouac, whose parents moved to Queens. Jack lived with them after his marriage ended in an annulment.
Kerouac kept writing, and soon completed his first solo novel, The Town and the City, which was published in 1950 under the name John Kerouac. The epic autobiographical novel of life in rural Massachusetts, like his future works, employed a stream-of-consciousness narrative, but was not nearly as experimental.
The epic novel was cut by 400 pages prior to publication during the editing process. The reviews were good, but the novel sold poorly. Lack of immediate commercial success failed to discourage Kerouac. He wrote constantly, both at home and while drifting about the country.
By 1951, Kerouac was living in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty. He completed the first draft of his second novel, which would go through many changes and become his greatest work. Early titles included The Beat Generation and Gone On The Road.
To write this novel, Kerouac used a new technique, one that he would continue to employ. He typed the manuscript on one long roll of paper instead of separate sheets. He did this because he found that pausing to load new sheets into his typewriter interfered with the flow of his writing.
It took a long time for Kerouac to get his second novel published because of its experimental writing style and its sympathetic portrayal of minorities suffering from the effects of racism. Editors were also uncomfortable with the novel's graphic sexual content (which included both straight and gay sex scenes) and depictions of drug use.
Meanwhile, Kerouac's pregnant wife left him. She gave birth to his only child, a daughter named Jan, but he refused to accept that she was his daughter until she was nine years old and a blood test proved his paternity.
Not long after his daughter was born, Kerouac took off and spent several years traveling extensively throughout the U.S. and Mexico. During this time, he wrote extensively and fell into periods of depression accompanied by heavy drug and alcohol abuse.
In 1954, Kerouac came across Dwight Goddard's book, A Buddhist Bible, in a public library. It began his nearly lifelong interest in Buddhism.
A year later, he wrote a biography of the Buddha, Wake Up, which would be published posthumously, in a serialized version, by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review from 1993-95.
In 1957, after being rejected numerous times over the last several years, Kerouac's second novel, the classic On The Road, was bought by Viking Press. They demanded major revisions, which included removing most of the sexual content.
Since Kerouac had used the real names of his relatives and friends, his publisher, fearing libel suits, demanded that he use pseudonyms. So, Kerouac became Sal Paradise and Neal Cassady became Dean Moriarty.
The publication of On The Road brought Kerouac rave reviews, good money, and nearly overnight fame. He was dubbed "the king of the Beat generation." He soon developed a distaste for celebrity, as not everyone appreciated his novel.
The conservative element believed that On The Road was the bible of immorality and despised its popularity with young people. Once, Kerouac was attacked outside a bar in New York by three men and badly beaten.
Nonetheless, Kerouac's celebrity continued to grow. In 1959, he made a memorable appearance on The Steve Allen Show, reading from On The Road and an early novel, Visions Of Cody. Allen accompanied him on the piano.
During the years Kerouac traveled before the publication of On The Road, he had written the first drafts of what would become his next ten novels. He continued to work on them. His classic novel, The Dharma Bums, was published in 1958.
Also autobiographical, the novel follows Ray Smith (Kerouac) as he goes on a journey in search of enlightenment, which he finds while communing with the outdoors, (hiking and bicycling) traveling aimlessly, and discovering jazz clubs, poetry readings, drunken parties, and of course, Buddhism.
The existentialist novel is most famous for Kerouac's depiction of the legendary 1955 Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco, where the East and West coast factions of Beat literati met to read their works.
The co-promoter of the event was Kerouac's friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, who performed his first public reading of his celebrated classic poem, Howl, which appears in the novel as Wail.
The Dharma Bums became a huge hit with literary critics and readers, who rightfully declared it to be Kerouac's second masterpiece. Unfortunately, the novel was rejected by the leaders of the American Buddhist community.
Disillusioned and depressed, Kerouac abandoned Buddhism and returned to Catholicism. To care for his elderly mother and escape his celebrity, he moved to Northport, New York. He continued to write and published a succession of memorable novels.
These included Visions Of Cody, Doctor Sax, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Lonesome Traveler, and Big Sur. He also wrote collections of poetry.
As a poet, Kerouac was most famous for making the Japanese haiku popular with American readers. His haiku did not follow the traditional three line, seventeen syllable structure, as he knew that more words could be formed in seventeen English syllables than in Japanese.
So, he wrote his haiku shorter to make them more authentic. His 1959 spoken word album, Blues and Haikus, featured a lengthy reading of haiku, accompanied by the jazz riffs of legendary saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.
In the 1960s - the last years of his life - Kerouac's drinking problem grew worse. Although he had been a symbol of rebellious, disaffected youth whose writings defined one generation (the Beats) and set the stage for another, (the Hippies) Kerouac had changed dramatically.
He had become as fanatically devout a Catholic as his mother and politically conservative. He denounced the hippies, supported the Vietnam War, and befriended conservative icon William F. Buckley. Though he never inherited his parents' racial prejudices, he did inherit their hatred of communists.
After his mother died, a devastated Kerouac drank harder than ever, consuming a large quantity of alcohol every day. On October 21st, 1969, he was rushed to the hospital after he began hemorrhaging from cirrhosis - veins in his esophagus had burst.
Jack Kerouac died the classic drunkard's death, drowning in his own blood, at the age of 47. He had once said, "I'm Catholic and I can't commit suicide, but I plan to drink myself to death." Which is exactly what he did.
In 2007, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kerouac's classic novel, Viking Press finally published the original, unexpurgated version of On The Road. The novel would finally be adapted as a feature film in 2012.
Quote Of The Day
"I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures." - Jack Kerouac
Today's video features the full length documentary Jack Kerouac - King Of The Beats. Enjoy!