This Day In Writing History
On March 12th, 1922, the legendary novelist and poet 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 Beat Generation friends and fellow writers, including William 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, Kerouac was back in New York. He found himself caught up in a murder case when his friend, Lucien Carr, called him for help. Another friend, David Kammerer, had been stalking Carr. 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, allegedly in self-defense, but was afraid to call the police. So, Kerouac helped him dispose of the evidence. They dumped 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 only served two years in prison and Kerouac, who had been charged as a material witness and possible accessory, was cleared of wrongdoing.
Free of legal trouble, Jack Kerouac started his career as a writer. He collaborated on a novel with William Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which wouldn't be published in its entirety until 2008. It was a fictionalized account of the killing of David Kammerer. When his parents moved to Queens, he lived with them after his marriage ended in an annulment. He wrote his first solo novel, The Town and the City, which was published in 1950 under the name John Kerouac.
The Town and the City was an epic autobiographical novel of life in rural Massachusetts. Like his future works, it 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. It didn't discourage Kerouac. He wrote constantly.
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 technique that he would continue to employ. He typed the manuscript on a roll of paper instead of 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 depiction 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 called 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 next 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 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 also performed his first public reading of his celebrated classic poem, Howl, which appears in the novel as Wail.
The Dharma Bums was a huge hit with Kerouac's literary critics and readers, who rightfully declared it to be his second masterwork. Unfortunately, the novel was criticized by respected leaders of the American Buddhist community, which disappointed Kerouac greatly and demoralized him. He abandoned Buddhism and returned to Catholicism.
Kerouac moved to Northport, New York, to care for his elderly mother and escape his celebrity. He continued to write and publish a succession of memorable novels, including Visions Of Cody, Doctor Sax, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Lonesome Traveler, and Big Sur. He also wrote collections of poetry. As a poet, he was most famous for making the Japanese haiku popular with American readers. Kerouac's haiku did not follow the traditional 3-line, 17-syllable structure. He knew that more words could be formed in 17 syllables in English than in Japanese. So, he wrote his haiku shorter to make them more authentic.
In the 1960s - the last years of his life - Kerouac's drinking problem grew worse. He married again, to his third wife, Stella. Although he had been the king of the Beats and a symbol of disaffected youth whose writings defined one generation (the Beats) and set the stage for another, (the Hippies) Kerouac became as fanatically devout a Catholic as his mother and politically conservative. Though he never inherited his parents' racial prejudices, he did inherit their hatred of communists. He disliked the Hippies, supported the Vietnam War, and befriended the conservative icon William F. Buckley.
After his mother died, a devastated Kerouac drank heavier than ever, consuming a large quantity of alcohol every day. On October 21st, 1969, Jack Kerouac was rushed to the hospital after he began hemorrhaging from cirrhosis - veins in his esophagus had burst. He 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."
In 2007, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kerouac's classic novel, Viking Press finally published the original, unexpurgated version of On The Road.
Quote Of The Day
"Don't use the phone. People are never ready to answer it. Use poetry." - Jack Kerouac
Today's video features Jack Kerouac's famous 1959 appearance on The Steve Allen Show. Enjoy!