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Jack Kerouac: Biography, Books, Poems & Death

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

During this lesson we will learn about the 'beatnik' writer and poet Jack Kerouac. An overview of his life will be followed by an exploration of his works and the circumstances surrounding his death.

Introduction

Jack Kerouac was a well-known writer of the Beat Generation, along with the likes of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Neal Cassady. The Beat Generation writers are also referred to as beatniks. Jack Kerouac wrote both novels and poetry, but his most famous work is his 1957 novel On The Road. His writing style is characterized by its jazz and bebop musical influences.

Biography

Childhood

Born in Massachusetts in 1922 to a French-Canadian family, Jack Kerouac's original name was Jean-Louis. Kerouac spoke French growing up and did not learn English until he was six. Although his novels were mostly written in English, Kerouac wrote poetry in French and English.

The death of Kerouac's sickly older brother, which occurred when Kerouac was four and his brother was nine, had a lasting impact on Kerouac. One of his novels, Visions of Gerard, is about his brother.

Jack Kerouac, Author of On the Road
Photo of Jack Kerouac

Early Adulthood

Jack Kerouac went to school at Columbia University on a football scholarship, but quickly turned his attentions to writing for the student newspaper. He eventually dropped out of college altogether in the early 1940s. He then lived in New York City with his girlfriend, Edie Parker, where they met the other writers who would eventually become the Beat Generation.

After Columbia, Kerouac did a brief stint in the United States Navy in 1943, but was quickly discharged due to mental health reasons. His experience inspired his first novel, The Sea is My Brother, although Kerouac regretted the novel and never tried to publish it during his lifetime.

When Kerouac's friend and fellow Beat Generation writer Lucien Carr killed a man named David Kammerer, Kerouac was involved as a material witness. The event inspired several of his later works, including a novel he co-wrote with Burroughs called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

Jack Kerouac married his girlfriend, Edie Parker, around the time of the murder. The marriage was annulled after only two months. The first novel Kerouac published was The Town and the City in 1950.

Later Adulthood

Although his first novel did not take off, Kerouac kept writing. He worked on On the Road, which would eventually become his most famous novel. He married his second wife, Joan Haverty, during this time. In 1951, after Kerouac finished On the Road, Joan left him. She was pregnant at the time with their only child.

Depressed, Jack Kerouac turned to drugs, alcohol, and his writing to cope. He wrote extensively during the mid-1950s. He traveled a lot and wrestled with depression and drinking. Although Kerouac never gave up his Catholic beliefs, he developed an interest in Buddhism.

In 1966, Kerouac married Stella Sampas and moved back to his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. It was in his hometown that he began his last novel, The Duluoz Legend, which he considered his most significant work.

Style and Influences

Although he sometimes rejected the term beatnik, Jack Kerouac's work is synonymous with the word. His style is lyrical and mimics jazz and bebop music. He wrote On the Road on a scroll so he wouldn't have to break the flow of his writing to change the paper in the typewriter. Kerouac was a lifelong Catholic, although he developed an interest in Buddhism. Both belief systems influenced his writing. One of his greatest literary influences was James Joyce, especially Joyce's novel, Ulysses.

Books

In addition to sometimes working on multiple projects at once, Jack Kerouac had a hard time finding publishers for some of his works. On the Road was considered too experimental and too explicit by many. He eventually found a publisher for his novel, but before it was published, editors stripped the novel of many of its more sexually explicit passages.

Sometimes decades passed between when Kerouac wrote his works and when they were published. Notations have been included next to each book to give a sense of the order in which Kerouac's works were made public.

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