Born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jean Louis Lebris 'Jack' Kerouac was the last
three children born to French-Canadian parents. Raised in a French-Canadian community,
Kerouac did not begin to learn English until he entered school at the age of six and
did not become fluent until he entered a public junior high school. At this same school,
an eighth-grade English teacher recognized and began to encourage Kerouac's writing
talents. This recognition of his potential engendered a passion for literacy and
language which stayed with Kerouac all of his life. He became a voracious reader,
skipping classes in high school in order to select his own material at the library.
a talented athlete, Kerouac became a star on the school football team and was offered
football scholarships to both Boston College and Columbia University.
Kerouac entered Columbia in 1940 after a successful year at prep school where he played
football, wrote for school publications, and developed a lively interest in jazz.
record at Columbia was not as good. While he enjoyed his Shakespeare class, he failed
chemistry, and broke his leg early in the first football season. After his injury,
interest in classes declined further as he spent his time reading the newly discovered
works of Thomas Wolfe who would influence him for years to come. In September of 1941,
he quit football and school and spent the next several years working at a variety
jobs, including a stint in the merchant marine; in February 1943 he enlisted in the
Navy. He was honorably discharged a month later as an "indifferent character." During a second stint in the merchant marine Kerouac
had a vision of his true role in life, that of "divine
scribe" and he conceived the idea for a connected series of stories about his
Back in New York in the spring of 1944, Kerouac married Edie Parker as a means of
raising bond money after a friend, Lucien Carr, involved him as a material witness
murder case. After a few months of living a "normal"
life in Michigan with his wife, Kerouac ran off to join the merchant marine again,
jumped ship and wound up back in New York. By 1945, Kerouac was living with his wife,
his friend and mentor William Burroughs, and Joan Vollmer. Kerouac had also formed
close friendship with Allen Ginsberg by this time. Both young men were attempting
overcome the boundaries and conventions of the times and were experimenting with
religious practice, sexual preferences, and drugs. Late in the year, weakened by
Benzedrine addiction, Kerouac developed thrombophlebitis and spent a month in the
hospital before returning home to his family to help nurse his father who had been
diagnosed with stomach cancer. The death of his father in 1946 provided a catharsis
Kerouac, who almost immediately after the funeral began writing what would become
first novel, The Town and the City
With the advance money from The Town and the
City Kerouac moved himself and his mother to Colorado where he began
conceptualizing the story which would become On
the Road (1957), based in part on road trips he took with Neal Cassady. When
the advance money ran out Kerouac returned to New York where, in 1951, inspired by
23,000 word free form letter from Cassady, he taped reams of paper together into a
scroll and typed 175,000 words in twenty days--the first complete draft of On the Road. Meanwhile, his marriage to
Edie Parker had been annualled and he had remarried in 1950, this time to Joan Haverty.
Not long after Kerouac finished his manuscript, Haverty threw him out and filed for
divorce, despite being pregnant with Kerouac's daughter.
Kerouac's search for a personal style was finally realized in late 1951 when a friend
suggested that he "sketch" pictures with words. This
suggestion caused something to click in his mind and allowed him to finally express
he was trying to do. The term he came up with was "Spontaneous Prose," and the first true example of it was
Visions of Cody (1952), originally
part of On the Road, but extracted as
an independent story.
Kerouac continued to write and to refine his style. His work never received much favor
with the established literary critics, especially during the fifties when anything
seemed to support anarchy was vilified. In 1966, Kerouac married Stella Sampas, the
sister of his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida,
a ruptured stomach vein in October 1969.