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Jack Kerouac Essay, Research Paper

In the beginning Jack Kerouac lived a wild and exciting life outside the realm of

everyday "normal" American life. Though On the Road and The Dharma Bums were

Kerouac’s only commercial sucesses, he was a man who changed American literature and

pop-culture. Kerouac virtually created a life-style devoted to life, art, literature, music,

and poetry. When his movement grew out of his control, he came to despise it, and died

lonely on the other side of what he once loved and cherished above all else. But, on the

way he created a style of writing which combined elements of all the great writers, with

speed, common language, real people, and the reality of his life.

In a public junior high school he began to read feverishly. In English classes he

flourished, but socially he did not. Impressed deeply by Mark Twain and Jack London,

Kerouac created his own imaginary world, which he recorded in hand-written

"newspapers." These led to his first "novel" Jack Kerouac Explores the Merrimack,

which he wrote in a notebook at the age of twelve (Clark, 22).

Skipping classes at Lowell High School, in Lowell Massachusetts, Kerouac was

exposed to the work of Thomas Wolfe by a fellow student Sammy Sampas. They

encouraged writing in each other, and Kerouac began writing seriously. Since the

Kerouacs could not afford college, a local priest suggested he try for a football

scholarship (Clark, 32). He was offered two; one from Colombia University and the

other from Boston College.

Kerouac opted for Columbia and first spent one year, by the request of the

university, at the Horace Mann School for Boys. Here he didn’t fit in with the rich prep-

school crowd, but he was exposed to Hemmingway (Clark, 37). Here, also, in a school

publication his work was first printed (Clark, 39).

After two years of school at Columbia Kerouac made a decision that would

change his life. He always believed he learned more outside of the classroom than in; and

so after a series of arguments with his coach, he quit the team. Not long after he dropped

out of school as well. He served briefly in the navy, and drinking heavily, was discharged

on psychiatric grounds(Clark, 52). Upon his return home he got a job with as a Merchant

Marine. When he wasn’t working he spent his time with Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr,

William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady (Jack Kerouac, 1). His family’s disapproval of

his friends led him to a life balancing his friends and family. This is recorded in The

Town and the City, a novel which Ginsberg’s professors got published.

Not long after Kerouac began making the now famous series of cross-country trips

with Cassady immortalized in On the Road (On the Road). But it would be seven years

before On the Road would be published (Jack Kerouac, 2). During these trips Kerouac

made several literary discoveries that changed the American Novel. First and foremost he

developed a "sketching" style of writing, inspired by an artist friend named Ed White and

the speed of bop music. Here the main goal was to write on the spot. This became what

he called "the great moment of discovering my soul," (Clark, 102).

Later this "sketching" developed into a style of writing unlike any other. He

would write either on the spot or from memory, but always on many levels; imagination

and reality, psychic and social, poetry and narrative, but always complete honesty. To

Kerouac this was "the only way to write." This style is evident first in Visions of Cody,

Kerouac’s tribute to Cassady (Clark, 110).

In 1952 Kerouac lived briefly in Mexico City with Burroughs. Here he wrote Dr.

Sax, which was considered shocking even by Ginsberg who told Kerouac it would never

be published because it was "so personal, so full of sex language," (Clark, 115). Later

Kerouac said Ginsberg was mishandling his career and didn’t take advantage of the sex

and drug revolution that was sweeping the country in paperbacks(Clark, 117). Ginsberg

was wrong though. Dr. Sax was published, but not until 1959 (Clark, xvii).

That fall he took a job with the Southern Pacific rail road. On the trains he

developed another adaptation to his writing style. He called this "speed writing" which

was supposed to "clack along all the way like a steam engine pulling a 100-car freight

with a talky caboose at the end." He also became well practiced in describing the

American land-scape, to the point where it almost becomes more of a character than a

setting (Clark,118).

The job on the rail road, and his writing led him to an isolation that brought a

beauty to his writing similar to Dickinson. This is very evident when comparing On the

Road with later works such as The Dharma Bums and Big Sur. But, Ginsberg believed

the isolation was making him too focused on "self as subject matter" but, this is what had

earlier drawn Ginsberg to Kerouac’s writing (Clark,119).

In 1953 Viking Press was still considering publishing Kerouac, Malcom Cowley

rejected three of his books, but still considered him "the most interesting writer who is

not being published today." Still On the Road remained unavailable to the American

public (Clark, 123).

Meanwhile, Kerouac was perfecting his "spontaneous writing" style by combining

it with his new "spontaneous prose". Falling deeper into the New York underground

Kerouac began using heroin, dopophine, and barbiturates in addition to the marijuana and

alcohol he had become accustomed to. This experience was recorded in The

Subterraneans which Kerouac wrote in just one 72 hour sitting in which he lost 15

pounds. This was as Jack described "really a fantastic athletic feat as well as mental,"

(Clark, 127). The manuscript thoroughly impressed Burroughs and Ginsberg who asked

Kerouac to give them a detailed statement on his new style. Kerouac replied with a list

titled The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. This still remains the best explanation of

Kerouac’s style; writing "without consciousness in semi-trance… excitedly, swiftly… from

within, out -to be relaxed," (Clark, 128).

In 1954 Kerouac had possibly the most important interview of his life. John

Holmes of The New York Times quoted Jack’s refferal to his group of writer and artist

friends as "the beat generation." This became the title of the article in which Holmes

stated "it was Jack Kerouac who invented the phrase, and his unpublished narrative On

the Road is the best record of their lives," (Clark, 133).

A new chapter in Kerouac’s life began when he found religion in Buddhism.

Kerouac moved again to Mexico City. Here he wrote some of his longest poems. These

were combined into the 242 choruses of Mexico City Blues. This is described as "an

extended sequence of free-association, spontaneous poems. He also began work on

Tristessa which was not completed until the following year (Clark, 139).

From Mexico City Kerouac moved to Berkley and became good friends with Gary

Snyder, a Zen poet, (Jack Kerouac, 2). Kerouac spent a great deal of time during this

period on long hikes with Snyder, who was the complete opposite of Cassady. Snyder’s

influence was good for Kerouac’s spirituality as well as his writing (Palmer). This time is

recorded in the beautiful descriptions in The Dharma Bums (The Dharma Bums).

1955 was also the time of the now famous Six Gallery Poetry Reading. It is now

considered the night of "the birth of the San Francisico Poetry Renaissance." Here many

of the "beat generation" writers and artists first gained fame. They were sad to see the

man they regarded as the most talented of them so unhappy, carrying his life’s work

around in a tattered rucksack (Jack Kerouac, 2).

Finally, in 1957 On the Road was published and it became a best-seller. One

Times critic referred to the publication as a "historic occasion in so far as the exposure of

an authentic work of art is of any great moment." Kerouac was rapidly gaining fame, but

after six years of literary rejection, he didn’t know how to handle it. He was older, sadder,

and smarter than the public had expected. He tried to live up to his wild On the Road

image, which only lead him down the dark spiral of alcoholism (Jack Kerouac, 2). The

publication of On the Road coincided with Ginsberg’s launch of the "united front," a

media campaign to join east and west coast artists. Ginsberg quietly slipped away to

Europe and allowed Kerouac to bear the full force of the popular media. The media

portrayed him as advocating illegal and immoral activities, but Kerouac was too drunk

most of the time to intelligently deal with the criticisms and confrontations. He felt like

"a kid dragged in by a cop," (Clark, 164).

His fame was beginning to grow, but this hindered his writing. He became

involved with the wife of respected literary critic Kenneth Rexroth. Initially Rexroth had

regarded Kerouac as "the peer of Celine," (Clark, 147). Needless to say, as Kerouac’s

fame spread Rexroth’s opinion of him continued to decline until the point where Kerouac

was regarded as "more pitiful than ridiculous." Eventually, Kerouac fell into disregard

with most critics (Jack Kerouac, 2). The critics, as well as Kerouac, believed the "beat

generation" was simply a fad, but Kerouac believed his writing was above the fad (Jack

Kerouac, 2). But by the time The Subteraneans was published critics were saying "The

best way to read Kerouac is with an oxygen mask." But, he

Back in Lowell in 1961 Kerouac was hardly writing any more. The ladies of the

town had organized a movement to get Kerouac’s books removed from the stores and

libraries. Fed up, he moved with his mother to Florida. His last major writing effort

began and in 10 days he finished Big Sur, the story of the alcohol delirium, paranoia, and

madness he had suffered on a 1960 trip to California. It was written mainly as an apology

and an explanation to everyone he had wronged during that time (Big Sur).

By 1964 many of Cassady and Ginsberg were associating themselves more and

more with the hippies of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and The Electric Kool-Aid

Acid Test fame (The Electric…). Kerouac, though, was a conservative at heart and

avoided the psychedelic drug movement (Clark, 193). This eventually to Kerouac being

despised by even those who’s careers he began, and lives he had changed. In one meeting

one of the Merry Pranksters had covered a couch with a flag. Ginsberg watched Kerouac

slowly fold it up and "marveled sadly… history was… out of Jack’s hands now," (Clark,


Neal Cassady died of a drug overdose in Mexico in 1968. Not long after, Jack

Kerouac died of an abdominal hemorrhage and cirrhosis of the liver, he had literally

drunk himself to death. He was only 47. He died a lonely death. A sad ending to the sad

writer who gave so much of himself in his belief that "writing was his duty on earth."


Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac: A Biography. Paragon House.

"Jack Kerouac." 3 Oct.1998


Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. New York: Viking Press, 1959.

— The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking Press, 1958.

— On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.

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