On the Road | Study Guide

Jack Kerouac

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Jack Kerouac | Biography


Jack Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922, to a family of French Canadian immigrants living in Lowell, Massachusetts. As a boy Kerouac excelled at sports and, even though he desperately wanted to be a writer, he pursued football as a way out of his working-class town. With a scholarship to Columbia University, Kerouac's future seemed bright, but during the second game of the season he broke his leg. His recovery period gave time for him to embrace his love of literature, and he found he was no longer interested in school or sports. Following an argument with his football coach, he left school altogether. His time in New York also introduced him to jazz music, which inspired in him the "yearning for some intangible joy."

A free spirit, Kerouac maintained ties with the intellectuals he left behind. After a variety of jobs, he returned to New York to collaborate with writers Allen Ginsberg (Beat poet, 1926–1997) and William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch, 1914–1997), with whom he would write two novels. Ginsberg helped Kerouac publish The Town and the City (1950), his first novel that explored the cross-section between the values of small-town America and the vibrant allure of the big city. While reviewers liked the book, it did not earn Kerouac fame.

However,On the Road, Kerouac's second novel, was an immediate success; The New York Times proclaimed it the "testament" of the "Beat Generation." American culture, both then and now, welcomed the novel as a handbook for unhappy youths searching for excitement on the road. For Kerouac, however, the novel appears to have been a spiritual journey—much less about cheap thrills than about learning the truth about himself and his place in society.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Kerouac's diaries and journals after his death, reflected that on "almost every page, he drew a crucifix or a prayer ... asking Christ for forgiveness." Kerouac's religious beliefs stemmed from his Catholic upbringing, a faith that sustained him after the death of his older brother Gerard at age nine. Of this tragic experience Kerouac wrote, "From the open door of the church warm and golden light swarmed out on the snow."

Although Kerouac had always wanted to be a famous writer and had dreamed of writing the next great American novel, he was unable to cope with celebrity status. The stress of three unhappy marriages did not help his nervous condition. He descended into deep addictions with drugs and alcohol, and he died at age 47 on October 21, 1969, from a massive abdominal hemorrhage.

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