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A Biography
by Rick (acerc)
at August 13th, 2006 (07:54 am)

From the Official Jack Kerouac Web Site...


Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack, as he was later called, spoke no English until he was around six years old. At home, his family spoke a French dialect called joual. Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, Jack’s parents, were both descendants of French-Canadian immigrants who settled in New England. Life in Lowell during Jack’s childhood was not easy. While it had once been an important industrial town, businesses were on the decline and the Great Depression hit Lowell’s economy hard. Many families, including the Kerouacs, had trouble making ends meet. Gabrielle worked in factories off and on throughout Jack’s lifetime. Jack’s father worked as a newspaper reporter, eventually owning his own printing business until a devastating flood hit Lowell and he was forced to sell it. After this failure, Jack’s father turned to gambling and never regained financial success.

Leo and Gabrielle had two children older than Jack: Gerard, born in 1917 and Caroline (nicknamed Nin), born in 1920. Gerard’s health was fragile due to a heart condition. After months of suffering in 1926, Gerard succumbed to a rheumatic fever at only nine years old. Jack had loved and idolized his older brother, and at only four years old, could not understand Gerard’s death. It had a continual impact on Jack’s imagination and thoughts, and perhaps caused adults to perceive Jack as a quiet, brooding child.

From a very early age, Jack was very creative and artistic. He drew cartoon scripts and acted his own “silent movies” in the family’s parlor. Later in his childhood, Jack began to create his own magazines, in which he drew the pictures and wrote the texts. Although he was quiet, he had many friends and companions as a child. He was educated in French-speaking Catholic parochial schools until he reached junior high, when he began his first experience learning entirely in English at the public schools in Lowell. Once Jack learned English, he began to read everything he could get his hands on, from conventional novels to pulp mysteries.

In high school, Jack became a local football star. He was so talented as a halfback, in fact, that he won a scholarship to play for a college education at Columbia. Before entering the university, the scholarship provided that Jack take a year at Horace Mann, an academy in the Bronx, which enabled him to take some math and French classes before beginning college. Jack went to Columbia in 1940 to begin playing football, but broke his leg early in the season and was benched. After a disagreement with his coach the next fall, Jack quit football and Columbia and hit the road back to Lowell.

Jack landed a job as the sports reporter for the Lowell Sun, where he worked for several months. He decided that sports writing in Lowell was not for him, and moved briefly to Washington, D.C. then to Boston, working various temporary jobs in construction and food service. The United States was just entering into World War II, and Jack decided to join a ship as a sailor in the Merchant Marine in early 1942. The passage to Greenland and Nova Scotia on the S.S. Dorchester was quite difficult, and when Jack got home he returned briefly to Columbia. Jack then joined the Navy for a time, but was honorably discharged a few months later on psychological grounds. The authorities had thought he was insane because he did not submit to the authority of his military superiors and questioned him extensively before admitting him briefly to the psychiatric unit. He re-joined the Navy after being discharged and sailed to England and back on the S.S. George Weens.

When he returned from England, Jack and sometime girlfriend Edie Parker began to meet friends that would prove very influential and important in Jack’s life: Lucien Carr and the writer Allen Ginsberg, who were Columbia students at the time, the writer William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, the companion to Jack’s legendary cross-country wanderings in his famous novel On the Road. This circle, along with a few other friends, became known as the center of the “Beat” movement. Jack and his friends were very interested in and influenced by the popular jazz and bop music of the time. Jack coined the phrase “Beat Generation” in a conversation with the writer John Clellon Holmes, when he described his contemporary generation as having an attitude of “beatness” or “weariness” with the world.

After some involvement as an accessory in an incident that left Lucien Carr in prison for manslaughter, Jack married Edie in 1944. The marriage only lasted a matter of months, however, and the couple divorced in 1945. Jack’s father Leo died later that same year of stomach cancer, and Jack began work on his first and most conventional novel, "The Town and the City," which was published in 1950.


In 1949, Jack took a road trip from the East Coast to San Francisco with Neal Cassady and his ex-wife Luanne. Jack would cross America and Mexico several times in the next decade, sometimes driving with Neal Cassady in a car, sometimes hitchhiking. These cross-country trips comprised much of the content for Jack’s most famous work, "On the Road."

The next year, Jack married his second wife, Joan Haverty. Joan became pregnant with a daughter, and the couple separated the next year. Jack wrote the original version of "On the Road" in 1951. The next few years were to be his most productive. He worked on "Visions of Cody" and "Dr. Sax" the next year while on trips to visit Neal Cassady in San Francisco and William Burroughs in Mexico City. He also wrote "Maggie Cassidy" in 1953 about Mary Carney, a girl he had been in love with as a teenager, in addition to "The Subterraneans." Although he was writing prolifically during this period, Jack had still not had a book published since "The Town and the City" in 1950.

Over the next few years, Jack traveled often, hitchhiking across America, visiting Cassady, Ginsberg and Burroughs at their residences in various parts of the country and taking occasional jobs. Jack became interested in Buddhism and went alone to Mexico in 1955 to meditate. There, he composed a body of poetry called "Mexico City Blues" and began a novel about a woman he met there called "Tristessa." In early 1956, he began working on other novels: "Visions of Gerard," about his older brother’s death, "The Scripture of the Golden Eternity" and "Old Angel Midnight."

After years of delays and revisions, "On the Road" was finally published in 1957 and Jack began to taste fame. The book began to enjoy tremendous success, and Jack appeared in Mademoiselle magazine, among others. Ginsberg and some of the other famous Beats were already well known writers and performers, and Jack’s new book made a splash on the scene they already inhabited. After a brief respite to Tangier with Ginsberg and Burroughs, and a trip to London just after "On the Road" was published, Jack returned to New York a celebrity. Jack had become the representative of the Beat generation, to his chagrin. Fans lauded him and critics derided him as an advocate for the excesses and world-weariness of the Beat generation.

As a follow up to "On the Road," Jack wrote his last novel for four years to follow, "The Dharma Bums." More of Jack’s previous works were being published, including "The Subterraneans," "Dr. Sax," "Mexico City Blues" and "Tristessa." Joining his Beat friends, Jack began to do poetry and prose readings at clubs in New York, accompanied by jazz musicians such as Steve Allen, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and David Amram. He often wrote columns for magazines such as Playboy, Swank, Holiday, Escapade and Esquire.

The much-awaited years of fame were not happy for Jack. He had battled problems with alcoholism, which had worsened with his increasing fame. Jack was unhappy in his newfound celebrity status, as the critics denounced him for his unique “spontaneous prose” form of writing as well as for being a proponent of a lifestyle that he did not necessarily advocate.

Jack moved to Bixby Canyon in Big Sur, California in 1961 and wrote his final novel, the dark, semi-autobiographical "Big Sur." In the last years of his life, Jack lived with his mother. He had remained a dedicated and caring son and lived with her periodically throughout his adult life as she moved to different locations in New York and Florida. He married childhood friend Stella Sampas in 1966, and the couple moved to St. Petersburg with Gabrielle. Jack’s fame dwindled toward the end of his life, and alcoholism had deteriorated his health considerably. On October 20, 1969, Jack died from internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis of the liver. He was only 47 years old. Stella and Gabrielle held a small wake in St. Petersburg, Florida, and another wake in Lowell. His funeral was held at the St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell that Jack had attended as a little boy, and he was laid to rest in the Sampas family plot in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.

"On the Road" and Jack’s other novels have made a significant impact on American literature. His “spontaneous prose” told tales of the Beat generation, making him the talented and reluctant spokesman for the hip youth of the 1950s.