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Jack Kerouac Biography | Poet

Photo of Jack Kerouac

On March 12, 1922, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents, Leo and Gabrielle, were immigrants from Quebec, Canada who settled in the old mill district city. After the death of the family’s oldest son they embraced the Catholic Church for comfort; this religious upbringing was an influence in Jean-Louis’ future writings. After high school, Kerouac attended a preparatory school in New York City before accepting a football scholarship to Columbia University. His short lived college career, followed by a shorter military career lead him back to New York City, where he began writing. He became an overnight sensation with his novel On the Road. Releasing his works as Jack Kerouac, throughout his writing career he released several novels and collections of poetry. He passed away on October 21, 1961 in St. Petersburg, Florida from bleeding in his stomach.

Humble Beginnings

Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac was born to immigrant parents from Quebec, Canada. French was the language spoken in their home and he learned English at school. As a young man, he enjoyed reading and playing sports. His father owned a printing company, beginning Kerouac’s love of the written word. His father’s shop was destroyed in a flood, which lead to alcohol abuse and complete lack of employment. While he dreamed of writing the next great American novel, he knew his future was in sports. A career in football would allow young Jack to support his poverty-stricken family. He became excellent at football, a star running back in high school, receiving a scholarship to Columbia University. Before his freshman year, he decided to attend a preparatory school for young men Brooklyn, New York. He fell in love with city life, the busy day to day hum was a welcomed change from his humble upbringing in Lowell. It also introduced him to jazz music.

Unfortunately, Jack suffered a broken leg his first year at Columbia, landing him on the bench for the remainder of the season. His coach was concerned about letting him play, making the decision to bench him for another year. In his frustration, Kerouac quit the team and dropped out of school. He spent a year accepting odd jobs, trying to make ends meet while he figured out what he would do with his life. For a while he was part of the construction crew that built the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Finally, decided to enlist in the Marine Corp and fight for his country during World War II. He was honorably discharged in less than two weeks, for what his records claim was “strong schizoid” tendencies. Dismissed again from his plans, he returned to the city he had grown to love, New York City.

Inspiration For Kerouac's Writing

While living in the city during the 1940’s, Kerouac became very good friends with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It was also during this time that he wrote his first novel, Town and City. It was an autobiographical piece about combining his small town family way of thinking with the big city life. With the help of Ginsberg, the novel was published in 1950. While it did receive amazing reviews, it didn’t make him the next great American novelist. Taking to the road, he travelled around the country. He saw major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, even heading south of the border for a time to Mexico.

Touched with a bit of madness, Kerouac wrote his next novel in 1951. It was a tell all account of his travels mixed with some fell placed fictional accounts, which were full of sex, drug use, and his love of jazz music. The entire novel was written on a single 120 foot scroll, in the space of three weeks. While the novel went down on paper in that short amount of time, he used his notes from his own trips for inspiration. He even refused to revise his writings, fearing it would take away some of the unique style.

His Greatest Works

Publishers were less than impressed with his work, and the novel remained unpublished for six years. Kerouac used that time to travel the world and continue to write unpublished works. Finally, in 1957, once it was published, Jack Kerouac became an overnight success. It seemed he had finally been accepted with his great American novel, just as he dreamed about since childhood. He continued to publish his novels after that, each one showing a new piece of who he was, and his struggle with life, religion and enlightenment. Later in his life, he began writing poetry, finding a love for Haiku. He released many albums of him read poetry aloud.

He published another novel in 1958, The Dharma Bums. This novel was inspired by his own search for spiritual enlightenment. This was followed very closely by the publication of Subterraneans, and three novels the following year; Mexico City Blues, Doctor Sax, and Maggie Cassidy. While some of his later novels, including Visions of Gerard which was inspired by his brother, were well known and loved, none were able to touch the success of On The Road.

His Final Years

Jack Kerouac was married three times. First, in 1944, he wed Edie Parker. They decided to end things after a few, short months together. He wed again in 1950, this time to Joan Haverty. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Jan. This marriage also lasted less than a year. He finally married Stella Sampas in 1966, and was still married to her when he died. Unfortunately, Kerouac found it difficult to grasp the fame he received from On The Road, and he continued the family tradition of alcoholism and drug abuse. He died in 1969 from bleeding in his abdomen.

In the years since his death, On The Road continues to be on nearly every list of the greatest American novels. Each new generation that reads it feels the pull of youthfulness and the powerful expression of art. In 2012, it was even adapted into a film produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Some of the last works in his life showed a man who was disconnected and lonely; he was a truly miserable soul. Unable to shake his drinking habit, he aged prematurely and died young. His fame was his downfall, leaving the literary world wondering what could have been created at his hand had been better able to handle his own celebrity. 

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