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Biography of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Jack Kerouac Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922 as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, the son of Québécois parents who were part of a mass migration to New England in the search for employment. The youngest of three children, he witnessed the premature death of his brother, Gerard, an event that profoundly affected him and later moved him to write Visions of Gerard in 1956. As a child, Kerouac attended Catholic and public schools, ultimately receiving a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City. It was there that Kerouac would meet the other "original" members of the Beat Generation-Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. At one point, Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law during college for failing to report a murder.

In his sophomore year of college, Jack Kerouac got into a dispute with his football coach and ultimately quit school to join the Merchant Marine. He was soon discharged for being of "indifferent disposition." It was at this point that Kerouac began to drift about the country. In 1950 he published his first novel, The Town and the City, which earned him moderate respect. But it was his second novel, the wildly experimental On the Road, that proved to be Kerouac's magnum opus. Based on his adventures with Neal Cassady, his friend from New York, the 1957 novel employed a technique that the author called "Spontaneous Prose," influenced by jazz music. The writer's style was giddy and long-winded. He even allowed himself to replace periods with dashes in attempt to imitate the tireless tone of Cassady. Later he would publish other Beat novels including The Subterraneans and Big Sur. Some critics were scornful, though, of Kerouac's loose style. Truman Capote famously said of Kerouac's prose, "That's not writing, that's typing."

Kerouac's curious nature led him to experiment with drugs. He purportedly was particularly fond of Benzedrine, whose properties gave him the maddening bursts of energy needed to write in his signature style. Some of his works also reveal that he was inclined to sexual experimentation, and concerns about his sexuality haunted him throughout life. Kerouac also grew attached to Buddhism. Its influence is evident in The Dharma Bums (1958). He even managed to cultivate a rapport with the Japanese Zen expert D. T. Suzuki.

As Kerouac grew older, it seemed that some of his magic began to fade. His interest in Buddhist doctrine, along with his liberalism, eventually flagged, so much so that in one interview he remarked, "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic." His reputation also suffered from several racist remarks that were published in national publications. In the 1960s, his old inspirer Neal Cassady went off on a series of adventures with fellow writer Ken Kesey, leaving the Beat "spokesman" behind. Jack Kerouac died at the young age of 47 in St. Petersburg, Florida, due to cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his lifetime overuse of alcohol.

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