Jack Kérouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
March 12, 1922
Lowell, Massachusetts, United States
|Died||October 21, 1969 (aged 47)
St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.
|Occupation||Novelist, Poet, Painter|
|Notable work(s)||On the Road
The Dharma Bums
Jean-Louis “Jack” Kérouac (pron.: /ˈkɛruːæk/ or /ˈkɛrɵæk/; March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. Kerouac became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements. In 1969, at age 47, Kerouac died from internal bleeding due to long-standing abuse of alcohol. Since his death Kerouac’s literary prestige has grown and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, among them: On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody, The Sea is My Brother, and Big Sur.
Early Life and Adolescence
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, of St-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup in the province of Quebec, Canada. There is some confusion surrounding his original name, partly due to variations on the spelling of Kerouac, and partly because of Kerouac’s own promotion of his name as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. His reason for doing so seems to be linked to an old family legend that the Kerouacs had descended from Baron François Louis Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac. Kerouac’s baptism certificate lists his name simply as Jean Louis Kirouac, and indeed Kirouac is the most common spelling of the name in Quebec. Kerouac claimed he descended from a Breton nobleman, granted land after the Battle of Quebec, whose sons all married Native Americans. Research has shown that Kerouac’s roots were indeed in Brittany, and he was descended from a middle-class merchant colonist, Urbain-François Le Bihan, Sieur de Kervoac, whose sons married French Canadians. Kerouac’s own father had been born to a family of potato farmers in the village of St-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup. He also had various stories on the etymology of his surname, usually tracing it to Irish, Breton, Cornish or other Celtic roots. In one interview he claimed it was from the name of the Cornish language (Kernewek) and that the Kerouacs had fled from Cornwall to Brittany. Another belief was that the Kerouacs had come to Cornwall from Ireland before the time of Christ and that the name meant “language of the house”. In another interview he said it was from the Irish for “language of the water” and related to Kerwick. Kerouac, derived from Kervoach, is the name of one hamlet situated in Brittany in Lanmeur, near Morlaix.
His third of several homes growing up in the West Centralville section of Lowell, Jack Kerouac later referred to 34 Beaulieu Street as “sad Beaulieu”. The Kirouac family was living there in 1926 when Jack’s older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of nine. Jack was four at the time, and would later say that Gerard followed him in life as a guardian angel. This is the Gerard of Kerouac’s novel Visions of Gerard.
Despite the future elaborations, Kerouac was referred to as Ti Jean or little John around the house during his childhood. Kerouac spoke French until he learned English at age six, not speaking it confidently until his late teens. He was a serious child who was devoted to his mother, who played an important role in his life. She was a devout Catholic, instilling this devoutness into both her sons. Kerouac would later say that his mother was the only woman he ever loved. When he was four, he was profoundly affected by the death of his nine-year-old brother, Gérard, from rheumatic fever, an event later described in his novel Visions of Gerard. His mother sought solace in her faith, while his father abandoned it, wallowing in drinking, gambling and smoking. Some of Kerouac’s poetry was written in French, and in letters written to friend Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life, he expressed his desire to speak his parents’ native tongue again. Recently, it was discovered that Kerouac first started writing On the Road in French, a language in which he also wrote two unpublished novels. The writings are in dialectal Quebec French.
On May 17, 1928, while six years old, Kerouac had his first Sacrament of Confession. For penance he was told to say a rosary, during the meditation of which he could hear God tell him that he had a good soul, that he would suffer in his life and die in pain and horror, but would in the end have salvation. This experience, along with his dying brother’s vision of the Virgin Mary, as the nuns fawned over him convinced that he was a saint, combined with a later discovery of Buddhism and ongoing commitment to Christ, solidified his worldview which informs his work.
There were few black people in Lowell, so the young Kerouac did not encounter much of the racism that was common in other parts of the United States. Kerouac once recalled to Ted Berrigan, in an interview with the Paris Review, an incident in the 1940s, in which his mother and father were walking together in a Jewish neighborhood in the Lower East Side of New York, recalling “a whole bunch of rabbis walking arm in arm… teedah- teedah – teedah… and they wouldn’t part for this Christian man and his wife. So my father went POOM! and knocked a rabbi right in the gutter.” His father, after the death of his child, also treated a priest with similar contempt, angrily throwing him out of the house after an invitation by Gabrielle.
Kerouac’s athletic skills as a running back in American football for Lowell High School earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University. He entered Columbia University after spending a year at Horace Mann School, where he earned the requisite grades to matriculate to Columbia. Kerouac cracked a tibia playing football during his freshman season, and he argued constantly with Coach Lou Little who kept him benched. While at Columbia, Kerouac wrote several sports articles for the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator and joined the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta. He also studied at The New School.
When his football career at Columbia soured, Kerouac dropped out of the university. He continued to live for a period on New York City’s Upper West Side with his girlfriend, Edie Parker. It was during this time that he met the people—now famous—with whom he would always be associated, the subjects injected into many of his novels: the so-called Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs.
Kerouac joined the United States Merchant Marine in 1942, and in 1943 joined the United States Navy, but he served only eight days of active duty before arriving on the sick list. According to his medical report, Jack Kerouac said he “asked for an aspirin for his headaches and they diagnosed me dementia praecox and sent me here.” The medical examiner reported Jack Kerouac’s military adjustment was poor, quoting Kerouac: “I just can’t stand it; I like to be by myself”. Two days later he was honorably discharged on psychiatric grounds (he was of “indifferent character” with a diagnosis of “schizoid personality“).
After serving briefly as a US Merchant Marine, Kerouac authored his first novel, The Sea is My Brother. Although written in 1942, the book was not published until 2011, some 42 years after Kerouac’s death, and 70 years after the book was written. Although Kerouac described the work as being about “man’s simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies”, Kerouac reputedly viewed the work as a failure, reportedly calling it a “crock [of shit] as literature” and never actively sought publication of the book.
In 1944, Kerouac was arrested as a material witness in the murder of David Kammerer, who had been stalking Kerouac’s friend Lucien Carr since Carr was a teenager in St. Louis. William Burroughs was a native of St. Louis, and it was through Carr that Kerouac came to know both Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. According to Carr, Kammerer’s obsession with Carr turned aggressive, causing Carr to stab him to death in self-defense. After turning to Kerouac for help, together they disposed of evidence. Afterwards, as advised by Burroughs, they turned themselves in to the police. Kerouac’s father, unwilling and unable, refused to pay his bail. Kerouac then agreed to marry Edie Parker if she’d pay the bail. Their marriage was annulled a year later, and Kerouac and Burroughs briefly collaborated on a novel about the Kammerer killing titled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Though the book was not published during the lifetimes of either Kerouac or Burroughs, an excerpt eventually appeared in Word Virus: A William S. Burroughs Reader (and as noted below, the novel was finally published late 2008). Kerouac also later wrote about the killing in his novel Vanity of Duluoz.
Later, he lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, after they also moved to New York. He wrote his first published novel, The Town and the City, and began the famous On the Road around 1949 while living there. His friends jokingly called him “The Wizard of Ozone Park,” alluding to Thomas Edison‘s nickname, “the Wizard of Menlo Park” and to the film The Wizard of Oz.
Early career: 1950–1957
Jack Kerouac lived with his parents for a time above a corner drug store in Ozone Park (now this flower shop), while writing some of his earliest work.
The Town and the City was published in 1950 under the name “John Kerouac” and, though it earned him a few respectable reviews, the book sold poorly. Heavily influenced by Kerouac’s reading of Thomas Wolfe, it reflects on the generational epic formula and the contrasts of small town life versus the multi-dimensional, and larger life of the city. The book was heavily edited by Robert Giroux, with around 400 pages taken out.
For the next six years, Kerouac continued to write regularly. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled “The Beat Generation” and “Gone on the Road,” Kerouac completed what is now known as On the Road in April 1951, while living at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty. The book was largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late-40s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. He completed the first version of the novel during a three-week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. Kerouac wrote the final draft in 20 days, with Joan, his wife, supplying him bowls of pea soup and mugs of coffee to keep him going. Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 120-foot (37 m) long roll he then fed into the machine. This allowed him to type continuously without the interruption of reloading pages. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks and was much more explicit than what would eventually be printed. Though “spontaneous,” Kerouac had prepared long in advance before beginning to write. In fact, according to his Columbia professor and mentor Mark Van Doren, he had outlined much of the work in his journals over the several preceding years.
Though the work was completed quickly, Kerouac had a long and difficult time finding a publisher. Before On the Road was accepted by Viking Press, Kerouac got a job as a “railroad brakesman and fire lookout” traveling between the East and West coasts of America to collect money, so he could live with his mother. While employed in this way he met and befriended Abe Green, a young freight train jumper who later introduced Kerouac to his friend Herbert Huncke, a street hustler and favorite of many Beat Generation writers. During this period of travel, Kerouac wrote what he considered to be “his life’s work”, “The Legend of Duluoz“.
Publishers rejected On the Road because of its experimental writing style and its sympathetic tone towards minorities and marginalized social groups of post-War America. Many editors were also uncomfortable with the idea of publishing a book that contained what were, for the era, graphic descriptions of drug use and homosexual behavior—a move that could result in obscenity charges being filed, a fate that later befell Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Ginsberg’s Howl.
According to Kerouac, On the Road “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about.” According to his authorized biographer, historian Douglas Brinkley, On the Road has been misinterpreted as a tale of companions out looking for kicks, but the most important thing to comprehend is that Kerouac was an American Catholic author – for example, virtually every page of his diary bore a sketch of a crucifix, a prayer, or an appeal to Christ to be forgiven.
In late 1951, Joan Haverty left and divorced Kerouac while pregnant. In February 1952, she gave birth to Kerouac’s only child, Jan Kerouac, though he refused to acknowledge her as his own until a blood test confirmed it 9 years later. For the next several years Kerouac continued writing and traveling, taking extensive trips throughout the U.S. and Mexico and often fell into bouts of depression and heavy drug and alcohol use. During this period he finished drafts for what would become 10 more novels, including The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Tristessa, and Desolation Angels, which chronicle many of the events of these years.
In 1954, Kerouac discovered Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library, which marked the beginning of his immersion into Buddhism. However, Kerouac had taken an interest in Eastern thought in 1946 when he read Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Kerouac’s stance on eastern texts then differed from when he took it up again in the early to mid-1950s. In 1955 Kerouac wrote a biography of Siddhartha Gautama, titled Wake Up, which was unpublished during his lifetime but eventually serialised in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 1993–95. It was published by Viking in September 2008.
Politically, Kerouac found enemies on both sides of the spectrum, the right disdaining his association with drugs and sexual libertinism and the left contemptuous of his anti-communism and Catholicism; characteristically he watched the 1954 Senate McCarthy hearings smoking cannabis and rooting for the anti-communist crusader, Senator Joe McCarthy. In Desolation Angels he wrote, “when I went to Columbia all they tried to teach us was Marx, as if I cared” (considering Marxism, like Freudianism, to be an illusory tangent).
In 1957, after being rejected by several other firms, On the Road was finally purchased by Viking Press, which demanded major revisions prior to publication. Many of the more sexually explicit passages were removed and, fearing libel suits, pseudonyms were used for the book’s “characters”. These revisions have often led to criticisms of the alleged spontaneity of Kerouac’s style.
Later career: 1957–1969
In July 1957, Kerouac moved to a small house at 1418½ Clouser Avenue in the College Park section of Orlando, Florida, to await the release of On the Road. Weeks later, a review of the book by Gilbert Millstein appeared in The New York Times proclaiming Kerouac the voice of a new generation. Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer. His friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, became a notorious representation of the Beat Generation. The term “Beat Generation” was invented by Kerouac during a conversation held with fellow novelist Herbert Huncke. Huncke used the term “beat” to describe a person with little money and few prospects. “I’m beat to my socks”, he had said. Kerouac’s fame came as an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing.
Kerouac’s novel is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II Beat Generation and Kerouac came to be called “the king of the beat generation,” a term that he never felt comfortable with. He once observed, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic”, showing the reporter a painting of Pope Paul VI and saying, “You know who painted that? Me.”
The success of On the Road brought Kerouac instant fame. His celebrity status brought publishers desiring unwanted manuscripts which were previously rejected before its publication. After nine months, he no longer felt safe in public. He was badly beaten by three men outside the San Remo Bar at 189 Bleecker Street in New York City one night. Neal Cassady, possibly as a result of his new notoriety as the central character of the book, was set up and arrested for selling marijuana.
In response, Kerouac chronicled parts of his own experience with Buddhism, as well as some of his adventures with Gary Snyder and other San Francisco-area poets, in The Dharma Bums, set in California and Washington and published in 1958. It was written in Orlando between November 26 and December 7, 1957. To begin writing Dharma Bums, Kerouac typed onto a ten-foot length of teleprinter paper, to avoid interrupting his flow for paper changes, as he had done six years previously for On the Road.
Kerouac was demoralized by criticism of Dharma Bums from such respected figures in the American field of Buddhism as Zen teachers Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Alan Watts. He wrote to Snyder, referring to a meeting with D. T. Suzuki, that “even Suzuki was looking at me through slitted eyes as though I was a monstrous imposter.” He passed up the opportunity to reunite with Snyder in California, and explained to Philip Whalen, “I’d be ashamed to confront you and Gary now I’ve become so decadent and drunk and don’t give a shit. I’m not a Buddhist any more.” In further reaction to their criticism, he quoted part of Abe Green’s cafe recitation, Thrasonical Yawning in the Abattoir of the Soul.
“A gaping, rabid congregation, eager to bathe, are washed over by the Font of Euphoria, and bask like protozoans in the celebrated light.”
Many consider that this clearly indicated Kerouac’s journey on an emotional roller coaster of unprecedented adulation and spiritual demoralization.
Kerouac also wrote and narrated a “Beat” movie titled Pull My Daisy (1959), directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. Originally to be called The Beat Generation, the title was changed at the last moment when MGM released a film by the same name in July 1959 which sensationalized “beatnik” culture.
The CBS Television series Route 66 (1960–64), featuring two untethered young men “on the road” in a Corvette seeking adventure and fueling their travels by apparently plentiful temporary jobs in the various U.S. locales framing the anthology styled stories, gave the impression of being a commercially sanitized misappropriation of Kerouac’s “On The Road” story model. Even the leads, Buz and Todd, bore a resemblance to the dark, athletic Kerouac and the blonde Cassady/Moriarty, respectively. Kerouac felt he’d been conspicuously ripped off by Route 66 creator Stirling Silliphant and sought to sue him, CBS, the Screen Gems TV production company, and sponsor Chevrolet, but was somehow counseled against proceeding with what looked like a very potent cause of action.
John Antonelli’s 1985 documentary Kerouac, the Movie begins and ends with footage of Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on Tonight Starring Steve Allen in 1957. Kerouac appears intelligent but shy. “Are you nervous?” asks Steve Allen. “Naw,” says Kerouac, sweating and fidgeting.
Kerouac developed something of a friendship with the scholar Alan Watts (renamed Dave Wayne in Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, and Alex Aums in Desolation Angels). Kerouac moved to Northport, New York in March 1958, six months after releasing On the Road., to care for his aging mother Gabrielle and to hide from his new-found celebrity status.
In the following years, Kerouac suffered the loss of his older sister to a heart attack in 1964 and his mother suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1966. In 1968, Neal Cassady also died while in Mexico.
Also in 1968, he appeared on the television show Firing Line produced and hosted by William F. Buckley. The visibly drunk Kerouac talked about the 1960s counterculture in what would be his last appearance on television.
On October 20, 1969, around 11 in the morning, Kerouac was sitting in his favorite chair, drinking whiskey and malt liquor, trying to scribble notes for a book about his father’s print shop in Lowell, Mass. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach, which was nothing unusual, and headed for the bathroom. He began to throw up large amounts of blood, and yelled to his wife, “Stella, I’m bleeding.” Eventually he was persuaded to go to the hospital and was taken by ambulance to St. Anthony’s in St. Petersburg. Blood continued to pour from his mouth and he underwent several transfusions. That evening he underwent surgery in an attempt to tie off all the burst blood vessels, but his damaged liver prevented his blood from clotting. Kerouac died at 5:15 the following morning, October 21, 1969, never having regained consciousness after the operation.
His death, at the age of 47, was determined to be due to an internal hemorrhage (bleeding esophageal varices) caused by cirrhosis, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking, along with complications from an untreated hernia and a bar fight he had been involved in several weeks prior to his death. Kerouac is buried at Edson Cemetery in his hometown of Lowell and was honored posthumously with a Doctor of Letters degree from his hometown University of Massachusetts Lowell on June 2, 2007.
At the time of his death, he was living with his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, and his mother, Gabrielle. Kerouac’s mother inherited most of his estate and when she died in 1973, Stella inherited the rights to his works under a will purportedly signed by Gabrielle. Family members challenged the will and, on July 24, 2009, a judge in Pinellas County, Florida ruled that the will of Gabrielle Kerouac was fake, citing that Gabrielle Kerouac would not have been physically capable of providing her own signature on the date of the signing. However, such ruling had no effect on the copyright ownership of Jack’s literary works, since in 2004 a Florida Probate Court ruled that “any claim against any assets or property which were inherited or received by any of the SAMPAS respondents through the Estate of Stella Sampas Kerouac, Deceased, is barred by reason of the provisions of the Florida Statute §733.710(1989)
In 2007, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of On the Road’s publishing, Viking issued two new editions: On the Road: The Original Scroll, and On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition. By far the more significant is Scroll, a transcription of the original draft typed as one long paragraph on sheets of tracing paper which Kerouac taped together to form a 120-foot (37 m) scroll. The text is more sexually explicit than Viking allowed to be published in 1957, and also uses the real names of Kerouac’s friends rather than the fictional names he later substituted. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay paid $2.43 million for the original scroll and allowed an exhibition tour that concluded at the end of 2009. The other new issue, 50th Anniversary Edition, is a reissue of the 40th anniversary issue under an updated title.
The Kerouac/Burroughs manuscript, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was published for the first time on November 1, 2008 by Grove Press. Previously, a fragment of the manuscript had been published in the Burroughs compendium, Word Virus.
Kerouac is generally considered to be the father of the Beat movement, although he actively disliked such labels. Kerouac’s method was heavily influenced by the prolific explosion of Jazz, especially the Bebop genre established by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and others. Later, Kerouac included ideas he developed from his Buddhist studies that began with Gary Snyder. He often referred to his style as spontaneous prose. Although Kerouac’s prose was spontaneous and purportedly without edits, he primarily wrote autobiographical novels (or Roman à clef) based upon actual events from his life and the people with whom he interacted.
Many of his books exemplified this spontaneous approach, including On the Road, Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur, and The Subterraneans. The central features of this writing method were the ideas of breath (borrowed from Jazz and from Buddhist meditation breathing), improvising words over the inherent structures of mind and language, and not editing a single word (much of his work was edited by Donald Merriam Allen, a major figure in Beat Generation poetry who edited some of Ginsberg’s work as well). Connected with his idea of breath was the elimination of the period, preferring to use a long, connecting dash instead. As such, the phrases occurring between dashes might resemble improvisational jazz licks. When spoken, the words might take on a certain kind of rhythm, though none of it pre-meditated.
Kerouac greatly admired Snyder, many of whose ideas influenced him. The Dharma Bums contains accounts of a mountain climbing trip Kerouac took with Snyder, and also whole paragraphs from letters Snyder had written to Kerouac. While living with Snyder outside Mill Valley, California in 1956, Kerouac worked on a book centering around Snyder, which he considered calling Visions of Gary. (This eventually became Dharma Bums, which Kerouac described as “mostly about [Snyder].”) That summer, Kerouac took a job as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades in Washington, after hearing Snyder’s and Whalen’s accounts of their own lookout stints. Kerouac described the experience in his novel Desolation Angels.
He would go on for hours, often drunk, to friends and strangers about his method. Allen Ginsberg, initially unimpressed, would later be one of its great proponents, and indeed, he was apparently influenced by Kerouac’s free-flowing prose method of writing in the composition of his masterpiece “Howl“. It was at about the time that Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans that he was approached by Ginsberg and others to formally explicate his style. Among the writings he set down specifically about his Spontaneous Prose method, the most concise would be Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, a list of 30 “essentials”.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…
Some believed that at times Kerouac’s writing technique did not produce lively or energetic prose. Truman Capote famously said about Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing, it’s typing”. According to Carolyn Cassady, and other people who knew him, he rewrote and rewrote.
Although the body of Kerouac’s work has been published in English, recent research has suggested that, aside from already known correspondence and letters written to friends and family, he also wrote unpublished works of fiction in French. A manuscript entitled Sur le Chemin (On the Road) was discovered in 2008 by Québécois journalist Gabriel Anctil. The novella, completed in five days in Mexico during December 1952, is a telling example of Kerouac’s attempts at writing in Joual, a dialect typical of the French-Canadian working class of the time. It can be summarized as a form of expression utilizing both old patois and modern French mixed with modern English words (windshield being a modern English expression used casually by some French Canadians even today). Set in 1935, mostly on the American east coast, the short manuscript (50 pages) explores some of the recurring themes of Kerouac’s literature by way of a narrative very close to, if not identical to, the spoken word. It tells the story of a group of men who agree to meet in New York, including a 13-year-old Kerouac refers to as “Ti-Jean”. Ti-Jean and his father Leo (Kerouac’s father’s real name) leave Boston by car, traveling to assist friends looking for a place to stay in the city. The story actually follows two cars and their passengers, one driving out of Denver and the other from Boston, until they eventually meet in a dingy bar in New York’s Chinatown. In it, Kerouac’s “French” is written in a form which has little regard for grammar or spelling, relying often on phonetics in order to render an authentic reproduction of his French-Canadian vernacular. The novel starts: Dans l’mois d’Octobre 1935, y’arriva une machine du West, de Denver, sur le chemin pour New York. Dans la machine était Dean Pomeray, un soûlon; Dean Pomeray Jr., son ti fils de 9 ans et Rolfe Glendiver, son step son, 24. C’était un vieille Model T Ford, toutes les trois avaient leux yeux attachez sur le chemin dans la nuit à travers la windshield. Even though this work shares the same title as one of his best known English novels, it is rather the original French version of a short text that would later become Old bull in the Bowery (also unpublished) once translated to English prose by Kerouac himself. Sur le Chemin is Kerouac’s second known French manuscript, the first being La nuit est ma Femme written in early 1951 and completed a few days before he began the original English version of On the Road, as revealed by journalist Gabriel Anctil in the Montreal daily Le Devoir.
Kerouac’s early writing, particularly his first novel The Town and the City, was more conventional, and bore the strong influence of Thomas Wolfe. The technique Kerouac developed that later made him famous was heavily influenced by Jazz, especially Bebop, and later, Buddhism, as well as the famous “Joan Anderson letter” authored by Neal Cassady. The Diamond Sutra was the most important Buddhist text for Kerouac, and “probably one of the three or four most influential things he ever read”. In 1955, he began an intensive study of this sutra, in a repeating weekly cycle, devoting one day to each of the six Pāramitās, and the seventh to the concluding passage on Samādhi. This was his sole reading on Desolation Peak, and he hoped by this means to condition his mind to emptiness, and possibly to have a vision.
However, often overlooked but perhaps his greatest literary influence may be that of James Joyce whose work he alludes to, by far, more than any other author. Kerouac had the highest esteem for Joyce, emulated and expanded on his techniques. Regarding On the Road, he wrote in a letter to Ginsberg, “I can tell you now as I look back on the flood of language. It is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity.” Indeed, Old Angel Midnight has been called “the closest thing to Finnegans Wake in American literature.”
In 1974 the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was opened in his honor by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa University, a private Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado. The school offers a BA in Writing and Literature, MFAs in Writing & Poetics and Creative Writing, and a summer writing program.
From 1978 to 1992, Joy Walsh published 28 issues of a magazine devoted to Kerouac, Moody Street Irregulars.
In 1987, a song written by Marc Chabot and featured on a popular music album released in Québec by Richard Séguin, song titled L’ange vagabond, explores some aspects of Kerouac’s life. Chabot associates Kerouac’s incessant mobility to a quest for identity and respect from others, among other topics.
In 1997, the house on Clouser Avenue where The Dharma Bums was written was purchased by a newly formed non-profit group, The Jack Kerouac Writers in Residence Project of Orlando, Inc. This group provides opportunities for aspiring writers to live in the same house in which Kerouac was inspired, with room and board covered for three months.
In 2009, the movie One Fast Move or I’m Gone – Kerouac’s Big Sur was released. It chronicles the time in Kerouac’s life that led to his novel Big Sur, with actors, writers, artists, and close friends giving their insight into the book. The movie also describes the people and places on which Kerouac based his characters and settings, including the cabin in Bixby Canyon. An album released to accompany the movie, “One Fast Move or I’m Gone”, features Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jay Farrar (Son Volt) performing songs based on Kerouac’s Big Sur.
In 2010, during the first weekend of October, the 25th anniversary of the literary festival “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac” was held in Kerouac’s birthplace of Lowell, Massachusetts. It featured walking tours, literary seminars, and musical performances focused on Kerouac’s work and that of the Beat Generation.
Independent filmmaker Michael Polish is directing Big Sur, based on the novel, with Jean-Marc Barr cast as Kerouac. Filming was done in and around Big Sur. The film is set for release in 2013.
In 2012, What Happened to Kerouac?, a re-mastered DVD of the acclaimed 1986 documentary, is being rereleased with a feature-length disc of new material from the original interviews. Those extras, called The Beat Goes On, include rare and unseen footage of Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Paul Krassner, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Steve Allen, Ann Charters, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, Herbert Huncke, Carolyn Cassady, Paul Gleason, John Clellon Holmes, Edie Kerouac Parker, Jan Kerouac, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Father Spike Morissette.
While he is best known for his novels, Kerouac is also noted for his poetry written during the Beat movement. Kerouac stated that he wanted “to be considered as a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday.”. Many of Kerouac’s poems follow the style of his free-flowing, uninhibited prose, also incorporating elements of jazz and Buddhism. “Mexico City Blues” a poem published by Kerouac in 1959 is made up of over 200 choruses following the rhythms of jazz music. In much of his poetry, to achieve a jazz-like rhythm, Kerouac made use of the long dash in place of a period. Several excellent examples of this can be seen throughout “Mexico City Blues”:
Is Ignorant of its own emptiness—
Doesn’t like to be reminded of fits— 
Other well-known poems by Kerouac, such as “Bowery Blues” incorporate jazz rhythm with Buddhist themes of Sangsara, the cycle of life and subsequent death, and Samadhi, the concentration of composing the mind. Also, following the jazz/blues tradition Kerouac’s poetry features repetition and overall themes of the troubles or sense of loss experienced in life.
The story of man
Makes me sick
I don’t know why
Something so conditional
And all talk
Should hurt me so.
I am hurt
I am scared
I want to live
I want to die
I don’t know
Where to turn
In the Void
- Studio albums
- Poetry for the Beat Generation (with Steve Allen) (1959)
- Blues and Haikus (with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims) (1959)
- Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation (1960)
- Compilation albums