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Jack Kerouac was an American novelist, writer, poet, artist, and member of the "Beat Generation." Kerouac is now considered to be one of America`s most important authors. His best-known works are On the Road, published in 1957, and The Dharma Bums, released in 1958.Birth and youthJean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, later nicknamed Jack, was born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac. At home, Jack`s family spoke Québécois French; he did not learn English until he was six years old.Jack was educated in French-speaking Catholic parochial schools until he entered junior high, then he began to learn entirely in English. He was so talented he won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York City. The scholarship stipulated that Jack had to attend a year at Horace Mann Academy in the Bronx, to complete some math and French classes before beginning college. He quit football and returned to Lowell.Kerouac joined the U.S. Merchant Marine in 1942. Navy, but was discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds — the authorities deemed him insane because he did not submit to the authority of his superiors.The Beat GenerationWhen Kerouac left the navy, he and his girlfriend, Edie Parker, met up with some of his schoolmates from Columbia: Lucien Carr, writer Allen Ginsberg, writer William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, Kerouac`s companion on his cross-country wanderings in his future novel, On the Road. They were influenced by the popular Jazz and be-bop music of the time. The term, Beat Generation, was coined by Kerouac during a conversation with the writer John Clellon Holmes, describing his generation as having an attitude of “beatness,” or weariness with the world.In 1944, Kerouac married Parker; however, the union only lasted a few months and they were divorced in 1945. Kerouac began work on his first novel, The Town and the City, which was published in 1950.In 1949, Kerouac, Cassady, and Cassady`s ex-wife Luanne, took a road trip from the East Coast to San Francisco. Those trips inspired Kerouac to write his best-known work, On the Road, which was not published until 1957, following numerous revisions.In 1950, Kerouac married Joan Haverty. She became pregnant with their daughter, but the couple separated the following year.The productive yearsOver the following few years, Kerouac was at his most productive. He worked on Visions of Cody and Dr. Sax while he was visiting Cassady in San Francisco and Burroughs in Mexico City. In 1953, he wrote Maggie Carney, about a girl he had been in love with since a teenager. He also wrote The Subterraneans. Despite his productivity, Kerouac`s last published work was Town and City, in 1950.In 1955, Kerouac traveled alone to Mexico, then became interested in Buddhism. He composed a book of poetry entitled Mexico City Blues and began the novel Tristessa, about a woman he had met south of the border. In early 1956, he began work on other novels, including Visions of Gerard, about his older brother’s death; The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and Old Angel Midnight.Finally, when his book, On the Road, was published in 1957, Kerouac began to taste fame. Fans adored him, while critics derided him as an advocate of the rebelliousness and restlessness of the Beat generation.Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums as a follow-up to On the Road. He wrote columns for magazines as well, including; Playboy, Swank, Holiday, Escapade and Esquire.AddictionsKerouac had battled problems with alcoholism and other drugs over the years, and the problem increased with his new-found fame. Critics denounced him for his peculiar form of writing as well as being a proponent of a lifestyle he did not necessarily advocate.In 1961, Kerouac moved to Bixby Canyon in Big Sur, California, where he wrote his final novel, the dark, semi-autobiographical Big Sur. His fame started to fade toward the end of his life, and alcoholism had undermined his health as well.On October 20, 1969, Kerouac died from internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis of the liver; he was 47 years old. His remains rest in the Sampas family plot in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery.
On the Road
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On the Road, novel by Jack Kerouac, written over the course of three weeks in 1951 and published in 1957.
SUMMARY: The free-form book describes a series of frenetic trips across the United States by a number of penniless young people who are in love with life, beauty, jazz, sex, drugs, speed, and mysticism and who have absolute contempt for alarm clocks, timetables, road maps, mortgages, pensions, and all traditional American rewards for industry. The book was one of the first novels associated with the Beat movement of the 1950s.
DETAIL: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has become a classic text in American literary counterculture. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, Sal Paradise’s account of his travels across America has become emblematic of the struggle to retain the freedom of the American dream in a more sober historical moment. Paradise’s journey with the free and reckless Dean Moriarty (based on fellow Beat adventurer Neal Cassady) from the East to the West Coast of America is a celebration of the abundance, vitality, and spirit of American youth. The pair’s rejection of domestic and economic conformity in favor of a search for free and inclusive communities and for heightened individual experiences were key constituents of the emerging Beat culture, of which Kerouac—along with literary figures such as Ginsberg and Burroughs—was to soon to become a charismatic representative.
Reputedly written by Kerouac in a three-week burst of Benzedrine and caffeine-fueled creativity on a single scroll of paper, the production of this loosely autobiographical novel became a legend of the sort that occurred within it. Yet the novel also holds within it an acknowledgement of the limitations of its vision, and Dean’s gradual decline slowly reveals him to be something of an absurd and unlikely hero for Sal to follow into maturity.
Jack Kerouac, misogynist creep: Inside his ugly infatuation with Marilyn Monroe
By David J. Krajicek
Published October 11, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.
THE EDIFICE OF Columbia University’s Butler Library still had the glimmer of freshly quarried limestone in the early 1940s, when Jack Kerouac traipsed around the Manhattan campus with his pals.
Kerouac could not have missed the building’s symbolism.
A monument to manliness, Butler’s façade touts the names of more than 40 thinkers, writers, and politicians – all of them men.
Ionic columns draw the eyes up stone shafts toward an all-male marquee: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil. Ten more European names grace the building’s sides – Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, and the like. Two dozen American statesmen and author-men – Lincoln, Thoreau, Poe, and more — are lionized in smaller print on the front.
It seems appropriate that this vast book sarcophagus houses some of Kerouac’s letters.
I am quite familiar with this piece of architecture. In the 1990s, I had a view of Butler from my faculty office at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. One day, I was sitting at my desk speaking with Beth Reinhard, a spirited student who now covers politics for the Wall Street Journal.
Her gaze gravitated toward the library.
“For god’s sakes,” she suddenly said, “they couldn’t come up with a single woman?”
A donation from Edward Harkness, scion of a Standard Oil stock millionaire, was used to build the $4 million library in the early ‘30s, during the crux of the Great Depression.
But the building really is Nicholas Murray Butler’s big erection.
The names branded into the stone were personally selected by Butler, Columbia’s president for most of the first half of the 20th Century. Although largely forgotten now, he was viewed as a sage in his time. The New York Times, in particular, blew Butler’s trumpet, describing him in a 1927 editorial as “the incarnation of the international mind.”
Count me among his detractors.
An arriviste who grew up in the gritty factory town of Paterson, New Jersey, Butler put on a phony posh British accent—and, occasionally, a toga—and exhausted audiences bloviating about whatever he pleased. He published turgid letters in theTimes about a breathtakingly tedious panoply of subjects—Hawaiian statehood, local government reform, Prohibition, world peace, and more.
In the spring of 1945, during the closing months of Butler’s long Columbia tenure, a whippersnapper student used his finger to scrawl imprudent messages into the accumulated grime of his dorm room window, which faced Butler Library.
Among them was this one: “Nicholas Murray Butler Has No Balls.” He added a childish sketch of a penis and testicles.
The student was Allen Ginsberg, who would gain fame as a Beat poet. Ginsberg said he wasn’t upset with Butler he was simply trying to prompt someone to clean his damned window. He got the cleaning, though it was a Pyrrhic victory: He was suspended from school.
A story about the Beats drew me back to Columbia a few years ago, 15 years after I left the J-School. (Old-fashioned journalism looked more and more like a craft entering its denouement. I feared I was funneling students down a career gangplank, so I returned to writing, where any occupational failings were mine alone.)
On a spring day in 2012, I visited Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library on Butler’s sixth floor to conduct research about a murder case, the bread-and-butter of my work as a writer. The Times had asked me to look back at the 1944 slaying of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, the precocious Columbian who gave intellectual inspiration to the coterie of dissent-minded young men who become the core of the Beats.
I had learned that Butler holds a boxed collection of 37 letters written to Carr by Ginsberg between 1956 and 1975. The same box hold 23 letters and postcards from Kerouac to Carr, written from the mid-‘50s to 1967, two years before Kerouac drank himself to death, at age 47. (Carr, who died in 2005, bequeathed the letters to Columbia.)
A number of the Ginsberg letters were lyrical travelogues sent from exotic places. Kerouac’s letters were something else—jocular, raw and breezy, one hail fellow to another. But the letters had one thing in common: Well into adulthood, both Ginsberg and Kerouac clearly continued to beg for Carr’s esteem.
As a long day of research and reporting wound down, I quickly thumbed through the Ginsberg letters, each in its own sequentially-numbered file. I then turned to the Kerouac letters. The last of five letters he wrote to Carr in 1962 stopped me cold.
It was typed and two pages long, dated Aug. 11, 1962. (Actually, Kerouac wrote the date in French: “aout 11.”) The letter is a make-believe Q&A between Kerouac and “the renowned French Journalist Lucien Tablet Carr.” (In fact, Carr was an editor with United Press International in New York.) After a nitpick about UPI, Kerouac got to the meat of his message:
LUCIEN: Mr. Kerouac, what do you think of Marilyn Monroe? Your honest opinion.
KEROUAC: She was fucked to death.
LUCIEN: Will you send us a telegram saying so?
Six days before the date on the letter, Monroe, 36, had been found dead of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles. Her death was both a spectacle and a singular American tragedy. My mouth went agape as I sat reading the letter. How could Kerouac be so pitiless?
In 1962, he was 40 years old and far removed from the callow youth of his Columbia days. What would prompt a worldly, middle-aged man to emote such adolescent contempt for a woman whose life and death had been heartbreaking?
Aristotle, one of Nick Butler’s darlings, might have lectured Kerouac about pathos. He likely would have failed to move his emotional needle. After all, Kerouac has emerged as a prototype of the mid-century modern misogynist.
Kerouac’s "On the Road" generally treats women as cardboard cutouts with vaginas. The point of view of male characters is not merely a gaze it is a drooling leer. Women are limned based upon a handful of hollow adjectives. (“Beautiful” is the author’s go-to descriptor.) They are inventoried by breast size and hair tint, like sex bots.
Lee Ann is “a fetching hunk, a honey-colored creature.” There is “a beautiful blonde called Babe – a tennis-playing, surf-riding doll of the west.” And then there is Terry, “the cutest little Mexican girl… Her breasts stuck out straight and true her little flanks looked delicious her hair was long and lustrous black and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside.”
There are many similar examples, including this snippet of dizzying dialogue by Dean Moriarty, a character based on Kerouac’s buddy Neal Cassady:
“Oh I love, love, love women! I think women are wonderful! I love women!” He spat out the window he groaned he clutched his head. Great beads of sweat fell from his forehead from pure excitement and exhaustion.”
Self-regarding the Beats may have been. Self-aware they were not.
I ordered a photocopy of Kerouac’s Marilyn Monroe letter during my visit to Butler and have kept it at hand ever since.
Academicians and amateur enthusiasts have cranked out scores of books on Kerouac and the other Beats, parsing and parrying over every detail of their work and their lives. I’m certain that other researchers have found and read Kerouac’s appalling letter about Monroe, but I have been unable to find a single published reference to it.
That surprises me since this overlooked document seems to add an important piece of evidence of Kerouac’s infantilism when it comes to women—and, more broadly, a distillation of American male misogyny, circa 1962.
It was too puerile for publication, you argue? Have you read Bukowski?
I sat in the library that afternoon wondering over Kerouac’s point.
Clearly, the letter was a plea for Lucien Carr’s elusive endorsement via humor rooted in shared chauvinism. Affirmation from Carr was the sine qua non of Kerouac’s manhood.
Though he was among the youngest in Columbia’s Beat clique, Carr was cornerstone. The others were entranced by his profane rants about the beauty of unalloyed creativity and the plague of cultural philistines.
Ginsberg called the boyishly handsome Carr his first love. And in one of Kerouac’s lesser romans-à-clef, he described the Carr character as “the kind of boy literary fags write sonnets to, which start out, ‘O raven-haired Grecian lad…’”
And then there was David Kammerer. He had stalked Carr to New York (and several other cities) from their hometown of St. Louis, where Kammerer had once been his Boy Scout leader. Thirteen years older, Kammerer sexually abused Carr, beginning in his adolescence.
Kammerer was a familiar figure in the Beat circle, and the others were fully aware of his obsession with Carr. James W. Grauerholz, a Beat biographer, has described Kammerer as Carr’s “stalker and plaything, his creator and destroyer.”
At 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1944, Carr and Kammerer walked down the hill from Morningside Heights to Riverside Park after drinking at the West End saloon, a Columbia hangout. Seated on a slope in the park, Kammerer made “an offensive proposal,” as the Times put it. Carr fatally stabbed him with a Boy Scout knife and rolled his body into the Hudson River. The New York Daily News called it an “honor killing.”
Carr surrendered to authorities the next day, after rambling around Manhattan with Kerouac. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served a short term at the Elmira, N.Y., state reformatory.
By literary osmosis, the killing gave credibility to the tortured-soul narratives in the three Beat masterworks: On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. One critic suggested they felt “a narcissistic pride in having been tangentially involved in anything so Dostoevskyan.”
Rebranded as Lou, Lucien Carr began a 47-year career at UPI straight out of the reformatory in 1946. He came to be regarded as a great editor and generous mentor to young journalists. (Until he sobered up, he was also a legendary drunk.) A history of UPI calls Carr “the soul” of the news service, the same role he played for the emerging Beats.
Though beloved as a newsman, Carr apparently was deeply flawed as a father and husband. His son Caleb Carr, the writer, has said that Lucien abused his family physically and psychologically. Caleb Carr linked the “cycle of abuse” to the sexual and psychological damage inflicted by Kammerer on young Lucien. Caleb Carr wrote, “Of all the terrible things that Kammerer did, perhaps the worst was to teach him…that the most fundamental way to form bonds was through abuse.”
Lucien Carr had been at UPI 15 years when he received the Marilyn Monroe letter from Kerouac. Like the dedicated phallocentric that he was, Kerouac worked in a riff about giant penises:
LUCIEN: ….Say, wattayamean she was fucked to death?
KEROUAC: It was what was told me about another girl in San Francisco, who jumped off a roof, that she was fucked to death. I understand Joe DiMaggio had a dong actually as long as a baseball bat…and that Arthur Miller had a dong as long as Robert Sherwood.
In the mid-50s, Monroe spent nine tempestuous, abusive months married to DiMaggio, the baseball star, followed closely by a turbulent marriage to Miller, the playwright. And Robert Sherwood? He was a 6-foot-8 writer from the Algonquin Round Table gang, New York literary luminaries a generation older than the Beats. So, yes, a big old Sherwood might have been a killer-sized penis, especially to the chronically insecure (and 5-foot-8) Kerouac.
He continued his letter to Carr by suggesting that he was just the man to protect Monroe from those giant phalluses.
KEROUAC: Sir, I would have given her love.
KEROUAC: By telling her that she was an Angel of Light and that (writer/director) Clifford Odets and (acting coach Lee) Strasberg and all the others were the Angels of Darkness and to stay away from them and come with me to a quiet valley in the Yuma desert, to grow old together like “an old stone man and an old stone woman”…to tell her she really, is really, Marylou.
“Marylou” refers to another character in On the Road, a “beautiful little chick” based on Luanne Henderson, Neal Cassady’s real-life adolescent bride. Kerouac wrote, “Marylou was a pretty blonde…But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” It seems absurd that Kerouac conflated or equated Monroe, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, with Cassady’s child-wife, who was fifteen when they married. But it’s also a telling detail that Kerouac imagined – saw himself as – Monroe’s protector, her superhero.
Later in the letter, Kerouac refers a second time to Angels of Darkness, presumably the 1954 potboiler film about Roman prostitutes (“LOVE WAS THEIR TRADE! Daughters of Joy…Sisters in Sin!”). After a few inside jokes and another homoerotic reference to someone who might “suck your spire up,” Kerouac turned to the deaths of two other famous actresses.
LUCIEN: Mr. Kerouac, now that our altercations are begun, and I am a journaliste, what do you think caused the death of Carol Lombard then?
KEROUAC: Imploding eyeballs.
LUCIEN: And of Jean Harlow?
KEROUAC: What YOU said: parrot cement.
I can’t decode the references to eyeballs and parrots, but I do recognize Kerouac’s obsession with blonde actresses who died young. Freud could have spent years unpacking the psyche behind that fixation.
Note that Lombard had died a full 20 years before, in 1942, at age 34. And Harlow died at age 26 in 1937, when Kerouac was 15 years old. For Kerouac, one hot blonde screen star apparently blurred with the next into some warped apotheosis of Woman as a loveless cipher. They stand forever apart from him, on the other side of a screen. Yet Kerouac yearns for them, like a schoolboy at a matinee.
Kerouac ended his make-believe Q&A with one tender note—not about dead blonde actresses, but about Carr:
LUCIEN: What is your opinion of ME?
KEROUAC: I just thought about you with tears, here in old Orlando, cause it’s been a long time.
That might seem sweet—had it not been buried in woman-hating sludge about death-inducing penal assaults. (We have attached a copy to this story so readers can examine the letter themselves.)
So how should we judge this latest affirmation of the writer’s troubling misogyny?
Kerouac’s misogyny already has inspired a cottage industry of commentary. One contemporary writer calls the Beats “immature dicks.” Another suggests it is unrealistic to consider Kerouac (or any writer) outside the context of his or her times.
So Kerouac was “of his time,” to use a tired phrase. And some use the same excuse for the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1962, the inaugural edition of Ms. Magazine was still a decade away. But Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was in the publishing pipeline that year, and the English-language edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been available since 1953.
On the Road was published in 1957, just five years before Kerouac wrote the fucked-to-death letter to Carr. After the glamour of his first novel faded, Kerouac spent the 1960s on a bender. Chronically drunk, desperate for money and living with his mother, he peddled the same repackaged book content into the twilight of his life.
His 1968 book, Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46, was built from the same bricks, mortar and misogyny as On the Road. His editor, Ellis Amburn, later said, “I had so wanted to love the book, but the final manuscript was full of gratuitous racial and sexist slurs, and Kerouac’s contract protected him from editorial changes.”
Columbia’s rare book library was wrapping up business for the day my time with the original copies of Kerouac’s letters was drawing to a close. Around me, other patrons rushed to view a few final pages as Columbia staff members tidied up, warning of impending closure.
This corner of Butler’s sixth floor has changed since Kerouac’s time on campus, and the valuable documents maintained here are kept secure behind glass doors and a phalanx of earnest librarians.
No doubt Kerouac spent his share of time at Butler too. As I repacked the letter files into the Lucien Carr box, I wondered what he might have to say if he found his Monroe letter, all these years along.
Would he cringe? Argue that it was a joke? Own it? Burn it?
A bonfire would be needed to incinerate all the sexist passages in Kerouac’s oeuvre, of course. Yet On the Road remains relentlessly popular, now nearly 60 years since its publication. The book shows up on English lit reading lists and tucked in backpacks beside Rough Guides. Jack Kerouac continues to enjoy a reputation—deserved or not—as a literary contrarian who was willing to raise an extended middle finger toward American society.
Surely, few read Kerouac today without some degree of awareness of his misogyny problem. Perhaps contemporary readers use a single squinting eye to scuttle past the objectionable passages.
Kerouac’s Monroe letter must be regarded as exceptionally repulsive. And the passage of time adds context that makes its content even more significant. Marilyn Monroe has advanced in stature from a sex symbol to a cultural icon to an influential proto-feminist figure. She has transcended mere sexuality—for those able to see beyond her exterior.
Kerouac apparently could not. Poignantly enough, his On the Road was among the books in the Monroe’s library when she died.
She apparently admired him. And he objectified her.
So after three years of mulling Kerouac’s letter, it is with an owly gaze that I have come to regard this author of the great dissident cultural marker of the American mid-century.
The former callow youth, a high school gridiron golden boy long removed from his glory days, rolls rickety into middle age, sleeping down the hall from his mother. Behind the bedroom door, he is alone with his woody, lost in a wet dream about the iconic blonde he is certain he ought to possess.
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On the Road can be viewed as a giant extended shore leave. Indeed, the first of his cross-country trips later depicted in On the Roadtook place in 1947—just a few years after his failed military attempt.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the writing of On the Road. Although the book was published in 1957, Kerouac produced the legendary 120-foot continuous scroll in April 1951 by taping long sheets of tracing paper together so he could type without interruption.
Columbia Beckons Kerouac with a Football Scholarship
Kerouac's military personnel file is half an inch thick—nearly 150 pages—and details a troubled soldier-in-training who collapsed under military discipline and structure. The doctors' findings identify and foreshadow the carefree, reckless, impulsive wanderlust that characterizes Kerouac's writing.
This file presents both a very gifted and a very disturbed young man. While his military record includes extensive mental examinations, it also includes stellar letters of recommendation. Kerouac attended Columbia University on a football scholarship. There, he was praised by teachers and professors for his "unusual brilliance," loyalty, citizenship, character, and "good breeding."
Born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac completed high school there, then spent an additional year of high school at Horace Mann Prep in New York on a full scholarship before continuing to Columbia University. He completed his freshman year "with failure only in chemistry." He quit college to enter the merchant marine but left after three months.
At the request of his football coach, Kerouac returned to Columbia in October 1942, but he dropped out a month later. In a November 1942 letter, he told a friend he was unhappy at Columbia and sought greater meaning at a historic time:
In an unmailed letter to a girlfriend in July 1942, Kerouac outlined noble reasons for enlisting:
On December 8, 1942, one year and one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kerouac enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve for a four-year term of duty.
"Fine Moral Character and Good Breeding"
Kerouac's military personnel file includes glowing letters of recommendation. His school record was "one of unusual brilliance both scholastically and athletically," gushed Lowell High School Master Joseph G. Pyne. Kerouac was "an ideal pupil with an unusual combination of brilliance and athletic ability," Pyne added.
And he was an overachiever—earning 88 credits when only 70 were required for graduation.
Horace Mann Prep principal Charles C. Tillinghast praised Kerouac's reputation in a letter of recommendation written in November, 1942:
John Louis Kerouac . . . had with us a most excellent reputation. His academic record was in every way satisfactory, and his record for character and citizenship was of the finest.
I am sure that he will be found loyal and dependable in any position of responsibility.
Kerouac received an "unqualified endorsement" from his French instructor at Columbia the same month:
Before reporting to basic training, Kerouac requested a transfer—hoping to upgrade to "Naval Aviation Cadet" (Navy pilot) instead of "Apprentice Seaman." He appeared before the Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board in Boston for a series of examinations.
Despite testing well in most subjects (he received a 91 percent "general classification," 99 percent in spelling, and 95 percent in English), his transfer was rejected. The board found Kerouac "not temperamentally adapted for transfer." In addition, Kerouac failed overall due to "mechanical inaptitude"—scoring just 23 percent on the mechanical aptitude test.
In his semi-autobiographical novel Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935–46, Kerouac summarized this experience:
I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I'm dizzy. "I'm not daffy," says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. "If you're flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?"
"How the screw should I know?"
So I'm washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.
Navy Boot Camp Disastrous: "Bored Easily, Lacked Focus"
Kerouac reported to the Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island, on February 26, 1943. There were concerns from the start, however during his initial examination, he was "recognized as sufficiently abnormal to warrant Trial Duty status." The trial period did not go well Kerouac's boot camp experience was a disaster. After only 10 days of basic training, he was transferred from the Naval Training Station to the Naval Hospital in Newport because he had numerous headaches and "appeared to be restless, apathetic, seclusive [sic]."
In addition, "neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner." Diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia), Kerouac was sent to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland (now the National Naval Medical Center) for further examination.
At the Naval Hospital, doctors questioned Kerouac at length about his family, academic, work, and sexual history. His file contains numerous exchanges between Kerouac and his doctors.
However, his concurrent letters to friends and family offer a different perspective. Kerouac wrote to friends and family while under observation. These letters reflect Kerouac's varying responses to the diagnosis of severe mental illness—reactions ranging from rejecting to accepting, and even embracing and exalting, his condition.
These letters also show that Kerouac seemed to enjoy challenging, leading, and even shocking his doctors. While this behavior may have been a defense mechanism or even denial, Kerouac did seem to have a basic understanding of psychiatry he details conditions, symptoms and indicators, of mental illness, dementia praecox in particular. Contrasting his medical file with his letters yields insight into Kerouac's psyche at a pivotal time in his life.
Kerouac's psychiatrists astutely determined that his failed military experience resulted from his rejection of authority, order, discipline, and structure.
Not surprisingly, especially given his later adventures, Kerouac hated boot camp due to "the regulation and discipline." His medical history from the Bethesda Naval Hospital notes that he became bored easily and lacked focus. He "impulsively left school because he had nothing further to learn" and "just as precipitously" left numerous jobs "because he felt too stilted."
"Patient believes he quit football for same reason he couldn't get along in Navy, he can't stand regulations, etc." He quit school "because he felt he had gotten all he could from college."
"I was frank with them," Kerouac admitted. "I was in a series of ventures and I knew they'd look them up like getting fired from jobs and getting out of college."
"I just can't stand it. I like to be by myself"
Initially, Kerouac viewed the psychological testing as "folly" and a "farce." He told his mother that in response to headaches "they diagnosed me with dementia praecox." Kerouac believed he was different, but not mentally ill: "as far as I'm concerned I am nervous I get nervous in an emotional way but I'm not nervous enough to get a discharge."
He claimed he was exhausted because prior to boot camp he had been writing 16 hours a day, working on the novel The Sea is My Brother, which he called a "gigantic saga" (this novel was first published posthumously).
He did not like basic training at all: "I just can't stand it. I like to be by myself." In an undated letter, Kerouac explained:
In Vanity, Kerouac details this maladjustment at length:
Well, I didn't mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . "You're going to the nut house." "Okay." [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.
Kerouac crystallizes his problem with the Navy in Vanity—lack of independent thought. Responding to questions from Navy doctors, Kerouac explained that he was constitutionally incapable of adhering to Navy discipline:
The Navy sought underlying causes of Kerouac's mental illness. The "family history" section notes that Kerouac "denied familial disease. Mother is nervous and father is emotional." Kerouac wrote to his mother, Gabrielle, on March 30, 1943, and encouraged her to speak candidly with his doctors if they called:
Although I tried to hide it, they found out about my headaches when I went to get aspirins a few times. I guess I wrote too much of my novel before I joined the Navy. Anyway, they've placed me under observation in the hospital, and all I do all day is sit around in the smoking room and smoke. . . .
Well, if I can't make the Navy, I'll try the Merchant Marine school—they're not strict there. . . .
At any rate, I have an idea they're going to call you up about it. They're going to give me a nerve test tomorrow. . . .
I told them about my [car] accident in Vermont, my football injuries & everything, so that if I have anything, they'll discover it. Anyway, try to remember my symptoms and tell them about it.
When the Navy did call his parents, Jack's father, Leo, did not provide a stellar character reference. Leo said that Jack had been "boiling" for a long time and that he "has always been seclusive [sic], stubborn, head strong, resentful of authority and advice, being unreliable, unstable and undependable." He added that Jack "tends to brood a great deal."
Gabrielle's response suggests a lack of understanding of Jack's condition:
A Scant Job History and "Bizarre Delusions"
Navy doctors believed Kerouac's impulsivity contributed to his exceedingly erratic work history. Kerouac jumped from job to job and quit college twice. He had left the merchant marine after three months "because he was bucking everybody." He worked briefly as a sports reporter for the Lowell Sun but quit. Kerouac's "occupational" history concludes:
The sole writing sample in his file, Kerouac's handwritten "Resume of Occupational Training" lists his newspaper job and stint in the merchant marine but does not list what he termed "countless other little odd jobs, none of which seem significant enough to mention." He explained, "My general occupational record is rather scant because I've spent much time studying."
Kerouac recounts his move to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda in Vanity, stating that he "was put first in the real nut ward with guys howling like coyotes in the mid of night and big guys in white suits had to come out and wrap them in wet sheets to calm them down.
Just days after his official initial diagnosis, Kerouac told a friend why he was under evaluation: "One of the reasons for my being in a hospital, besides dementia praecox, is a complex condition of my mind, split up, as it were, in two parts, one normal, the other schizoid."
My schizoid side is . . . the bent and brooding figure sneering at a world of mediocrities, complacent ignorance, and bigotry exercised by ersatz Ben Franklins, the introverted, scholarly side the alien side.
My normal counterpart, the one you're familiar with, is the half-back-whoremaster-alemate-scullion-jitterbug-jazz critic side, the side in me which recommends a broad, rugged America which requires the nourishment of gutsy, redblooded associates and which lofts whatever guileless laughter I've left in me rather than that schizoid's cackle I have of late.
Only through his writing could Kerouac unite these disparate parts:
Kerouac underwent analysis, challenging his doctors and playing on their preconceptions: Next came an investigation of the "bizarre" in me. First, "bizarre delusions." Was I the center of attention in a group? Of course!
"Extreme preoccupation" is another symptom of dementia praecox, a characteristic, I am proud to say, with which I am stricken. I cheerfully revealed this, and he cheerfully jotted it down.
Next, he tried to detect "unreal ideas" in my makeup. What was the strangest thing I'd ever seen? . . . I gave vent to an image compounded of all the mysticism I knew, from Poe & Ambrose Bierce to Coleridge and DeQuincey. A gleam in his eye!
In another letter in early April 1943, Kerouac joked about his condition:
Navy Psychiatrists Review Kerouac's Sexual History
The medical report's "sexual and marital" section notes that Kerouac had "sexual contact at age of 14 with a 32 year old woman which upset him somewhat." In addition, Kerouac "Enjoys rather promiscuous relationships with girl friends and is boastful of this. No apparent conflicts over sexual activity noted." Kerouac openly discussed such matters: "He has no shame, remorse or reluctance to describe his affairs." This openness will not surprise readers of Kerouac.
Again, Kerouac—at least in his correspondence—seemed amused by the questioning, and played upon the military's bias against homosexuality, as described in this undated letter:
He wanted to know of my emotional experiences and I told him of my affairs with mistresses and various promiscuous wenches, adding to that the crowning glory of being more closely attached to my male friends, spiritually and emotionally, than to these women. This not only smacked of dementia praecox, it smacked of ambisexuality.
Kerouac addressed this issue more seriously in an early April 1943 letter: Sex, of course, is the universal symbol of life—I've discovered that all men, from aged veterans to sere academicians, turn back to sex in their last years as though suddenly conscious of its deep and noble meaning, of its inseparable marriage to the secret of life.
Navy Views Writers with Some Suspicion
Navy doctors viewed "patient's occupation as a writer" as a further sign of his mental imbalance. One doctor labeled Kerouac "somewhat grandiose" because:
A medical history excerpt from May 27, 1943, adds:
Patient describes his writing ambitions. He has written several novels, one when he was quite young, another just prior to joining the service, and one he is writing now. . . .
Patient states he believes he might have been nervous when in boot camp because he had been working too hard just prior to induction. He had been writing a novel, in the style of James Joyce, about his own home town, and averaging approximately 16 hours daily in an effort to get it down. This was an experiment and he doesn't intend to publish. At present he is writing a novel about his experiences in the Merchant Marine. Patient is very vague in describing all these activities. There seems to be an artistic factor in his thinking when discussing his theories of writing and philosophy.
Kerouac knew that his doctors viewed his writing with concern and yet played upon their preconceptions. In an undated letter to a friend, Kerouac recounted his responses to his psychiatrist's questions. Asked for more examples of his "bizarre behavior," Kerouac highlights his writing:
"Bizarre behavior" . . . and the full diagnosis of dementia praecox. All this folly doesn't faze me, except for one item. Since I have "bizarre delusions," no one takes me seriously. Thus, when I asked for a typewriter in order to finish my novel, they only humoured me.
("The poor boy, now he's under the 'bizarre delusion' that he's a writer!")
Many aspects of Kerouac's personality viewed by the Navy as signs of mental illness were later praised as qualities that made him a gifted and expressive writer. In compiling Kerouac's medical history, Navy doctors wrote that he heard voices and "imagines in his mind whole symphonies he can hear every note. He sees printed pages of words." Kerouac told his doctors that that he did not hear random voices but certainly did hear music:
Kerouac's Hospitalization Brings Birth of an Icon
While it is impossible to know the full effect of his hospitalization and protracted analysis, Kerouac's letters suggest that time was turning point for Kerouac personally, professionally, and spiritually.
He spent the rest of his life running from structure, discipline, rules, regulations, and authority. The further he ran, the more he was embraced as a countercultural icon and embodiment of a new "Beat" way of life. One can only guess how much of his later escapades were in direct reaction to the strictness of his military experience.
Kerouac's hospitalization gave him time to ponder and solidify his self identity as a writer. From the hospital, Kerouac pledged a new beginning:
In a letter to a friend from junior high school, written in early April 1943, Kerouac committed to starting his personal journey:
The pathos in this hospital has convinced me, as it did Hemingway in Italy, that "the defeated are the strongest." Everyone here is defeated, even this "broth of a Breton." I have been defeated by the world with considerable help from my greatest enemy, myself, and now I am ready to work. I realize the limitations of my knowledge, and the irregularity of my intellect. Knowledge and intellection serve a Tolstoi—but a Tolstoi must be older, must see more as well—and I am not going to be a Tolstoi. Surely I will be a Kerouac, whatever that suggests. Knowledge comes with time.
As far as creative powers go, I have them and I know it. All I need now is faith in myself . . . only from there can a faith truly dilate and expand to "mankind." I must change my life, now.
Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more . . .
On June 2, 1943, the Navy completed its evaluation and changed Kerouac's diagnosis from dementia praecox to "Constitutional Psychopathic State, Schizoid Personality." The schizoid trends "have bordered upon but have not yet reached the level of psychosis, but which render him unfit for service."
The doctors suggested his discharge, and Kerouac signed a form stating that this condition was a preexisting one. On June 10, it was recommended that Kerouac be discharged "for reason of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability."
On June 30, 1943, Kerouac's military duty was officially terminated "by reason of Unsuitability for the Naval Service." The Navy made it clear that he was not welcome to return Kerouac "is not recommended for reenlistment." He was given "an outfit of civilian clothes," a travel allowance of $24.60 to return home to his not-so-supportive parents in Lowell, and a one-time "mustering out" payment of $200.
Kerouac left the hospital and hit the road.
His official military personnel file was closed 10 days later and remained closed for 62 years, until it was opened by the National Archives in 2005, unearthing a fascinating and previously unknown chapter in this legendary dreamer and writer's life.
Kerouac died in 1969 of internal hemorrhaging and was buried in his hometown of Lowell.
Miriam Kleiman, a public affairs specialist with NARA, first came to the Archives as a researcher in 1996 to investigate lost Jewish assets in Swiss banks during World War II. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she joined the agency in 2000 as an archives specialist. She has written previously in Prologue about the Public Vaults exhibit and about records from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Note on Sources
Special thanks to Eric Voelz and Lenin Hurtado of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, for their guidance.
Unless otherwise noted as a letter from or to Kerouac, all quotes are from Kerouac's official military personnel file, which includes an expansive and detailed 27-page medical history.
The letters cited in the article, written concurrent to Kerouac's time under psychiatric evaluation, are from Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940–1956, ed. Ann Charters (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1995).
Paul Maher, Jr., Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-life Odyssey of "On the Road" (Cambridge, MA: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007).
Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1978).
Jack Kerouac, Vanity of Duluoz (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1967).
This page was last reviewed on April 23, 2021.
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The Jack Kerouac Writers In Residence Project Of Orlando, Inc., is in its twentieth year of service as a grassroots registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Central Florida incubating the careers of writers and poets, inspiring creativity, and building a literary community that honors the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s legacy.
This is done through the Writers-In-Residence program run in the historic Kerouac House in College Park, Florida, (a suburb of Orlando). Four writers a year are chosen to each spend three months at the house free of charge to concentrate on their literary projects. As well, through quarterly literary readings and writing workshops held at the Kerouac House, we seek to expose audiences to the craft of writing and the joy of storytelling. We are a volunteer-run organization that works hard to connect with and encourage writers locally, nationally and internationally.
WE BELIEVE THAT:
- It’s important to maintain Jack Kerouac’s legacy in our community.
- Writers, poets, playwrights, and other artists enhance and add value to our community.
- Creative expression should be nurtured, inspired and supported.
- Providing a safe haven and creating a comfortable space to enrich the work of writers is central to our mission.
- Providing a platform where all writers, regardless of race or creed, can come together to share, grow and be encouraged furthers artistic development and enriches the local community.
For twenty years, members of the Kerouac Project have worked hard to achieve the goals set out at the organization’s founding. Today the Kerouac House is preserved as an historic place on the National Register of Historic Places. the home is well maintained and houses a thriving, internationally renowned writers-in-residence program.
It was part of the lore of College Park, a cozy northwest Orlando neighborhood, that Jack Kerouac lived in the area for a short time in 1957–58 when his classic work On The Road was published to much acclaim. It was also the place where he typed the original manuscript of his sequel, Dharma Bums. Few people knew exactly where in College Park he lived, and nobody seemed to be aware of the historical significance of such a place. In fact, none of Kerouac’s biographers had even mentioned the house.
In 1996, when Bob Kealing, a reporter with the Orlando area NBC television affiliate and a freelance writer, learned Jack Kerouac had lived in the area he began investigating. He eventually learned from John Sampas, Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law and executor of his estate, that the circa 1920 cottage was located at 1418½ Clouser Avenue, College Park. Kerouac and his mother had shared a two-room apartment at the back of the house from July 1957 until spring 1958. Bob Kealing soon discovered the cottage was still standing, but in a state of disrepair.
Kealing wrote a four-thousand-word article on his discovery of the cottage for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper in March 1997. After reading the article, local College Park bookshop owners and entrepreneurs, Marty and Jan Cummins, contacted Bob with the idea of establishing a nonprofit corporation that would buy the cottage, refurbish it, and establish it as a haven for up-and-coming writers and a unique tribute to the literary legacy of Jack Kerouac in Central Florida.
A group of local people banded together around the idea, the Kerouac Project of Orlando was born, and the hard work began. Much of this work was carried out by Marty and Jan Cummins who gave themselves tirelessly to establishing a solid business organization, managing day-to-day operations, and raising funds for the fledgling nonprofit.
The first and most important order of business was to purchase the historic cottage before it was demolished. Local residents Grace and Fred Hagedorn, Summer Rodman, and Gale Petronis donated $10,000 for a down payment, and several weeks of tense negotiations began. With the help of local realtor Kathy Lightcap, the Kerouac Project succeeded in getting the cottage under contract to buy.
To close the deal on the property, $100,000 was needed—money the Kerouac Project did not have. But that changed when USA Today ran a brief article about the undertaking to buy and preserve the house in Orlando. Jeffrey Cole, Chairman and President of Cole National, read the article while flying from New York to Cleveland on business. He was a fan of Jack Kerouac and On The Road in his youth as an undergraduate at Harvard and an editor of the “Harvard Lampoon”. After reading the article, Jeffery called Marty Cummins to ask what he could do to help. Jeffrey Cole generously agreed to provide the balance of the money needed to purchase the cottage.
After some restoration and maintenance, the first writer-in-residence moved into the house for her three-month residency in the fall of 2000. Each writer is provided free lodging in the cottage, along with a food stipend so he or she can concentrate fully on their work. To date over 65 writers-in-residence from the United States and a number of other countries have spent time at the Kerouac House working on their projects.
In 2013, the Kerouac House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since its founding, further grants from various organizations and individual donors have allowed the Kerouac Project to continue maintaining and restoring the house and pay off all debt. As well, the Kerouac Project owns an adjoining house, which is used as a rental property to provide ongoing income.
From its inception twenty years ago, the Jack Kerouac Writers In Residence Project of Orlando, Inc. has been overseen and administered by a board of directors comprising of local people dedicated to seeing the mission and vision of the organization develop and move forward. The current fifteen-member board of directors is comprised of people involved in a number of local literary initiatives throughout Central Florida. Click for more information on the current board of directors.
Over the years, the work of the Kerouac Project has been reported on by USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, CNN, Orlando Sentinel, National Public Radio, Writer magazine and other media outlets from around the world. As well, a number of visitors have made their way to Orlando to visit the Kerouac House, among them the late actor and musician Steve Allen, David Amram, Jack Kerouac’s friend and musical collaborator, San Francisco’s poet laureate and owner of City Lights Bookshop, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, historian Douglas Brinkley, noted actor and author Michael York, and Carolyn Cassady, widow of Kerouac’s traveling partner Neal Cassady. And regular fans of Jack Kerouac and the Beats continue to visit the house. With this notoriety has come an ever-increasing number of writers applying to be one of the four writers-in-residence chosen each year.
During the summer of 1956, author Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) spends 63 days as a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest in Whatcom County. Kerouac hopes to use the solitude to write, but he will be disappointed. His experiences in the Northwest and his journal entries will provide material for two novels: The Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960).
Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac is best known as Jack Kerouac and for his On The Road (1957), which in 1956 had yet to be published. Inspired by a mountain-climbing trip in the Sierras with friends, Kerouac thought that a summer as a fire lookout away from people, drugs, and alcohol might help his writing. He managed a seasonal appointment as a fire lookout at the Mount Baker National Forest in Whatcom County for $230 a month. He hitchhiked from the San Francisco Bay Area through Seattle to the ranger station in Marblemount.
In The Dharma Bums he describes the journey this way:
"And suddenly I saw the Northwest was a great deal more than the little vision I had of it of Japhy in my mind. It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange sash in the gloom over the Pacific-ward skies that led I knew toward the Hokkaido Siberian desolations of the world. I huddled against the bridgehouse hearing the Mark Twain talk of the skipper and the wheelman inside. In the deepened dusk fog ahead the big red neons saying: PORT OF SEATTLE. And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he'd said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging. The ferry nosed in at the pier on Alaskan Way and immediately I saw the totem poles in old stores and the ancient 1880-style switch goat with sleepy firemen chug chugging up and down the waterfront spur like a scene from my old dreams, the old Casey Jones locomotive of American, the only one I ever saw that old outside of Western movies, but actually working and hauling boxcars in the smoky gloom of the magic city.
"Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northeast horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp. The road ran right through the dreamy fertile valleys of the Stilaquamish [Stillaguamish] and the Skagit, rich butterfat valleys with farms and cows browsing under that tremendous background of snow-pure heaps. The further north I hitched the bigger the mountains got till I finally began to feel afraid. I got a ride from a fellow who looked like a bespectacled careful lawyer in a conservative car, but turned out that he was the famous Bat Lindstrom the hardtop racing champion and his conservative automobile had in it a souped-up motor that could make it go a hundred and seventy miles an hour .
"The fellows who picked me up were loggers, uranium prospectors, farmers, they drove me through the final big town of Skagit Valley, Sedro Woolley, a farming market town, and then out as the road got narrower and more curved among cliffs and the Skagit River, which we'd crossed on 99 as a dreaming belly river with meadows on both sides, was now a pure torrent of melted snow pouring narrow and fast between muddy snag shores. Cliffs began to appear on both sides. The snow-covered mountains themselves had disappeared, receded from my view, I couldn't see them any more but now I was beginning to feel them more" (The Dharma Bums, 222-223).
At Marblemout Kerouac received a week's training in fighting fires in June and started up the Skagit River with $45 worth of groceries (purchased on credit), to Diablo Dam, up the Seattle City Light incline lift, across Diablo Lake by boat, up to Ross Dam and Ross Lake, across Ross Lake by boat again, then by horseback with a ranger and a packer six miles up to Desolation Peak. His only contact with the outside world be through a two-way radio to the ranger station.
Kerouac found the reality of stunning panoramas, solitude, abstinence something less than the fantasy. Years later, a ranger who remembered Kerouac, complained that the writer would turn off the radio in order to write. But Kerouac apparently penned only one letter to his mother, some haiku poetry, and journal entries.
In September, Kerouac received a radio message that he was being recalled. He left the lookout the way he came up, hitchhiked to Seattle. He later wrote in Desolation Angels in his runon sentence style:
"The Seattle of ships -- ramps -- docks -- totem poles -- old locomotives switching on the waterfront -- steam, smoke -- Skid Row, bars -- Indians -- the Seattle of my boyhood vision I see there in the rusted old junkyard with old non color fence leaning in a general maze.
"I tell the busdriver to let me off downtown, I jump off and go klomping past City Halls and pigeons down to the general direction of the water where I know I'll find a good clean Skid Row room with bed and hot bath down the hall --
"I go all the way down to First Avenue and turn left, leaving the shoppers and the Seattleites behind, and lo! Here's all humanity hep and weird wandering on the evening sidewalk amazing me outta my eyeballs -- Indian girls in slacks, with Indian boys with Tony Curtis haircuts -- twisted -- arm in arm -- families of old Okie fame just parked their car in the lot, going down to the market for bread and meat -- Drunks -- The doors of bars I fly by incredible with crowded and waiting humanity, fingering drinks and looking up at the Johnny Saxton-Carmen Basilion fight on TV .
"Hotel Stevens is an old clean hotel, you look in the big windows and see a clean tile floor and spittoons and old leather chairs and a clock talking and a silver-rimmed clerk in the cage -- $1.75 for one night, steep for Skid Row, but no bed bugs, that's important -- I buy my room and go up in the elevator with the gent, second floor, and get my room -- Throw my pack in the rocking chair, lay on the bed -- soft bed, clean sheets, reprieve and retreat till 1 p.m. checkout time tomorrow --
"A drinking and eating place is still showing the fight but also what attracts me (on the rosy blue neon-coming-on street) is a fellow in a vest carefully chalking out the day's baseball scores on a huge scoreboard, like old days -- I stand there watching" (Desolation Angels, 101-103).
Desolation lookout (left) and Hozomeen Peak (right)
Courtesy US National Park Service
Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac (1965)
Jack Kerouac, Naval Reserve Enlistment photograph, 1943
Courtesy US National Archives
Ellis Amburn, Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 239, 246-253 Michael J. Dittman, Jack Kerouac: A Biography, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 69 Ann Charter, Kerouac: A Biography, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), 266-278 Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: The Viking Press,  1973), 216-244 Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels (New York: Perigree Books, 1960), 101-103.
Jack Kerouac - History
On The Road: Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation's Style
Take someone from 70 years ago, drop them on a city street today. Would their style fit in seamlessly with those surrounding them on the sidewalk? Styles change. The best dressed style icons of almost any era—no matter how respected—wouldn’t fit in to our particular moment without raising eyebrows. However, a small few manage to weather the twists and turns of style history, crafting a personal style that manages to remain relevant across time. For someone like Jack Kerouac, his scrappy mid-’50s style manages to resonate all the way into 2018.
Esquire has called Kerouac’s fashion “casually elegant.” GQ referred to the man as the “originator of blue collar cool” and claimed he was one of the first “rejecting the notion that class was synonymous with value.” The Beats presaged the “urban rustic” moment that would happen early in the 21st century that resulted in the resurgence of numerous American legacy brands by melding the high with the low. Kerouac was one of the first cultural icons to master this balance with brooding grace.
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Neal Cassaday (left) and Jack Kerouac. A letter from Cassady to Kerouac would go on to inspire "On the Road"
Kerouac was pulled in two different aesthetic directions. He was drawn to the self-consciously bohemian look of the Beats, characterized by dark colors, stripes and an effortless cigarette smoke tinged cool. He was equally swayed by the rugged look of Americana. It was the style of the lumberjack, the farmer, the factory worker, the painter and the military man that moved him. He combined these working class looks with the bohemian flavor of the beatniks to create what writers in the years after would call “anti-fashion” today we would likely chalk this look up as “street style.” While Ginsberg was known to sport a thrift store blazer and a second-hand tie, Kerouac looked every bit the part of the Americana wanderer. Together, they helped create a defining look in American counterculture. More specifically, Kerouac’s style was at once a homage to, and identification with, the American working class.
The tension that was present in Kerouac’s wardrobe—a balance between the cosmopolitan life of the writer and the workaday look of an everyman wanderer—is equally present in his work. His best known work, On the Road endures as one of the great American road trip novels and continues to inspire restless teenagers today. In the book, Kerouac at once celebrates and critiques American life. He writes with admiration of the endless and endlessly varied American landscape, but he offers his sexual, social and spiritual critiques of the American way of life. Kerouac had a primal desire for the open road and he had that inexplicable bohemian desire to write about it. It is this fundamental contradiction, between the high-born world of the literary and the down-and-out world of the everyman, that would come to define his career. This was a tension that would dominate his work, his style and his life. Some say it is what drove him to an early death.
When we talk about Kerouac’s style, we are talking about what he was wearing when he found himself associated with the burgeoning Beat movement. This stretches through the period when he published On the Road in his mid-30s. Woolrich-style work shirts. Thick flannels. Bomber jackets. Work boots. Plain white T-shirts. It’s a style that wouldn’t be out of touch today in America’s hipper neighborhoods. The American legacy brands that are enjoying renewed interest like Carhartt, Dickies, Wolverine and Woolrich would have been the kinds of clothes Kerouac would pick out at local Army/Navy stores and leave rumpled in his closet. It is tempting to call this style timeless, but you have to note that before Kerouac, the style didn’t really exist. The style is timeless in part because of what he contributed to America’s menswear imagination.
Kerouac’s style has been called a “gesture of working class solidarity.” But if you come from a place like Lowell, Massachusetts, a “down-and-out burg where unemployment and heavy drinking prevailed,” like Kerouac, you know that it goes beyond an an aesthetic—it’s embedded from birth. Wearing the clothes of the working class isn’t a mere gesture if you’re from a working class community. It’s more than likely unintentional, but the effect squares the blue-collar vision of masculinity with the more cosmopolitan and fluid vision of manhood that comes from reading books, attending university, and finding yourself in the big city. Whether it was bowling shirts or bomber jackets, Navy-issue pea coats or painter’s coveralls, the melding of the fashion of the everyman with the aristocratic sensibilities of the artistic class signaled a new artistic moment in post-war America Kerouac was at the center of it. This fascination with Americana was a signal that the time had come for new subjects, new perspectives and new journeys.
In his ode to Kerouac’s style at Mr Porter, fashion historian G. Bruce Boyer offered this assessment of the particular fashion revolution of the Beat’s cultural moment:
>>>“‘Hip’ was the youthful point of view that emerged after WWII, as a counterweight to both the fear and conformity of a bleak past and a dubious future. Prole clothes and a laid-back demeanor formed its aesthetic correlative. The angry young rebels in the 1950s were the precursors of the new way fashion would work: not from the top of the social ladder down, but from the bottom up. Street clothes and work clothes—the gear of cowboys and ex-GIs, industrial laborers, the zoot suits of the jazz musicians that Mr Kerouac adored, and farm hands—would enter the realm of style. It was the style of the Underclass Hero, the Prole Rebel.”
It should come as no surprise that the denizens of Bushwick and Silver Lake still dress like a young Jack Kerouac they are confronting the same tensions that he once did. America has changed in many ways since the 1950s, but young men still flock to big cities from small towns in Ohio, Montana, and Oklahoma with dreams of making their way as artists. At once, they want to leave their hometown behind and yet they spend their days meditating on their childhood in hopes of distilling their experience into the great American novel, or screenplay, or album or, hell, a blog post. At once they detest America—a familiar feeling in the Trump era regardless of your politics—and they see so much in it worth fighting for, worth saving.
This trend of young intellectuals taking inspiration from the working class has been derided as cosplay by some and analyzed as “self-conscious drag” by others, but that seems unfair. Yes, the image of the trust fund kid with a closet full of work boots was lampooned then and is still widely mocked today. But, that isn’t who Kerouac was. The contradictions between the romanticized writer’s life and the expectations of his working class background would haunt the writer until his death. Accounts of his final days tell a story of a man wrestling with his perceived shortcomings. Apparently, the acclaimed writer was still beating himself up for being dismissed from the Merchant Marine right up to his death. By a number of reports, he also succumbed to the bigotry and alcohol dependency that are stereotypical of a white working class background towards the end of his life. If that was cosplay, the miserable circumstances of his death were great lengths to take such a role.
Jack Kerouac reading at the Seven Arts Cafe in New York in 1959
Dressing in Americana (or, what we’d more broadly refer to as ‘workwear’) was as much a form of rebellion then as it is today. By embracing the clothes worn in ‘the rest of America,’ an artist class—particularly in New York City—is rebelling against Madison Avenue and Wall Street. Clothes like Kerouac’s prefigured the hippie movement in that they said to upper-crust observer: “I would rather live in the woods, work in a factory, toil on the farm, or not have a job at all than don the cookie cutter grey suits of Eastern seaboard suburbia.”
This sense of rebellion is perhaps best exemplified in Kerouac’s tendency to wear military issue and surplus clothing. Legendarily, he joined the US Merchant Marine, only to be discharged two weeks later. He left the service, but stuck with the style. A horsehide bomber jacket, Army issue trousers, engineer boots and other military surplus items would become staple of his personal look. Kerouac wasn’t the only one to incorporate the military look into his street style: The glut of military apparel being sold second-hand after World War II would become a symbol of the psychological battle of the itinerant wanderer. The clothes given to someone like Kerouac—provided for free to a serviceman, regardless of his tenure—would transform from a symbol of control, stability and literal uniformity into a metaphor for Kerouac’s own inability to fall in with the order and flow of modern society. When the Vietnam War endowed military surplus gear with a sense of national disenchantment, this (un)trend once worn by Kerouac would become a staple of American counterculture.
Laura Havlin at AnOther magazine argues that Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg gave birth to the first “anti-fashion” trend. What Havlin and others mean by ‘anti-fashion’ is at the heart of what we would call ‘street style’ today. In Kerouac’s style, there is a sense that the fashion is created from the streets up, rather than from the runway down. In that desire for a ‘bottom-up fashion construct,’ is a respect for struggle. Authenticity has value and you want nothing more than get rid of the gloss. As saturated as these styles have become, streetwear and Americana labels are really only successful if they can certify and maintain their authenticity.
The same desires that led this generation to begin the American fascination with thrift shopping and second-hand stores defined this first major wave of American counterculture. In a 1952 New York Times article on the Beats, John Clellon Holmes wrote, “Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective…[Beat] implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately, of soul.”
To call Jack Kerouac the father of street (or, perhaps ‘street-level’) style would go too far. There are too many style luminaries with a more conscious connection to the fashion world that have arrived since the Beat generation first started shaping American counterculture. What is fair to say is that Kerouac helped inject class consciousness to American style. He understood that when it comes to fashion, and all art, the tension between high and low, urban and rural, upper class and working class is an essential and timeless component to American life. A style that confronts these contradictions will always be more interesting than one that tries to hide from it. And in the way he dressed, as in the way many who were inspired by him would dress, he sought to illustrate exactly what side he was on.
The origins of the word “beat” in this context are murky. Thinking on the aformentioned New York Times piece, Holmes was elaborating on the words of Kerouac himself, who then was a little known writer, having just released an early, neglected novel. Fittingly, it had proclaimed, “You know, this is really a beat generation.”
William S. Burroughs (left) and Jack Kerouac in Allen Ginsberg's Manhattan Apartment in 1953. Annotation by Allen Ginsberg
Hit the Road, Jack!
Jack Kerouac—American counterculture hero, king of the Beats, and author of On the Road—was a Navy military recruit who failed boot camp.
Navy doctors found Kerouac delusional, grandiose, and promiscuous, and questioned his strange writing obsession.
I learned this in 2005, right before the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis announced the opening of more than 3,000 military personnel files—including those of some famous folks.
Working in public affairs at the National Archives is a challenge. We’re always trying to make what’s old seem new. Just yesterday someone asked, “What’s new at the National Archives?” I responded “Absolutely nothing, but I can tell you some neat new things about what’s old.”
The St. Louis records release gave us a chance to share some unknown gems about some very well-known people including Elvis, Clark Cable, and Jackie Robinson. Our colleagues in St. Louis sent us files to see what might interest the media, but most of the material didn’t qualify as newsworthy. It’s vision and dental records, physical exam notes, letters of recommendation, or names and addresses of next of kin.
Then, I found Jack Kerouac’s file. Thicker than the rest, it details his 10 days in basic training—and 67 under psychiatric evaluation. This, I thought, is NEWS! This is EXCITING! I started making calls, convinced this was a story no reporter could refuse! I contacted reporters at People, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. Not a single bite. But I kept the file at my desk. And periodically, I would mention it to reporters covering other Archives-related stories: “Have I got a file for you!” Still no interest.
I guess it’s not so shocking that the military and Kerouac were a colossal mismatch. What is surprising is how the government detailed this incongruity in over 150 pages. Kerouac hated being “disciplined to death” and forbidden to smoke at breakfast. He despised the work details “where they get you to wash their own garbage pans, as if they couldn’t hire shits to do that.” Or, as Kerouac later summarized in a semi-autobiographic novel: “I was just about the least military guy you ever saw and shoulda been shot against a Cuban wall.”
Six years passed before I decided that I would write about Kerouac’s military debacle. For a news “hook,” I used the 60th anniversary of the writing of On the Road. Although it was published in 1957, Kerouac created his legendary 120-foot scroll in April 1951.
I wasn’t sure if our highly respected historical quarterly Prologue would accept a story on a file full of profanity, insanity, and sexuality. To my surprise, it was accepted. The article is featured in the current issue that celebrates the opening of the new National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
Finally, I got to tell the story. Read “Hit the Road, Jack!” for all the details:
- Find out why he was “wasting my money and my health” at Columbia University and why he viewed it as “one huge debauchery”
- Read his letters of recommendation and find out which teacher praised his “good breeding”
- Learn about his first sexual experience and his official psychological diagnosis and
- Learn his IQ and the career goal that was squashed due to his scoring just 23% on the mechanical aptitude test.
All this and more—from a 69-year-old military file housed in an acid-free box in a humidity-controlled storage area at a records facility in the Midwest.
On the Road Again
Sept. 5, 2007, marks the 50 th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the novel by Jack Kerouac that gave voice to his generation’s postwar experiences. With its energetic portrayal of the thrills and confusions of being young in the early years of the Cold War, it also helped usher in the “Beatnik” movement and many of the radical changes in American culture that took place in the 1960s. As you might expect, then, the mythology that surrounds Kerouac and the novel is as obscuring as it is fascinating. On the occasion of On the Road’s anniversary, Slate spoke to a handful of people who knew Kerouac during this time and shortly afterward, and to scholars who understood firsthand the world he came from.
Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters and Kerouac’s girlfriend from 1957-58:
First of all, On the Road is an American classic. It’s a marvelous book. Jack’s achievement in developing a voice is really something that people should appreciate. That voice is so alive. That’s what was so compelling about it: In the 1950s people had all these feelings bottled up, intense frustrations with the culture. When Jack published On the Road and also when Allen Ginsberg published Howl, it was like taking the cork out of a bottle. The audience had been waiting for someone to say these things. I think that’s why the whole thing caught on so quickly.
I met Jack when I was 21. I had met Allen Ginsberg through the Columbia scene when I was going to Barnard he knew my friend Elise Cowen. Allen had just come back from San Francisco, in the fall of ‘56, and was staying with my friend Elise and with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Jack had come back from San Francisco too. In January, Allen decided to arrange a blind date between me and Jack—not for any romantic reasons, but because I was that rare thing: a girl with her own apartment. I was at Elise’s apartment one night when the phone rang, and it was Jack calling from 18 th Street, and he said he was at Howard Johnson’s and did I want to meet him. I would recognize him because he was wearing a red-and-black-checked shirt. I was excited because I had just read The Town and the City and was struggling to leave home, and it seemed to me TheTown and the City was very much about that struggle.
He seemed immediately larger than life. He just didn’t look like anyone in New York. He had a ruddy complexion and jet-black hair. He looked like he had just walked in from the woods. He was surprisingly diffident at first, but as we started talking he found out that I also was a writer, and began to tell stories I told him I liked Henry James, and he didn’t approve at all. As he often was, Jack was dead broke the night I met him he was down to his last five bucks. He said that he’d heard I had an apartment near Columbia and said, I love the neighborhood, and suggested we go up there. I said, if you wish. And I remember we walked to the subway where TWA had put up a sign with its new slogan, Fly Now Pay Later. And Jack pointed to the sign and said that would be a good title for my novel.
Sterling Lord, Jack Kerouac’s agent and chairman of Sterling Lord Literistic Inc:
I was only two years older than Jack. We met in 1951. We came from vastly different backgrounds but even before I had sold anything for him, I knew the relationship would work. There was a great deal of mutual respect. We didn’t spend that much time together, but it was always interesting to be with him. He was a sensitive man, serious about his writing, which he had been doing since the age of 11 but with a delightful subtle sense of humor showing through.
He used to enjoy talking about well-known writers of 100 years ago—the classics. He would, when he had the chance, talk and listen to my wife, Cindy, a well-read Radcliffe graduate, who was interested in many of the same old masters.
Jack also painted, and quite well. He did a strong, striking portrait of Cardinal Montini which I liked very much when I saw it in his home. He promptly responded by lending it to us for an indeterminate length of time. It was about 3 to 3½ feet tall. We hung it in a prominent spot in our living room. The cardinal did not pose for Jack. He drew his inspiration and model from a photograph in Life magazine.
There were many sides to Jack. After we had sold On the Road to Gallimard, the prestigious French publisher, Claude Gallimard, head of the publishing house, came to New York City and took Jack and his mother to lunch. Jack’s French, of course, came out of Canada, and he spent most of the lunch telling the celebrated publisher that he was the one that didn’t speak correct French. I have always been sorry I wasn’t there.
Carolyn Cassady, artist, author of Off the Road, former wife of Neal Cassady, and basis for Camille in On the Road:
Jack was handsome. You always notice the looks—or I do, being a portrait painter. In On the Road, he said Bill Tomson picked me up in a bar and took me to a hotel, but that wasn’t true. I had never been in a bar alone. Neal brought Jack Kerouac to my residence hotel to meet me. Then of course we felt the romantic connection, but as he said, Neal saw you first. It took a while for us to get together we both believed in monogamy—at the time.
I didn’t read On the Road for years, because I didn’t want to know what had happened on that trip. My first impression of it was that Jack was unusual in that great celebration of all kinds of life. Whether it was rivers or mountains and Indian names or hobos. He was so unjudgmental and so thrilled by everything that was alive. The glorification of nature—I thought it was pretty rare. Our generation was reacting to the horrors of World War II. So what they were really trying to do, both of them, in their living and reading about things, was to find out, Why are we all here? What is life all about? They were looking for “it.” There were an awful lot of people concerned about that. That was their big quest, all of ours, really. Then the hippies came along. They thought Jack gave them freedom to turn the world into chaos. They thought he was giving them carte blanche to be selfish. That’s why he vowed to drink himself to death.
No one seems to realize how conventional we all were—we all came from such Victorian houses. Jack was the kid of immigrants. He and Neal were perfect gentlemen. They respected women. Old-fashioned values were part of their consciousness. Jack himself is often misunderstood. People seemed to think that he was a serious poet in some of his photos he looks like one. But really he was a hunk, a football star, and a klutz. He was always making faces and using funny voices. He was paranoid, at times, but otherwise, he was a cutup. I never did see him looking all that serious, though he was down in the dumps a lot. He was so self-conscious, and terribly shy. That was of course one thing he admired about Neal—Neal was so swift and graceful. Opposites attract. Jack was the observer, Neal the actor. Of course, it all comes out very energetically when he wrote, because that was how he felt in person he couldn’t behave that way. But you felt his compassion and his kindness
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and co-founder of City Lights Books:
I really didn’t know Kerouac very well. I was with him in Big Sur a couple days when he borrowed my cabin to dry out, when he wrote the novel Big Sur. But otherwise I never really hung out with him, except at the bookstore. We did a couple of his books of poetry, and Book of Dreams. But with minimal correspondence.
The road doesn’t exist anymore in America there is this huge nostalgia for it. That’s one of the reasons On the Road is more popular than ever. Kerouac is writing about an America that no longer exists and a spirit of America that no longer exists. A spirit of the open road that was a part of American literature—in Whitman, Jack London, Ginsberg, and others. The America of On the Road was almost a pre-World War II America. It was not so different from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. That was one book that Kerouac and I really got together on. The hero of Look Homeward, Angel is Eugene Gant there are some marvelous passages of him riding across America, across a darkening landscape, and seeing America from the window of a train. It’s more or less the same vision Kerouac had of America, but Kerouac saw it from a speeding car. By about the time Kerouac died, all that existed of it were dusty old Greyhound terminals in the outback somewhere.
Of course, there are other great qualities to On the Road. The narrative is wonderful. He lost that later. If you compare Big Sur with On the Road, it’s lost all its joie de vivre, its rush forward, its joy of life, its gusto. It’s all gone. When he wrote Big Sur he was older and tired.
Charlie Peters, founding editor, the Washington Monthly:
It was Allen Ginsberg who introduced me to Jack Kerouac. And it was through Allen’s eyes that I saw Jack. Allen, in addition to being a fine poet and a good friend, was also a gifted practitioner of the art of public relations. He more than anyone created the early celebrity of the beats through his fascinating descriptions of his fellows in the movement. When I first met Herbert Huncke, for example, he was a petty thief. But Allen endowed him with qualities irresistible to the literary world, giving Herbert the chance to display the talent that would earn him a three-column obituary in the New York Times.
Allen told me that Jack was a modern version of Huck Finn, a model of the natural man, totally free of hang-ups. And of course to Allen at the time, natural meant bisexual.
Once when I was attending a party at Jack’s apartment, he took me into his bedroom, saying he had some pictures to show me. They displayed Arab boys in various states of sexual abandon and were obviously intended to stir certain feelings on my part. I was not aroused but I didn’t want to offend Jack. Not only did I really like him but I had just read The Town and the City and respected his promise as a writer.
So I tried to change the subject asking about the identity of a pretty girl I had noticed in the front room. Instead of showing irritation, Jack smiled and said, “She’s from Mount Airy, North Carolina, and works for United Press. I’ll introduce you.”
In other words, Jack was just plain nice—the classic good guy you want to have as a pal. I later learned of the torment that lurked under the surface, but I never saw it. And one point he made stuck in my mind and had a great influence on my life. It was, “Keep your overhead low.” I know of no surer key to living the life you want to live instead of a life dictated by circumstance.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The other bond I had with Kerouac was that we both spoke French with our mothers. His mother was French-Canadian. And I lived in France and spoke French before I spoke English. Before he wrote the end of Big Sur we were sitting on the beach on BS and he always kept a little breast pocket notebook, a small wirebound one, and he said to me, “What does the sea say?” And I said, “Les poissons de la mer parle Breton.” “What was that?” he said. “The fish of the sea speak Breton.” And that became the poem at the end of that book.
On the Road is not a conventional novel. It’s why they’re having such a hard time making a film of it. About four different script writers [Francis Ford] Coppola paid have been rejected because they are trying to make a film with a plot. It doesn’t have a plot. It was a road novel—a picaresque, like Don Quixote. He just took off. He couldn’t write like that later. But he was a good writer. He knew how to put forth his personality without revealing too much. In Dharma Bums there is a passage in which he describes a party in Mill Valley, Calif., in great detail and makes a satire of Kenneth Rexroth, whose name in the book is the French for “Peanut.” Kerouac was at that party, but he was on the floor, and everyone thought he was passed out. Then later he reproduced everyone’s conversations in the book.
Carolyn Cassady: Most people don’t realize how much fiction there is in On the Road. I just finished reading the scroll [Kerouac’s original manuscript]. My gosh, Neal [Cassady, the basis for Dean Moriarty’s character] comes out as just a complete nutcase, with hardly anything to commend him.
But Dean Moriarty is quite different from Neal Cassady. It’s just one side of him. What was so remarkable about Neal was his photographic memory and his knowledge. He had read more than Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and he could remember every word he’d ever read. Jack is credited with having the great memory, but he had to write things down to remember them. Nobody seems interested in Neal’s mind everyone is interested in his sexuality and sensationalism. That’s why I tried in my book [Off the Road] to convey how passionate he was about learning.
Paul Marion, author of the poetry collection What Is the City? and editor of Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac:
I didn’t hear about Jack Kerouac until his death was reported on Page One of the Lowell Sun in October 1969. I was a high-school sophomore and soon learned that my mother had grown up near the Kerouacs and that my father had gone to the same Catholic school. He was from our French Canadian-American tribe in St. Louis de France parish—and reminded me of my Uncle Pinky, my mother’s brother who had blown out of the old mill town to work at a California racetrack.
Kerouac’s road begins in Lowell, Mass. Like the rushing water at Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River, which drove 19 th -century mill turbines, the city’s multi-ethnic Americana culture spun Kerouac’s mind-wheels. At 18 he wrote: “You realize that a man can take a train and never reach his destination, that a man has no destination at the end of the road, but that he merely has a starting point on the road—which is Home.” He made Lowell an international literary capital. Say “Lowell” to someone in Chicago or Moscow or Rome, and don’t be surprised to hear the reply “Kerouac.”
In Lowell, Kerouac absorbed the influences that shaped his life and art: family stories, polyglot neighborhood talk, movies, comic strips, vaudeville, sports, radio dramas, Great Books from the public library, newspapers, and even printer’s ink. Of his printer-father, he said, “I spent most of my time after school in my father’s printing shop and editorial offices, dashing off publications of my own on the antique typewriter. …” His massive writing project was to tell his story and that of his generation, to say what it was like to be alive in America in the middle of the 20 th century.
Carolyn Cassady: The thing that disgusts me is that everybody wants a piece of it. They’re publishing Kerouac’s doodles as though they were great art, they’re publishing his poems as if it were great poetry. That’s all trash. But they’re just making money off of it. Me too! I wrote a memoir. But then, I was there a long time ago, and I also think people need to know. Poor Jack. He told me and others he intended to drink himself to death. Near the end, he was so coarse and crude and vulgar—it just made you weep for what he had been. What he could have been. Both of those men, Neal and Jack, could have been so much greater. And then I wouldn’t be sitting here alone!
Joyce Johnson: Jack once said a devastating thing about himself: He had to feel ecstasy all the time, or there was nothing for him. And he could feel ecstasy through drugs, sex, or writing. But of course no one can live on that level all the time. Between the periods of ecstasy were valleys of despair. My own feeling, from reading his letters very closely, is that after he had this breakthrough writing On the Road in breakneck speed in three weeks, he really exhausted himself the next six years by blasting out books in intense, short periods, and in between he would crash. By the time I met him, he was very fragile.
He also had mixed feelings about On the Road he must have had. He felt that the original manuscript had been compromised by all the editing. Viking was terrified of libel and obscenity it was a hard time to publish a book like On the Road. They really went to work on the manuscript, and also on Jack’s voice, particularly an in-house editor named Helen Taylor. When On the Road was finally sent to Jack as a bound book, he had never seen a lot of the changes that had been made. It was a denial of his basic author’s rights. Viking didn’t treat him with respect. They weren’t going to stand by him for the long haul. In fact, they rejected three other books he’d written in the intervening years, books he really felt were greater than On the Road. It’s a shame that some of the other books aren’t well-known. The best of that late work is Big Sur.
Because of the whole spontaneous writing thing, he’s been given little credit as a conscious artist. But there was a rigorous aesthetic in place. Visions of Cody is a more difficult book in terms of form. But it’s wonderful. He brought to writing a tremendous musical ear, a sense of sound. He was really a poet in his approach to writing—sound, rhythm, beat, all that was tremendously important to him. I’m hoping that people can look past the mass media image of the beat lifestyle, or the beatnik lifestyle, and begin to realize what a truly conscious, extremely hardworking artist Jack really was.
Sterling Lord: The publication of On the Road changed Jack, superficially. Now he had to deal with another demon—public reaction, celebrity, notoriety. But in those few, rare quiet moments—and they were rare—you could perceive the real Jack Kerouac, still.
His unfortunate decline
It’s hard to imagine Kerouac didn’t consider himself as a talented writer. He was often unhappy with the pace of his prose. But he soldiered on and kept writing, even long after the 1957 publication of his famous novel, On the Road.
But in 1969, Kerouac was broke, and many of his books were out of print. An alcoholic, he would often get into fights at bars. He was living with his third wife, Stella Kerouac, and his mother in St. Petersburg, Florida, when he died of internal hemorrhaging on October 21, 1969, while sitting in front of his television set.
But Kerouac’s legacy has persisted. Today, he is known for his “true-life” novels, and his quest for pure, unadulterated language. His prose was spontaneous. There will never be another voice like Jack Kerouac’s. No writer has even tried to compete against the literary legend.
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
Learn about the mysterious death of another famous literary figure, Edgar Allan Poe.
Read the biography of one of America’s most prolific authors, Ernest Hemingway.