In Dancing in the Dark, the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle, the eighteen-year-old author goes to northern Norway to teach for a year. He wants to write and among the books he takes with him is Jack Kerouac’s breakthrough 1957 novel On the Road. Knausgaard suggests that all the books he liked, including On the Road, were basically about the same topic: “young men who struggled to fit into society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They travelled, they got drunk, they read and they dreamed about their life’s Great Passion or writing the Great Novel.”
As a snapshot of On the Road this is accurate as far as it goes, and it also captures much about the mythology surrounding Kerouac himself, which has been dominated by the novel’s style as well as its content. The book recounts the trans-American travels of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, based on real journeys by Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady, and in its treatment of drug use, sexuality and race in the repressive climate of the United States after World War II, it expresses the countercultural ethos to which Knausgaard refers. The story is narrated in a speedy, jazzy rhythm according to Kerouac’s method of “spontaneous prose” and the crucial draft of the novel was famously typed in three weeks in 1951 on a single roll of teletype paper while its author drank strong coffee and took Benzedrine, a then over-the-counter amphetamine. “The only people that interest me,” Kerouac wrote, “are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
On the Road was an explosion in the formal and realist American literary landscape, but the novel was hugely successful almost by chance: the conservative, regular book reviewer at The New York Times was on leave and his more open-minded substitute, Gilbert Millstein, gave the book an extraordinarily positive review. Millstein had been interested in the so-called “Beat Generation” of emerging writers—a term Kerouac coined in the late 1940s after hearing a Times Square hustler declare himself “beat”—since John Clellon Holmes’s 1952 New York Times article, “This Is the Beat Generation”. Not all reviewers and critics were as kind about On the Road ‑ the Hudson Review, for example, suggested Kerouac wrote like “a slob running a temperature”, and to Encounter the novel was “a ‘series of Neanderthal grunts” ‑ but the book nonetheless made its author instantly famous at the age of thirty-five by establishing him as the so-called “King of the Beats”.
Kerouac’s first descriptions of “beat” included “furtive” and “weariness with all the conventions of the world”, and there was certainly an anti-establishment element to the idea, but from the beginning Kerouac also referred to connotations of “upbeat” and “beatific”. Other Beat Generation writers such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg were more comfortable than Kerouac with the terminology ‑ Kerouac was never conventional, but neither was he a political progressive or a bohemian in the classical sense. At any rate, the Beat literary movement came “at exactly the right time”, Burroughs wrote later, “and said something that millions of people all over the world were waiting to hear . . . The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.”
In addition to contributing to the pervasive mythology ‑ or caricature ‑ of its author as an anti-establishment icon, the huge success of On the Road has served to eclipse much of Kerouac’s other work. Eighteen of his books were published during his lifetime and most of them, including On the Road, belong to an autobiographical series the author called the “Legend of Duluoz” ‑ Kerouac’s novels were for the most part romans à clef and “Dulouz” was his favoured pseudonym for himself. The novels in the legend, however, were not written chronologically; and they were published in a different order from that in which they were written, which again was not chronological. Although he never got the opportunity, Kerouac planned to one day prepare all the novels for re-publication chronologically, with all original names, including his own, restored. In his 1962 novel Big Sur, he wrote that his autobiographical fiction “comprises one vast book like Proust’s [In Remembrance of Things Past] except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed”.
The success of On the Road brought Kerouac financial security and also the opportunity to publish in fairly quick succession several novels in the Duluoz Legend that had already been written ‑ The Subterraneans (1958), Doctor Sax (1959), Maggie Cassidy (1959), Tristessa (1960), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Several other Duluoz Legend books were written or completed after On the Road ‑ including The Dharma Bums (1958), Big Sur (1962), Desolation Angels (1965), Satori in Paris (1966), and Vanity of Duluoz (1968) ‑ but Kerouac’s success also brought a level of media and public attention with which he could not cope, and which contributed to a pattern of heavy drinking and ultimately his untimely death in October 1969 at the age of forty-seven. In his lifetime Kerouac never received the acclaim he deserved, and it is only with time that he has been appreciated not just as one of the (albeit reluctant) founders of the 1960s counterculture but also as one of the twentieth century’s bravest and most influential writers.
It all seemed an ironic fate for Jean-Louis Kérouac ‑ or “’Ti Jean” (for petit Jean), as he was known as a child ‑ given that his mother tongue was the French-Québecois dialect, joual, and that he began learning English only at the age of six and became completely fluent only as an adolescent. Kerouac was born on March 12th, 1922, in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian immigrant parents. His father, Leo Kérouac (actually Kéroack ‑ the family’s Breton name underwent frequent spelling transformations), was born into a farming community in Quebec; his parents migrated south to the United States, where Leo later worked as a printer. Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle Lévesque ‑ who was known throughout her adult life as “Mémêre” ‑ had also migrated from Quebec, and her mill worker father had prospered and owned a small tavern. Tragically, however, Mémêre had been orphaned as a girl of fourteen; she was working in a shoe shop when she met Leo, with whom she had three children.
Kerouac had an older sister, Caroline, and a brother, Gerard, the oldest child. The first book in the Duluoz Legend, chronologically, is Visions of Gerard, which documents Gerard’s death in 1926 at the age of nine from a rheumatic heart condition, when Jack was four. The book is quasi-hagiography ‑ Gerard is Jack’s “holy brother” with a heart “as big as the sacred heart of thorns and blood depicted in all the humble homes of French-Canadian Lowell” ‑ and it underlines the significance of Roman Catholicism in Kerouac’s life: “I’ll never malign that church that gave Gerard a blessed baptism, nor the hand that waved over his grave and officially dedicated it.” But Visions of Gerard is principally an account of severe childhood trauma and how a very close bond was forged between Kerouac and his parents during Gerard’s illness (the stress caused his mother’s teeth to fall out). After Gerard’s death, Jack was obliged to take on the role and responsibility of oldest (and only) son, and the tragedy instilled in him what Allen Ginsberg described as a “fascination” for life’s suffering ‑ the Kerouac family motto, Jack often said, was “Aimer, Travailler, et Souffrir” (Love, Work, and Suffer).
Overall there was a gloominess and sense of dislocation (the family moved home several times) about Kerouac’s Depression-era Lowell childhood, but some of its positive aspects are captured in his own favourite Duluoz Legend novel, Doctor Sax ‑ a surrealist montage of a highly imaginative child’s perceptions, dreams, fantasies and projections, including phantasmagorical imagery of a “Great World Snake” imagined to be residing near Lowell and a portrayal of the “Doctor Sax” character from The Shadow comic magazine (he is the narrator’s “ghost, personal angel, private shadow, secret lover”). When the family ran into hard times economically, Mémêre as well as Leo had to work outside the home in order to make ends meet. Jack grew to become a handsome high school athletics and football star, and his ingenuous and enthusiastic personality was nurtured by his love for literature, and during his senior year by his romance with his girlfriend, Mary Carney, recounted later in the novel, Maggie Cassidy.
Kerouac left Lowell for New York in 1939, at the age of seventeen, to study for a preparatory year at the elite Horace Mann school in the Bronx before taking up a football scholarship at Columbia University. Kerouac had difficulties fitting in at Horace Mann ‑ he always identified as proletarian ‑ and he felt the stress of his working parents’ expectations that he should eventually provide them with financial support. He pursued his literary studies intently ‑ Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Thoreau, Proust and Joyce were all significant early influences ‑ but ultimately, due to a combination of injury and conflict with the university football coach, Kerouac dropped out late in 1941. During 1942, after another short period at Columbia, Kerouac took the definitive decision to be a writer and he never played football again.
From the beginning Kerouac took himself very seriously as an artist, constantly logging his writing progress and filling notebooks and journals ‑ indeed William Burroughs remarked that Kerouac was “always primarily a writer and not a person. He felt that everything he was doing as a person he was pretending to do”. In Lonesome Traveler (1960), he declared himself a “a strange solitary Catholic mystic” who “always considered writing my duty on earth”. During the war years he worked in several jobs ‑ including time in the navy (before being discharged on psychiatric grounds) and the merchant navy ‑ while he pursued his writing ambitions. As a merchant seaman in 1943 he wrote a novel titled The Sea Is My Brother, with which he was never satisfied but which was published in 2011. His writing exacerbated tensions with his parents, who had moved from Lowell to Queens in New York ‑ they were disappointed with the failure of their son’s football career and saw no financial future for him in writing. (According to one of Kerouac’s biographers, Dennis McNally, when in high school Kerouac began to establish some independence from his parents by focusing on his writing as well as on football, his mother on one occasion snapped “You should have died, not Gerard.”)
The staid values and aspirations of Kerouac’s parents conflicted with his lifestyle, particularly from 1944 onwards. In that year, while staying in New York sporadically with his Columbia art student girlfriend, Edie Parker, Kerouac met Ginsberg and Burroughs through his friend Lucien Carr, later an editor at United Press International. In this social circle he lived a free-spirited life, with parties, creativity, drugs and sexual experimentation at its heart, and it was this period which inaugurated the double life that he was destined to lead. His bohemian lifestyle was contrary to his parents’ values, but their home (and later his mother’s home) continued to provide respite from his often frenetic and destructive “other life” ‑ and crucially this respite is what allowed him to write for sustained periods. It is difficult to imagine Kerouac having produced so many books if he had been confined to bohemian circles, but in fact he could always retreat from these. But there was a significant price to be paid for this double life, namely a divided psyche.
Events took a dramatic turn in New York not long after Kerouac met Ginsberg and Burroughs in 1944. A friend of Burroughs, David Kammerer, was in love with Lucien Carr and pursued him, ultimately quite forcefully one evening in New York, whereupon Carr killed Kammerer and pushed the weighted body into the Hudson. Carr served two years in prison for manslaughter, but in the immediate aftermath Burroughs and Kerouac had each briefly sheltered Carr and were arrested. Burroughs’s wealthy family bailed him out immediately, but Leo Kerouac was disgusted (“No Kerouac ever got involved in a murder!”) and refused to provide bail money for Jack. It was in order to secure bail money from her family that Kerouac married Edie Parker while in jail, a marriage that collapsed within months and was later annulled.
Although in 1945 Kerouac and Burroughs wrote a novel together based on Kammerer’s death (And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which was eventually published in 2008), Kerouac generally (but not always) avoided the opiates for which Burroughs had a particular predilection. In the aftermath of the break-up with Parker, however, Kerouac’s Benzedrine use became excessive, dangerously so when combined with his habitual heavy drinking. In December 1945 he was hospitalised for the first time with phlebitis, a lifelong affliction caused mainly by his drug use; during this first hospitalisation he began coming to terms with his need to find a distinct voice capable of addressing the particular existential tensions surrounding his double life.
In 1946 Kerouac’s father died of stomach cancer, but not before he made Jack promise he would always look after his mother, a pact that further enmeshed the remaining family members. In the years to come Kerouac helped his mother to move and set up new homes in several locations ‑ including Queens, Long Island, Berkeley, Cape Cod, Lowell and Florida ‑ and each move was to a new base for him as well as for her. Although he travelled constantly, and although he sometimes spent periods working in order to raise money (notably as a railway brakeman), he always gravitated ultimately to the relative calm of his mother’s home. There he could fulfil his promise to his father to care for his mother, and there he could also convert his notebooks and journals into books. Kerouac experienced the trauma of his brother Gerard’s death, and the parental bonding it entailed, prior to speaking English ‑ it is significant that the comfort of home that his mother provided was always in joual, the language they communicated in throughout their lives, so Jack’s obligations to his mother were reciprocated by a primordial, womb-like pull.
Joyce Johnson (then Joyce Glassman and working in the publishing business) was Kerouac’s lover at the watershed moment of On the Road’s success (from early 1957 to late 1958). She has written that Kerouac would never directly address the “convoluted nature of [his] attachment to his mother”, but that it “both sustained and suffocated him”. Mémêre had herself suffered great childhood trauma ‑ the loss of her parents ‑ and seemed to find refuge or security (and the possibility of regaining lost social status) only in a sense of control. In her relationship with Jack, for example, she barred some of his friends (Ginsberg and Burroughs in particular) from visiting him at home; he was not permitted to have women stay overnight or to have sexual relations at home; and she retained control, through their joint bank account, of her son’s finances. Kerouac was at times acutely aware of the absurdity of aspects of his relationship with his mother, but his loyalty to her, based on a feeling of indebtedness for her sacrifices as well as on his childhood trauma-bonding, was total.
The division in his own life between the conservative family values represented by his mother and sister and his own free-spirited urban lifestyle was the theme of Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, which he began writing after his father’s death and completed two years later, in 1948. The book was written in the realist literary style of Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), and told the story of Peter Martin and his brothers, partly modelled on the Greek family of a boyhood friend of Kerouac’s, Sebastien Sampas, a poet who had been killed in the war. In 1949, The Town and the City was accepted with a $1,000 advance and it was published in early 1950.
The Town and the City was Kerouac’s only realist novel; even before its publication he had developed his “beat” idea of “spontaneous prose”. This was the voice he had been seeking, an approach that tried to represent thought-as-experienced by writing to catch the inspirational flow and not second-guessing it (“first thought, best thought”). In developing this writing style Kerouac was influenced by the improvisational jazz and expressionistic art that was emerging at the time; by Proust and Joyce and by Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s semi-autobiographical associational novel, Journey to the End of the Night (1932), and by a series of letters that he received from a friend in the early part of 1951. That friend was Neal Cassady from Denver, who met Kerouac in New York and went on to inspire the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
Cassady had a problematic childhood and youth ‑ by the time he met Kerouac in 1946, at the age of only twenty-one, he had stolen over five hundred cars, been convicted six times and spent fifteen months in jail. Cassady also had a penchant for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as for sex and partying, and he was more authentically free-spirited ‑ full of the restless energy and vision that he expressed in his letters ‑ than most of the Beats. He and Kerouac bonded almost immediately and soon began the periods of travelling “on the road” that inspired the novel, a first draft of which ‑ about 30,000 words – he wrote in late 1948. Kerouac’s felt need for more life experiences to inspire his writing kept him on the road with Cassady, whose appetites were voracious: in Denver soon after they met, a married Cassady was conducting an affair with his mistress (Carolyn Robinson, later his second wife) and another affair with Allen Ginsberg. At one point in On the Road, a character points out to Sal (Kerouac) how self-centred Dean (Cassady) can be; Sal agrees but also defends him: “he’s got the secret that we’re all busting to find out”.
In 1950 Kerouac got married again, this time impulsively to Joan Haverty. Like his first marriage, this one was short-lived ‑ before it ended, however, he had produced the famous teletype-roll version of On the Road in twenty days, a total of about 175,000 words. This was the crucial 1951 draft; it was written to recount to Haverty the experience of travelling with Cassady, but contrary to popular mythology it was edited extensively before publication in 1957 (the publishers conflated some of the journeys in the draft and also inserted paragraph breaks and made other stylistic changes). When his second marriage ended Kerouac returned to live with his mother in Queens, but his periodic travels continued. Cassady had moved with his family to California and Kerouac often stayed and wrote at the Cassady family home; during this time Kerouac and Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s wife, began a relationship with Neal’s consent.
Carolyn Cassady and Kerouac remained friends until Kerouac’s death. She has written that he and Cassady were both burdened with a strong sense of unworthiness deriving from the Catholic guilt they shared, no matter how irrational they knew that to be. Catholic guilt often requires resolution through full disclosure and sincere condemnation of one’s perceived faults, and this indeed fits the characters in question. Ann Charters, who was Kerouac’s first biographer, claimed that his portrayals of Cassady were really Kerouac’s “dream image of himself”, especially in Visions of Cody, another novel he wrote about his travels with his friend: “I’m a fool, the new day rises on the world and on my foolish life . . . I stood on sandpiles with an open soul, I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss ‑ I am made of Cody, too ‑ ”
While Mémêre continued to work to support him, the early 1950s were Kerouac’s period of artistic breakthrough. Not only did he find and express clearly his strong, outsider voice, he did so prolifically. He wrote most of Doctor Sax, his Lowell boyhood memoir, on a closed toilet seat in a bathroom in Mexico City in just three weeks in 1952. The toilet was in the apartment building of William Burroughs, who was sensitive about the smell of Kerouac’s marijuana in case the police dropped by for further questioning in relation to the infamous “William Tell” incident, when Burroughs had accidentally shot dead his wife, Joan Vollmer (formerly a New York flatmate of Kerouac’s first wife, Edie Parker). Doctor Sax conveys something both essential and universal about childhood’s texture ‑ it includes the layers of detail drawn from memory that were becoming central to Kerouac’s style and that appear also in Maggie Cassidy, portraying his sporting schooldays and the rush of his adolescent love for Mary Carney: “She brooded and bit her rich lips: my soul began its first sink into her, deep, heady, lost; like drowning in a witches’ brew, Keltic, sorcerous, starlike.”
During the early 1950s Kerouac had to face up to new circumstances in his personal life. In February 1952, shortly after her marriage to Kerouac broke down, Joan Haverty gave birth to Janet Michelle (or “Jan”) Kerouac. Jack Kerouac initially denied paternity of Jan ‑ his fear was in part that such a responsibility would threaten his freedom to write ‑ but after a paternity test in 1962 he was obliged to provide financially for his daughter. Jan Kerouac, who later wrote two semi-autobiographical novels before dying prematurely in 1996, met her father on only two occasions.
In the summer of 1953, Kerouac had a relationship with Alene Lee, an African-American Greenwich Village bohemian, which formed the basis for his next novel, The Subterraneans. The novel was radical for dealing with interracial sexual relationships at a time of Jim Crow and offers wonderfully authentic accounts of early-relationship glow as well as the “monster of jealousy” (specifically concerning the attraction between Lee, called “Mardou Fox” in the novel, and the Beat poet Gregory Corso). The Subterraneans has a jazzy bebop sound and structure, a kind of constantly shifting improvisation that drives the narrative forward and seems to capture perfectly the lovers’ context, notwithstanding the fact that Kerouac set the novel in San Francisco rather than New York City, where the romance took place. Lee, Kerouac wrote, like his mother, was “an angel”, “one of the most enwomaned women I’ve seen, a brunette of eternity incomprehensibly beautiful and for always sad, profound, calm” ‑ but he was conscious of his “doubts” because of her race: his mother and sister, he wrote, “would be mortified to hell and have nothing to do with us”. Here the division in Kerouac’s psyche was clear: he knew intellectually that his family’s bigotry and racism was wrong, but his heart and soul were so enmeshed with his mother’s emotional need for his total loyalty that the bigotry and racism won out.
The final sentence of The Subterraneans ‑ “And I go home, having lost her love, and write this book” ‑ underscored Kerouac’s literary priorities, and while it had already been clear that his spontaneous style lent itself to speedy writing, The Subterraneans, written over just three October nights in 1953, more than confirmed this. When Ginsberg and Burroughs pressed Kerouac for some guidance for their own writing, he responded with two short sets of guidelines (“Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”) in which “sketching from memory” using “pure” language is the goal, and revision the great enemy.
Among the “assets” of the Beat Generation, according to John Holmes’s 1952 article, was “its ever-increasing conviction that the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem”. Kerouac was a religious seeker, and during the depressed aftermath of his affair with Lee he began to study Buddhism despite the ongoing ridicule of his mother and sister. Kerouac’s Buddhism was influenced by American Transcendentalists like Thoreau ‑ Walden Pond is not far from Lowell, and Kerouac often talked of retreating to a similarly simple, hermetic woodland existence ‑ and by the legacy of Gerard’s death, which had instilled in him a strong sense of life’s suffering, including deep compassion for the suffering of others. In Wake Up, written in early 1955 and published posthumously in 2008, Kerouac exhibits a strong grasp of the origins and central precepts of Buddhism when he methodically sets out the “concatenative links joining the fetters binding all that is form”; and he concludes the book with the declaration “The noble and superlative law of Buddha ought to receive the adoration of the world.”
In the mid-1950s Kerouac ‑ who all the while was trying to get On the Road published ‑ spent time in California with the Beat poet Gary Snyder. Their friendship formed the basis for The Dharma Bums, which emphasised the nature-spirituality nexus (“The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”) and influenced the spread of Buddhism in California and beyond. It also describes Ginsberg’s famous “Howl” reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. Published one year later, the title of Ginsberg’s poem was suggested by Kerouac, who later also came up with the title for Burroughs’s first novel, The Naked Lunch, published in 1959.
In 1956 Kerouac spent sixty-three days in solitude as a fire lookout in Washington state, a period that helped him write The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, his 1960 book of Buddhist sutras. His other book on Buddhism, Some of the Dharma, responds to various Buddhist texts and was published finally in 1997. In the mid-1950s Kerouac also wrote Desolation Angels, Visions of Gerard, Mexico City Blues, his impressive first full poetry collection, and Tristessa, a novel that tells the story of his attraction to Esperanza Villanueva, a morphine addict and prostitute that he knew in Mexico City ‑ some people, Kerouac wrote, “have vibrations that come straight from the vibrating heart of the sun, unjaded”. In Tristessa Kerouac refers to his accelerated stream-of-consciousness style as “popping and parenthesizing in every direction”, yet his moving portrayal of Villanueva’s suffering as universal as well as particular dictates a less frantic pace than in other work: “Gorgeous ripples of pear shape her skin to her cheekbones, and long sad eyelids, and Virgin Mary resignation, and peachy coffee complexion and eyes of astonishing mystery with nothing-but-earth-depth expressionless half disdain and half mournful lamentation of pain.”
Positive news regarding On the Road finally came in 1956 when Viking Press accepted the book for publication. Kerouac was unhappy with the edits to his original teletype scroll but this dissatisfaction decreased in significance after Millstein’s New York Times review transformed him overnight into a national “personality”. Fame found Kerouac vulnerable, and in turn it made him more vulnerable. Joyce Johnson has written that by the time she met him, early in 1957, Kerouac was “a man whose feelings were constantly shifting”; the stream of consciousness of all his writing ‑ all the remembering and frenetic revealing involved in Visions of Gerard, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, On the Road, Visions of Cody, The Subterraneans, Tristessa ‑ had all become a river in full flood; Kerouac had become, according to Johnson, what WB Yeats said of the modernist writers of his generation: “a man helpless before the contents of his own mind”. Kerouac habitually used alcohol to overcome his shyness ‑ he called alcohol his “liquid suit of armor” ‑ and he was thus totally unsuited to the mass exposure brought about by national radio and television appearances. He was unusually sensitive to criticism, and there was a definite link between the extremely bad reviews his work received and his problem drinking ‑ because his style was so radically original it constituted an easy critical target, but some reviews and responses, like John Updike’s 1959 New Yorker parody of On the Road, were quite nasty. For Kerouac, Dennis McNally suggests, “the terms of fame were impossible” ‑ its glare “consumed so much of his identity” that he needed the two “crutches” of alcohol and loyalty to Mémêre.
Kerouac was in a relationship with a painter, Dody Müller, during late 1958 and 1959. Müller described Mémêre as “despicable and obscene”, and Mémêre’s relationship with Jack as like that of lovers without the sex; when Jack and his mother argued, Dody said, “it was a lover’s quarrel”. Like her son, Mémêre was at this point a heavy drinker and concealed less the more unpleasant sides of her personality, including her antisemitism (one of the reasons Allen Ginsberg was banned from the house). Soon after the success of On the Road Kerouac moved with his mother to Northport on Long Island, a period characterised by uninvited guests and unwanted attention, a slowing-up of writing output and increasing degrees of alcohol consumption. Kerouac’s friend the poet Philip Whalen recounted how on one occasion he visited Northport only to find Kerouac and his mother both lying drunk and unconscious on the floor. Kerouac compiled Lonesome Traveler, a collection of his travel writings, as his drinking led to ever more serious bouts of depression.
Kerouac’s next novel, Big Sur, was published in 1962 and described the author’s breakdown in the summer of 1960. Aside from Kerouac, the main character in Big Sur is alcohol: the alcohol drunk first thing in the morning, the alcohol drunk instead of meals, the alcohol drunk because of being “driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers”. The novel pivots around a cabin near Big Sur in California that its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, allowed Jack to use. Kerouac acknowledged being “drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up” with all the media and public attention following On the Road, before finally realising he needed “to get away to solitude again or die”. In Big Sur we see how Kerouac appreciated the benefits of abstinence from alcohol; in fact, in this novel and elsewhere, he writes very well about sobriety, not just the distinctiveness of natural observation and perception, but also “the good source power in our own bones”.
The sober moments at the cabin, however, were few and far between, and Big Sur proceeds to describe how in a few weeks of meeting old friends and new people in and around San Francisco (none of which was in the original plan), Kerouac “lost control of the peace mechanisms of [his] mind”. The ghost of his brother, Gerard, features in the “signs” of disaster to come when he receives news from his mother of the death of his cat, animals loved by and always connected with Gerard ‑ Kerouac’s original heart wound was still very much open. After more “signs” and more drinking, Kerouac becomes totally unable to establish boundaries and ends up in a confused relationship with Neal Cassady’s girlfriend of the time. Big Sur describes Kerouac’s first meeting with Cassady after Cassady had served two years in San Quentin prison for supplying two undercover police officers with a minuscule amount of cannabis. Through negligence, Kerouac never visited Cassady in jail, and overall the relationship between the men had changed after their story had shot Kerouac to fame. Kerouac wrote of the incredibly fateful moment in Berkeley in 1957, prior to Cassady’s arrest, when he received the first copies of On the Road and a knock on the door revealed a surprise visit by Cassady along with some friends; somewhat awkwardly Kerouac gave him a copy of his book, while Cassady, according to Kerouac, avoided eye-contact when parting.
But there was never any real animosity between Kerouac and Cassady, and in defending On the Road against allegations that it cultivated aggressive tendencies, Kerouac emphasised the non-violence of the story and described the Cassady character, Dean Moriarty, as “spiteless”. Again, Ann Charters’s idea that Kerouac’s portrayals of Cassady were his “dream image” of himself rings true; when in Lonesome Traveler Kerouac refers to writing as his “duty on earth”, he remarks that so too was “the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice”. (One person who did notice was the American poet Aram Saroyan, who remarked that it would be “hard to find a mean-spirited word about anybody” in all of Kerouac’s writing.)
Kerouac’s sister, Caroline, died in 1964, before his trip to France in 1965 to investigate the family’s Breton history. Satori in Paris (1966) recounts a very drunken trip to France, during which, Kerouac declares, he achieved enlightenment or a Buddhist “sudden illumination” (satori in Japanese), although he can’t remember exactly when or where: “My manners, abominable at times, can be sweet. As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind. I’m a Wretch. But I love love.” One can almost read the slurring between the words because at this point Kerouac seems to have been permanently inebriated. Clearly there was a complex of factors underlying his alcoholism, including childhood trauma, the weight of family obligations and his utter unsuitability for the degree of public exposure he faced. In the end alcohol was less a protective “suit of armor” for Kerouac than an additional vulnerability ‑ Tom Clark, another biographer, observed that alcohol “often brought out Jack’s native ingenuousness”. Joyce Johnson has suggested that Kerouac’s decline into alcoholic depression during the 1960s could have been the result of football injuries, specifically head trauma. He received other head injuries at least twice, in a car accident in 1939 and in a fight in 1958, during the post-On the Road period when his decline is generally thought to have begun.
In 1966, Mémêre had a stroke, and Kerouac married Stella Sampas, sister of the brothers that the Martin brothers in The Town and the City were modelled after. When the Kerouacs moved back to Lowell in the spring of 1967, Jack finished Vanity of Duluoz, a novel that reprises the years 1935 to 1946 in the Duluoz Legend, including some ground already covered in Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy and The Town and the City and the all-important period when Kerouac committed himself fully to writing: “Did I come into this world thru the womb of my mother the earth,” Duluoz asks, “just so I could talk and write like everybody else?”
In 1964 Neal Cassady had been the driver of Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters” bus that was immortalised in (the other) Tom Wolfe’s book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In February 1968 Kerouac received the news of Cassady’s drug-related death in Mexico at the age of forty-one, and later that year he infamously appeared, while inebriated, on William Buckley Jnr’s television show, Firing Line. He told Buckley that as a Catholic his three core beliefs were, “order, tenderness, and piety”, and he emphasised not only his anti-communism but also his support for the Republican party. During the 1960s Ginsberg, Burroughs and many other Beat writers were involved in progressive, anti-establishment politics; Kerouac was not. In this he was faithful to the idea in John Holmes’s 1952 article that, “for the wildest hipster . . . there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it. To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd.” But while Kerouac’s reactionary sympathies seem not to have impacted on his cultural or mythological status as an anti-establishment icon, they did damage his personal and literary reputation in countercultural circles.
Ann Charters described Kerouac as someone politically “caught in the middle”, between the anti-bourgeois aspects of the counterculture, with which he sympathised greatly, and what Dennis McNally termed his “reflexive immigrant patriotism”, which obviously fed into a conservativism that was at odds with the countercultural zeitgeist. As regards his apparent support for the Vietnam War, another writer, Douglas Brinkley, has pointed out that Kerouac’s letters and journals indicate he was “for the war because he didn’t have the heart to go to bars in Lowell and talk to the fathers of men serving over there and seem to be against them”. Brinkley remarks that this is “a very legitimate human reason”, which is true, although it may also say something about where communal drinking stood in Kerouac’s hierarchy of needs. More significantly though, Carolyn Cassady has said Kerouac was conservative and patriotic in an “old-fashioned” rather than a “heavy-handed” way (she never once heard him swear, for example), and in her opinion his true vision was not political in a conventional sense but rather “freedom of expression in art”.
By 1969 the Kerouacs had moved to St Petersburg in Florida, where on October 21st Jack died in hospital of an internal haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis. It was only twelve years after the overnight success of On the Road, but despite the way in which the literary establishment was beginning to respectfully acknowledge other Beat Generation work (especially Ginsberg’s poetry), McNally refers to an “utter lack of critical acclaim” for Kerouac right up until his death. It is only now, slowly but surely, that Kerouac’s incredibly strong and wide-ranging influence is being acknowledged. It would be hard to imagine so much without him, from the stylistic freedom writers like Mailer, Bellow, Pynchon and Roth assumed was theirs by right to those musicians who fell under his spell: the Doors, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Tom Waits are among those who have acknowledged their debt.
The fact that Kerouac was a non-native speaker probably contributed to giving him the freedom to subvert English in the original, “popping-and-parenthesizing-in -every-direction” way that he did. In a 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Joyce Johnson spoke of reading the French-language novella Kerouac drafted in 1951, La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Wife), now part of the Kerouac archive. This was written just a month before the three-week teletype version of On the Road, and Johnson suggests it was in that book, writing in French, that Kerouac found “the kind of voice that he was going to give to Sal Paradise in English as the narrator of the novel”.
In his 1968 Paris Review interview, Kerouac said he had tried to tell “the true story of what I saw and how I saw it”. In telling his story Kerouac achieved his goal of freedom through artistic expression by exposing the woundedness of his heart and the divisions in his psyche with courage, honesty and originality. The notion that Kerouac was “King of the Beats” and the mythology surrounding On the Road have obscured his achievements as a writer ‑ and the fact that these achievements relate to both subject and form. He not only broached a range of taboo topics, he also romanticised the spirit of his own legend by taking stream-of-consciousness writing to a new level; after free verse and free jazz, Kerouac invented a “free prose” that broke with literary conventions and challenged the complacency and restrictiveness of postwar American middle class values. Perhaps the final word should go to his friend William Seward Burroughs II, a keen and intelligent observer of human affairs, who when pressed about Kerouac’s reluctance to take on the mantle of 1960s countercultural icon, insisted that Kerouac founded “the whole thing”, and quoted Jesus Christ to the effect that one should judge a man by his fruits, not his disclaimers.
Tim Murphy is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019) and The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019). His essays and reviews have appeared in several journals and magazines, including Eunomía, Magill, Presence and Studies.