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Born on March 12, 1922, the youngest of three children in a French-Canadian family that had established itself in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac was by the age of ten already aiming to become a writer. His father ran a print shop and published a local newsletter called the Spotlight. Before long he began writing and producing his own sport sheet, which he sold to friends and acquaintances in Lowell. He attended both Catholic and public schools, and won athletic scholarships to the Horace Mann prep school (in New York) and then to Columbia University.
In New York he fell in with fellow literary-icons-to-be Allen Ginsberg, the poet, and William S. Burroughs, the novelist. A broken leg hobbled his college football career, and Kerouac quit Columbia in his sophomore year, eventually joining the merchant marine and then Navy (from which he was discharged). Thus began the restless wandering that would characterize both his legacy and his life.
To Kerouac, Beat a shorthand term for beatitude and the idea that the downtrodden are saintly was not about politics but about spirituality and art. The thirty published and unpublished books he wrote from 1941 to 1969 include Kerouac's thirteen-volume, more or less autobiographical Legend of Duluoz a study of a particular lifetime, his own, in the manner of Honore de Balzac's Human Comedy or Marcel Posts Remembrance of Things Past. Kerouac set out to become the quintessential literary mythmaker of postwar America, creating his Legend of Duluoz by spinning poetic tales about his adventures. I promise I shall never give up, and that Ill die yelling and laughing, Kerouac wrote in his diary in 1949.
And that until then Ill rush around this world I insist in holy and pull at everyones lapel and make them confess to me and to all. At the time when Norman Mailer was playing sociologist by studying whit Negro hipsters, Kerouac sought to depict his fascinatingly inchoate friend Neal Cassady as the modern-day equivalent of the Wild West legends Jim Bridger, Pecos Bill, and Jesse James. Like the Lowell boy he never quite ceased to be, Kerouac saw football players and range-worn cowboys as the paragons of true America; his diaries teem with references to folk heroes and praise for Zane Greys honest drifters, Herman Melville's confidence men, and Babe Ruths feats on the diamond and in the barroom. Kerouac brought Cassady into the American mythical pantheon as the mad Ahab at the wheel, compelling others to join his roaring drive across Walt Whitman's patchwork Promise Land. While gathering material for On the Road, criss-crossing America, Kerouac stopped in the eastern Montana town of Miles City.
Soon Kerouac had one of his many epiphanies. In a drugstore window I saw a book on sale so beautiful! he wrote in his diary. Yellowstone Red, a story of a man in the early days of the valley, & his tribulations and triumphs.
Is this not better reading in Miles City that the Iliad? their own epic? Kerouac was intent on creating his own Yellowstone Red story but in a modern context, where existential jazz players and lost highway speedsters would be celebrated as the new vagabond saints. The protagonists of On the Road Cassady as Dean Mortality and Kerouac himself as Sal Paradise were intended as automobile-age equivalents of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Beyond the glittery street was darkness and beyond the darkness the West, Kerouac wrote. I had to go.
Kerouac saw himself as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the avant-garde circus that was the Beat culture, populated by whores, swindlers, hipsters, horn players, hobos, and charlatans. Oddly, though, Kerouac, owing to a childhood car accident in Vermont, was afraid of cars. [I] dont know how to drive, he admitted, just typewrite. Given his infatuation with the spontaneity of jazz, it is not surprising that Kerouac preferred the image of a natural born, wide-eyed Rimbaud-like genius to that of a careful cobbler of words such as John OHara. But Kerouac was a fastidious, old-fashioned craftsman. For every day he spent on the road during his lifetime, gathering material, he toiled for a month in solitude sketching, polishing, and typing his various novels, prayers, poems, and reflections.
Often in the midst of writing Kerouac would take breaks and draw pietas in his diaries, accompanied by psalms asking the Lamb of God to fill every sinners heart. As even casual readers know, Kerouac was drawn to both Western and Eastern religious traditions, and his meditations are pervasive in his work. During the 1950 s, when he was composing Wake Up, his biography of the Buddha, and Some of the Dharma, Kerouac spend months in libraries pouring over Buddhist writings. He inspired Allen Ginsberg to embrace Buddhism; Ginsberg went on to become a founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at the Narpora Institute (the only accredited Buddhist college in the United States). Kerouac's faith in the idea of the holy outcast, which animated his version of Neal Cassady in On the Road and of Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums, has found resonance across generations. Characteristically, Kerouac was deeply irritated by the spread of pop Buddhism for which he was in part responsible.
Kerouac eventually sought to pull away from his Beat friends. Allen never loses track of me when I try to hide, he complained before his second book, On the Road, was published. Ginsberg may have reveled in New York fame, but the shy Kerouac instead became more introspective and more inclined to spend time with his mother, Gabrielle, a dominant influence in his life. Gabrielle proved reluctant even to allow Ginsberg into the house. In fact, at one point she sent Ginsberg a letter threatening to report him to the FBI for engaging in anti-American activities.
She also wrote angry letters to William S. Burroughs. My God! ! Burroughs concluded, She really has him sewed up like an incision.
Just how disenchanted Kerouac eventually became with Ginsberg can be seen in a decision he made in 1964 when he was broke and couldnt afford to put headstone on his sister Nins grave in Orlando: he turned down and invitation to appear in a film with Ginsberg for which he would have been paid $ 3, 000. Similarly, when Nanda Pivano, an Italian translator of American literature, wrote Kerouac asking permission to include him in a Beat poetry anthology. Kerouac refused. What these bozos and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly beat credo, he wrote.
Now that were all getting to be middle-aged I can see that theyre just frustrated hysterical provocateurs and attention-seekers with nothing on their mind by rancor towards America and the life of ordinary people with any love, you may have noticed. I still admire them of course, for their technical excellence as poets, as I admire Genet and Burroughs for their technical excellence as prose writers, but all four of them belong to the keep-me-out-of-the-picture department and thats the way I want it from now on. As the 1960 s progressed, Kerouac could not understand how Ginsberg could flash the peace sign and pronounce the imminent fall of America while ignoring, as Kerouac saw it, mass murders by Chinas Mao Zedong, a brute worst that Stalin. Genet and Burroughs do not offend half as much, because they are metaphysically hopeless, Kerouac continued in his letter to Pivano, but Ginsberg and [the poet Gregory] Corso are ignorant enough to be metaphysically healthy and want to use art as a racket. In February of 1968 Kerouac received the news that Neal Cassady had died, just short of his forty-second birthday, alongside some railroad tracks near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Kerouac himself would be dead within two years, at forty-seven, of complications resulting from alcoholism. In the aftermath of the publication of On the Road, and the onslaught of fame, Kerouac had written Cassady to report, Everything exploded. It was an apt assessment. Jack Kerouac is generally seen as one of the great writers of his generation, but what is truly amazing is the fact that he was and has become much more than that. He was a statesman for the beat period of American culture, he was an idol to people of his generation, and he has survived in memory as an icon of American cool.
We think of him when we think of jazz, we think of him when we think of adventure and freedom in literature, and we will always think of him when we imagine the road. Few modern writers have touched so many lives in so many ways. Bibliography:
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