Jack Kerouac Biography

A look at the life of Jack Kerouac, one of the fathers of the Beat movement.

In the late 1940's, Jack Kerouac helped found the beat movement with fellow contemporary authors, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Kerouac served in the Merchant Marines during World War II. After the war, Kerouac travelled around the country and wrote many books about his adventures and experiences. Kerouac's books include On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, and Big Sur. The writings of Kerouac are a stream of consciousness mixture of Zen, history, drugs, the road, and jazz.

Jack Kerouac best describes the type of stream of consciousness poetry and writing that defines the Beats. Kerouac writes in the opening of his first book of poems San Francisco Blues written in 1954:

In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musicians spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses.

It's all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot. (Kerouac credits, San Francisco Blues)

Kerouac was writing about his own poetry, but it also describes the work of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Cassady. The Beats wrote in a drug-induced stream of consciousness and believed to alter or edit their poems would ruin the spontaneous effect they craved. In other words, if you change it ". . .the gig is shot (Kerouac)."

Neal Cassady had perhaps the greatest influence on Jack Kerouac. Cassady met Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York. Ginsberg immediately fell in love with him, and Cassady, who had a hustler's instinct to be whatever the person he's with wants him to be, began a sexual relationship with Ginsberg, balancing it with the numerous heterosexual relationships he enjoyed more. At the same time, he persuaded Kerouac to teach him how to write fiction.

Soon he and Kerouac began the series of cross-country adventures that would later become 'On The Road'. They raced aimlessly across the U.S.A. with Cassady setting the agenda. Kerouac began writing about their adventures even as they were taking place, but he could not find a style that fit the content, and put the project away in frustration. He picked the project up again later, after a series of letters from Cassady gave Kerouac the idea to write the book the way Cassady talked, in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation. It worked : On The Road became a sensation by capturing Cassady's voice.

Cassady married several women and fathered many children (much of this activity is discussed in On The Road). He finally settled down with Carolyn Cassady in Los Gatos, a suburb near San Jose, where he worked as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad. He remained close-friends with Ginsberg, Kerouac and many others from the Beat crowd, although he never profited from their eventual success. Kerouac wrote in Desolation Angels of the strange way he felt when Cassady dropped by his apartment after the first advance copies of On The Road arrived :

When Cody said goodbye to all of us that day he for the first time in our lives failed to look me a goodbye in the eye but looked away shifty-like --I couldn't understand it and still don't -- I knew something was bound to be wrong and it turned out very wrong ...(Kerouac, Desolation Angels)

In the 1960's, as Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and early middle age, Cassady began an entirely new series of road adventures, this time with young novelist Ken Kesey in Jack Kerouac's place. Sadly, the magic, for Kerouac, was gone, and he failed to recapture his style of poetic prose in his writings. He died in St. Petersberg, Florida in relative obscurity.

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