On October 21, 1969, the voice and soul of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, died. Today, almost 50 years after his death, we walk together through his life, his works and his contribution to the work of numerous contemporary artists.
Biography of Jack Kerouac
The first years
Jack Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, an industrial town in the state of Massachussetts, to a modestly placed Catholic family of French-Canadian origin. Jack’s childhood was to all intents and purposes normal, spent in a Catholic school, with teachings on guilt and repression of sexuality but fed on radio programs, comics and popular literature.
However, the same childhood was also shaken by a very painful event for Kerouac: the death of his brother Gerard. This gave him a particular sensitivity to the theme of death and helped to strengthen relations with his mother.
In 1932, at the age of ten, following a transfer, Jack Kerouac was enrolled at Barlett Junior High School, where he had a lot of difficulty communicating in English and it took him several years to become perfectly bilingual. At Barlett, Kerouac met Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas, a Greek boy who shared a passion for literature with Kerouac, with whom he made a deep and lasting friendship.
The vocation for literature
The vocation for literature came in 1939, at the age of 17, when Kerouac attended Columbia University in New York, to which he had access thanks to a scholarship for sport merits. Due to an accident, however, the young Jack was no longer able to devote himself to sports and his interest was revealed in literature, fueled by his frequentation of the environments of Greenwich Village, a renowned neighborhood of artists, rebels and bohemians.
And it is here that Jack met William Borroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neil Cassady, with whom he had all those personal and professional experiences that his art will feed on. The greatest influence came from Neil Cassady, a young man who had also tried the reformatory experience. Neil represented, in the eyes of those young people of the middle class in revolt, an example of authentic marginalization and was for Kerouac a source of literary inspiration and a source of projection of personal experiences.
At the age of 20, Kerouac boarded a merchant navy ship and traveled extensively – a journey that culminated in 1957 when he wrote his most famous work, On the Road. From America he passed through Mexico and then to Tangier, first with Neil Cassady and then on his own. While traveling he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and deepened his relationships with Burroughs and Ginsberg.
To support himself he did odd jobs and, in the meantime, he approached Buddhism. All these themes became part of his works, which we will tell you about in the following paragraphs.
Over the years, however, relations with his poet friends stiffened: Kerouac became more and more isolated and was mocked by critics. He also gradually detached himself from his old friends, accusing them of having made fun of communism (we are talking about the years of the war in Vietnam). In fact, he declared his patriotism and took sides in defense of the American intervention in the Asian country.
Jack Kerouac’s death
Difficult relationships with friends and colleagues, criticism and the sum of other difficulties led Jack Kerouac to manage everything with alcohol. And in 1968 another tragedy was added: in February his friend Neal Cassady was found frozen to death on a railroad tracks; he had taken barbiturates and alcohol.
To get him out of the depression, brothers-in-law Nick and Tracy took Jack to Europe, but there he only killed the thoughts with alcohol.
Returning to the United States some time later, precisely in Florida, Kerouac continued his race to death with drunk and bar brawls.
On 20 October 1969 he woke up at four in the morning following yet another hangover. Around noon, while he was drinking, he experienced severe abdominal pain and vomited blood: liver cirrhosis. Kerouac, once in the hospital, underwent 26 transfusions and a surgical operation in an attempt to contain the bleeding. At half past five on the morning of October 21, without ever regaining consciousness after surgery, Jack Kerouac passed away at forty-seven.
Jack Kerouac is buried in his native Lowell along with his wife Stella, who died in 1990.
My work forms a single large book like Proust’s, except that my memories are written from time to time
Kerouac’s first novel is, curiously, the one that remained unpublished until 2003: Orpheus emerged. Already in this book the central themes of his work are presented: love, conflicts between friends, the search for truth through art in all its forms.
Kerouac’s first official writing dates back to 1950 with the publication of the novel entitled The town and the city.
Throughout his books, whether they are novels or collections of poems, Kerouac tells the saga of contemporary America. The Legend of Duluoz, the last novel published and written before the publication of On the Road, begins from childhood with Visions of Gerard and Doctor Sax.
Maggie Cassidy instead tells of the artist’s adolescence and experiences at Columbia University while Big Sur talks about the enemy nature during the last trip to San Francisco.
The Dharma Vagabonds and Desolation Angels elaborate the author’s Buddhist experience, in both human and literary research.
There are many works, we are talking about collections of short stories, collections of poems, poems and about twenty novels, among which the “beat manifesto”, On the road stands out.
On the Road
Narrated from the point of view of the character of Sal Paradise, this work, mostly autobiographical, describes the adventures of Kerouac on a roadtrip (Route 66 anyone?) across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady, who inspired the character of Dean Moriarty in the book.
In a way, the story is the offspring of Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, even though in On the Road the narrator (Sal Paradise) is twice the age of Huck, and Kerouac’s story is set in the America of about a hundred years later. History, however, is the mother of a thousand other stories, the theme of adventure and travel gave birth to Easy Rider for instance.
Kerouac wrote the entire novel in just three weeks in a long spontaneous prose session (in the next paragraph we explain everything). With the massive use of drugs and coffee, he showed an original writing style, strongly influenced by Jazz and later by Buddhism .
Speaking of style and method, we can say that not only in On the Road one can one find a great influence from the prolific explosion of Jazz, in particular the Bebop genre established by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others. Subsequently, Kerouac included ideas he had developed in his Buddhist studies.
He called this style Spontaneous Prose, a literary technique similar to the stream of consciousness. Kerouac’s motto was “first thought = best thought”, and many of his books exemplify this approach. The central features of this writing method were the idea of breathing (borrowed from jazz and Buddhist meditation breathing), improvising words on the intrinsic structures of the mind and language, and not changing a single word.
Connected with his idea of breath we find the elimination of the period, preferring instead to use a long hyphen. As such, the phrases that appear between the dashes may resemble improvised jazz phrases. When spoken, words can take on a certain type of rhythm, although none of them are pre-meditated.
Essential elements of spontaneous prose
In some writings he specifically exposed his own method of spontaneous prose, summarizing it in a list of thirty “essential elements”. We mention a few:
- Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
- Submissive to everything, open, listening
- Try never get drunk outside yr own house
- Be in love with yr life
- Something that you feel will find its own form
- Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
- Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
- Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
- The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
- Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
- Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
- Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
- Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
- You’re a Genius all the time
Why is Jack Kerouac the father of the Beat Generation?
As we said a few paragraphs ago, we can affirm that the meaning of human and literary research, of which Jack Kerouac was the spokesperson, can be enclosed in the adjective Beat, with which he managed to characterize an entire generation.
In fact, beat means different, marginalized, beaten and defeated, but done deliberately, to fight the establishment and the consumerist world. Beat, however, is also the rhythm, that of jazz above all, which constitutes the writer’s prose, but also the model that implies having to “play” one’s art without sparing (doesn’t Whiplash remind you a little of this statement?), in a sort of improvised jam session.
But beat is also the meaning given by Jack Kerouac himself. Beat as the root of the word “beatific”, the condition that has been the object of research all his life and which, perhaps, he has never found. That conception of profound, liberating ecstasy that gives salvation to the tragic human identity.
Influences of Kerouac and Beat Generation
As we have told before, the style, the new and disordered prose, the themes described frankly and the method of Kerouac, summarized by the novel On the Road, have influenced generations of artists, writers and musicians. Among the artists we also mention painters because, interestingly, Jack Kerouac was also active in painting and graphic design.
The following article is interesting to read: http://www.openculture.com/2014/05/jack-kerouacs-poems-read-by-patti-smith-john-cale.html which tells how in 1997 some very interesting artists like Hunter S. Thompson, John Cale, Joe Strummer and Michael Stipe gathered to record the Kerouac tribute album: Kicks Joy Darkness, which sets his poems to music. To these artists is also added Patti Smith, singing the poem The Last Hotel.
In conclusion, we can therefore say that, starting with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, William Seward Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti up to Patti Smith, the common thread of the “beat” reaches our days.
Nonconformity is the element that most of all characterizes this rebellious youth, together with the rejection of rules, civil disobedience, sexual freedom, interest in oriental philosophies and creativity that influences fashion, music and lifestyles, like those of the communes where the possession of individual goods and affections did not exist.
And “On the road” remains as a beacon of this generation. An evergreen work that continues to ignite the interest of every generation, a symbol of rebellion above all within the schemes and mental cages imposed by societies.