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Jack Kerouac

(1922-1969)

from: "Fields of  Vision” by D.Delaney

Life

Early years Born in 1922 in Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac attended school in New York City and then went to Columbia University for one year. During his year at college he associated with a group of young men who rejected conventional moral and social values, and lived in restless pursuit of new sensations. The group included, among others, the poet Allen Ginsberg. After Kerouac dropped out  of  college, he began a life of restless wandering during which he wrote constantly. In 1950 his first novel, The Town and the City, was published to little critical acclaim.

Overnight celebrity Kerouac’s vagabond trips across America with his friend Neal Cassidy inspired his second novel, On the Road. The book was written in a three-week, drug-induced, caffeine-saturated frenzy. Fearing that readers might find the work too unusual and shocking, the publishers asked Kerouac to revise it. Disappointed and angry, Kerouac refused to make any changes. He continued roaming across the country, overindulging in alcohol and writing. Subject to fits of depression and in serious financial difficulties, he eventually succumbed to his publishers’ wishes and a substantially edited version of On the Road was finally published in 1957. It was an immediate success. Kerouac found himself launched into the spotlight as a major American literary figure, and the spokesman for a generation of young people that he called the ‘Beat Generation’. The term ‘beat’ was used colloquially to mean ‘tired’ and Kerouac chose it to express the weariness and dissatisfaction young people felt at the time with the spread of capitalism and puritanical middle-class values.

Decline in health and early death Kerouac captured the public imagination as a hitchhiking, free-spirited rebel. In reality he had a fragile, insecure personality and was unable to handle his newfound celebrity. His dependency on drugs and alcohol worsened. His attempt to find some peace of mind in Buddhism is chronicled in the novel The Dharma Burns (1958). In 1961 he tried unsuccessfully to overcome his addictions and spent time living in an isolated rural location. This experience is described in his last major novel, Big Sur (1962).

Tormented and lonely, Kerouac spent his last years living with his mother and sister. His health continued to decline and he eventually died in 1969, at the age of forty-seven.

Works

On the Road  Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road describes the cross-country wanderings of Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassidy) in their search for significant experiences. The novel captures the freedom, promises and possibilities of the vast American continent. It was written according to Kerouac’s theory of ‘spontaneous prose’. Based on the principle that ‘something that you feel will find its own form’, Kerouac recorded events as they happened in fast, flowing prose that mirrored the speed of the protagonists’ reckless life on the road. Kerouac believed that the spontaneous prose writer had to be totally focused during the act of writing and no revision should later change the form that the stream of ideas had taken. The result is a very distinctive style which is free of literary, grammatical or syntactical restraints.

Later novels Kerouac’s later novels The Subterraneans (1958) and The Dharma Blues (1958), are written in the same autobiographical style as On the Road and continue to mythologise the Beat Generation’s ‘carpe diem’ attitude to life. However, by the time he wrote his final novels, Big Sur (1962) and Desolation Angels (1965), Kerouac had undergone profound changes which had caused him to lose much of his youthful optimism and ideology. Both of these works are pained accounts of the author’s decline into depression, pessimism and substance dependency.

Today Kerouac is still remembered for his first major success, On the Road. His masterpiece is still widely read and he, perhaps mistakenly, has entered the collective imagination as an icon of rebellious youth.

 

External Links:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Kerouac

 
 
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