On this date, fifty years ago, Jack Kerouac passed away in St. Petersburg, Florida. The poet and author was most famous for his second book, On the Road, which became one of the most significant and influential works in American literature. He was at the centre of the Beat Generation, a major post-war movement that inspired subsequent countercultural elements such as the hippies.
Kerouac did not much care for the hippies, nor did he particularly enjoy being labelled “King of the Beats.” The sudden fame that accompanied the 1957 publication of On the Road threw him into a spiral of self-destructive behaviour that led to his death just 12 years later, at the tragically young age of 47.
Although his first novel, The Town and the City, was written in a fairly traditional mode, it was his invention of “spontaneous prose” that etched Kerouac’s name forever into the history of American literature. His advocacy and practice of stream-of-consciousness prose written spontaneously and – supposedly – without revision was a landmark creation that forever changed the cultural landscape.
Kerouac’s oeuvre comprised the Legend of Duluoz – a series of autobiographical works whose characters were the people who entered and departed his own life. It was loosely fictionalised but it is not hard to see in most of his work familiar faces like his friends, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady.
Neal Cassady was famously Kerouac’s companion Dean Moriarty from On the Road, and played a significant role in many of his other books. He was in some respects Kerouac’s muse, and his legendary Joan Anderson letter helped shape Kerouac’s own writing style.
After a wild and productive youth, success hit Kerouac suddenly and caused him to retreat to his mother’s side. He stayed home, drank copious amounts of booze, grew bitter about the critical reception to many of his books, and outright rejected the counterculture that he had helped create. His outlook was angry and conservative, and for many years he drank away his good looks and health. Eventually, he died the classic alcoholic’s death: oesophagal hemorrhage brought on by cirrhosis of the liver.
In death, Kerouac’s work began to receive more respect than it had earned in his short life. Scholars like Ann Charters took him seriously and old friend Allen Ginsberg lobbied tirelessly for Kerouac’s place in the literary canon. He even named the Buddhist-poetry school in Boulder after him: The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. His old books were reissued and the unpublished ones brought out one-by-one over the decades. His life and work has made it onto the big screen, too, with decidedly varied success.
Kerouac is and always has been a divisive author. His legions of fans can be obsessive and cult-like, and his critics vicious. His writing has been put down in innumerable ways, but his influence very much lives on. Young people still find On the Road at that important stage in their life, although nowadays it’s more likely to be a Kindle copy than a dog-eared paperback. The effect is pretty much the same, though. And given how many of the great artists, musicians, and writers of the late twentieth century were directly influenced by him, it’s hard not to have a little bit of Kerouac in your life now…
Kerouac’s Legacy: 50 Years Later
Over the past few weeks, I sought out and spoke with some writers whose life and work was influenced by Kerouac, and here is what they had to say.
I hadn’t read a book from cover to cover in a few years when, at nineteen, I requested a copy of On the Road as a Christmas present. I was too impatient for books but magazines I could handle, and after encountering Jack Kerouac’s name so many times in magazines, I asked an older friend about him, a friend likely to know, and was told that Kerouac had bummed around America and written about it. That appealed to me as the sort of kid who romanticized train yards and fantasized of joining the merchant marine, so I thought, “Okay, I’m going to read a book by this guy whose name I can’t pronounce,” figuring I would probably skim the book and set it aside, only to speed through it and chase it with a Kerouac biography, the first of seven I’ve read to date. I was ignorant of bohemia at nineteen, though I was already living it, and On the Road introduced me to my predecessors, or an American clique of them that seemed almost contemporary. I could carouse with Kerouac if he were around now, I believed; I could drink and talk all night with his friends Lucien Carr and Hal Chase and—of course!—Neal Cassady if they were my age. Yet they were so much smarter than I was at nineteen. They were acquainted with Proust and Rimbaud and Dostoevsky and Dickinson, and following their example, I read those writers and many more, as well as more Kerouac, so that I now prefer Tristessa and Desolation Angels and The Subterraneans to On the Road, my gateway book, the one that opened literature to me as no other, I’m certain, could have done because it made the pursuit and practice of literature part of a freewheeling adventure. It’s hard for me to imagine On the Road having a similar impact on a nineteen-year-old of the twenty-first century, when adventure is found on a minuscule screen where it’s found at all. It’s an era of groupthink on an unprecedented scale and a kind of secular puritanism that doesn’t recognize its despotism while demonizing sinners and heretics and casting their works into fires of the mind. This, I’m afraid, includes Jack Kerouac, whose imperfections as a man and artist I will always forgive, since without him I wouldn’t be, for better or for worse, the man and artist I am today.
I’m rolling, only one way, up through Florida on Highway 1, and there he is, in his last days:
Long night, St. Pete,
drift off, in his
lawn chair, empty
to the wind blow
off Long Bayou,
talking to him
in the branches,
Shimmy, show, shhh,
the Georgia pine
tangled in stars.
—U. S. Rivers
Larry Beckett, author of Beat Poetry
In 1966, after reading just about everything Jack Kerouac had written, I went on the road, hitchhiking and riding freight trains from Montreal to San Francisco, where I spent the next year. In 1976, I earned an MFA degree with the first draft of a novel in which Kerouac figures. In 1987, while working as a literary journalist, I attended the Quebec City rencontre at which Beat luminaries (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Carolyn Cassady) encountered such Quebecois interpreters of Kerouac as Victor Levy-Beaulieu. I wrote about that conference in the Calgary Herald and The Kerouac Connection, suggesting that “Kerouac is BIGGER than Beat.” I rewrote my MFA novel and, with Pottersfield Press, published it in 1993 as Visions of Kerouac. In 2016, I published a fourth and final, final, final revision of that work as Kerouac’s Ghost. Looking back, I see Kerouac’s influence as pervading all fifteen of my books, most of which take a creative nonfiction approach to biography and/or history. I regard Joan Rawshanks in the Fog, from Visions of Cody, as a seminal work. It preceded Tom Wolfe and qualifies Kerouac as the godfather of creative nonfiction. No matter what I write about – from Arctic exploration to the Highland Clearances — I burn, burn, burn to get out of the archives and to go where whatever happened. As a writer, thanks to Kerouac, I’m still constantly on the road.
Ken McGoogan, whose latest books are Dead Reckoning and Flight of the Highlanders, is at www.kenmcgoogan.com.
Kerouac inspired me to write, to Adventure, to make friends with the mad ones, to carry a notebook everywhere, to stay home and produce when not otherwise engaged, to be dedicated to the craft that comes out of the ends of our fingers, to keep meticulous records, and to tell real-life Adventure Tales with the structure of fiction, while cautioning me against drinking the hard stuff and bitter isolation. He proved the power of the collective with his Beat Generation of co-collaborators, and that time travel is possible if words are put in the right order.
Illustration by Isaac Bonan