Jack Kerouac went by more than a few names, not just in his novels, where he used numerous aliases including Sal Paradise, Jack Duluoz, and Peter Martin, but also in his life and in the media. Whilst there have been various investigations into the origins of his distinctive and mysterious surname, little has been said about the inconsistencies in his first name(s).
On March 12th, 1922, he was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac (reported as both Keroack and Kerouach in the local papers). Soon after, he was baptised as Jean Louis Kirouac and then referred to throughout his early childhood as Jean or Ti Jean (Little John) by his family. Around the age of six, he became known as Jackie and an early effort at writing was credited to Jean-Louis Kerouac.
As a young athlete, Kerouac was often mentioned in local and national newspapers, where reporters understandably struggled to keep track of his name. In 1938, he was called Jack Kerouac by The Boston Globe and The Lowell Sun, but in January and February of the following year the Globe called him John Kerouac when describing his football escapades. That same newspaper then referred to him as Jackie Kerouac in April. In 1940, the Sun was calling him both Jack and Johnny, but by 1941 his name appeared to have been standardised across various news outlets as Jack Kerouac.
Away from the football field, he was Jack Kerouac to his friends, John Louis Kerouac at school, and John L. Keroach to the US Merchant Marine. On an early manuscript, he typed his name as John Kerouac, then crossed it out and wrote Jack. In 1944, after Lucian Carr killed David Kammerer, Kerouac was arrested as a material witness. He was referred to as John in almost every news story, except for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which oddly reported his name as Jon.
He remained out of the newspapers until the 1950 publication of his first novel, The Town and the City, which was credited to John Kerouac. However, despite that name being on the cover, he was referred to as Jean-Louis Kerouac the following year by the Nashua Telegraph, which claimed that Kerouac had learned to read in that New Hampshire town. Perhaps this was the local newspaper attempting to reassert Kerouac’s origins, but around this time Kerouac was attempting to shirk the name John in fear that his ex-wife, Joan Haverty, might track him down and demand money. It was for this reason that “Jazz of the Beat Generation” (1954) was credited to Jean-Louis.
A 1952 hand-drawn cover for On the Road shows that Kerouac planned to go by the name John for his most famous novel, eventually published in 1957, but by then he had decided upon Jack. It is often said that a breakthrough novel makes its author’s name, and in this case that was doubly true. From then on, he would always be known as Jack Kerouac.
[Kerouac’s hand-drawn cover can be viewed on Dave Moore’s website, where he collects Kerouac covers.]
This article originally appeared in Beatdom #22 – the Kerouac centenary edition. It can be purchased here.