Though he became identified as the voice of the Beat generation, Jack Kerouac was always haunted by the knowledge that the voice he was famous for was not really his own, but something that he couldn't and wouldn't live up to.... [more]
Though he became identified as the voice of the Beat generation, Jack Kerouac was always haunted by the knowledge that the voice he was famous for was not really his own, but something that he couldn't and wouldn't live up to. Ultimately, the schism between who Kerouac was and who the world wanted him to be drove him into an escapist relationship with Thunderbird wine and an early grave.
Raised speaking "joual" (a French-Canadian dialect), Kerouac was the youngest of three children in a poor, working-class household. Hoping to lift his family out of financial hardship, Kerouac worked hard to earn a football scholarship, eventually gaining admission to Columbia University. Injuries and personality conflicts quickly ended his collegiate career, and by the time the Navy discharged him for "indifferent character," he had claimed a new identity as a failure and disappointment to his family. It was at this time that he began to associate with the future Beats: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. He also began to work on his first book, "The Town and the City," which was published in 1950 and gained a modicum of critical respect. After this book, however, Kerouac found it difficult to get published again. He began experimenting with more spontaneous forms of writing, using benzedrine to recreate the rush he had experienced on cross-country trips with Cassady. He decided to write about these trips exactly as they had happened, without pausing to edit, fictionalize, or even think. He typed onto a single roll of paper for three straight weeks, presenting the resulting 120-foot-long single paragraph to his editor. The work was rejected, and it would be seven years before "On the Road" was published. When it emerged in 1957, it was an immediate and tremendous success, but Kerouac was already bitter and jaded. He no longer identified with the book, yet he was now expected to inhabit the role of "Beat."
Kerouac had invented a new form of writing. His spontaneous prose recreated the world of jazz, late-night conversations on fire escapes, marijuana, 24-hour diners, and the open highway. As he declined into decades of inebriated depression, Kerouac managed to publish several more works, including the powerful "Dharma Bums." However, most of his later books had been written during that explosive period after "On the Road" was created, but before it had been published.