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Jack Kerouac

Literary Greats (Part VIII)

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

He was recognized for his method of spontaneous prose covering topics from catholic spirituality, drugs, poverty and travel and best known for his novel, On The Road, he was a pioneer of the Beat Generation movement alongside Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. A former football star turned literary iconoclast and poet, Jack Kerouac.

Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12th, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, the third child to French Canadian parents, Leo-Alcide Kero, and Gaberielle-Ange Kerouac (nee Levesque) know to everyone as, Memere.

For years there has been confusion over the spelling of his surname, partly because of the many variations. Although he used the spelling, Kerouac, his baptism certificate lists his surname as Kirouac, the most common spelling in Quebec. This would have also been because of the branching and movements of French settlers and migrant families to Northern America and spellings would often change according to regions.

His father, Leo was a printer and owned a printing shop in Lowell’s main business centre. His mother worked in a shoe factory. Both his parents’ families had emigrated to New England from Quebec; a badge of pride for Jack who was proud of his family’s background.

At home, the family spoke a dialect of Joual, a variant of Quebec French and Jack was affectionately called “Ti Jean” or Little John during his childhood, speaking French until he started learning English at age six, although he didn’t speak English confidently until his late teenage years. When signing letters to close friends, he continued signing, “Ti Jean” until the last years of his life.

Raised Catholic, Jack was a serious child who loved to read and write, expressing interest at becoming a writer from an early age. His relationship with his mother played an important but at times unhealthy role in his life, and his earliest memory was of his mother, sitting in her arms as she wore a brown bathrobe that members of the family wore when they were sick. After that, he would associate the colour brown as the colour of life, the colour of his family and the comfort and security he felt at home.

His other strongest memory was that of his older brother, nine year old Gerard. Shortly after Jack birth, the family moved to a quiet residential neighbourhood called Centralville, the first neighbourhood Jack would remember well and it was at this house on Beaulieu street that his brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an illness that had plagued him most of his young life. For years afterwards, Jack was too nervous to sleep alone and slept in his mother’s bed. She would become fiercely overprotective of him after Gerard’s death that continued throughout his life.

In 1932, when Jack was ten years old, the family again moved after having moved numerous times within Centralville to the French-Canadian neighbourhood of Pawtucketville where he attended Bartlett Junior High School.

Between the age of twelve and thirteen he spent long hours in this neighbourhood exploring the rivers and creating fantasy games from the movies and magazines he saw and read. But, his childhood was still often a dark and gloomy time, mostly due to the unhappiness and confusion surrounding Gerard’s death. When Jack was twelve he thought he had conquered his fear of death when he and his mother were the unfortunate witness to a man who was carrying a watermelon, suddenly drop dead in front of them. Jack was terrified and devastated and he was ashamed to once again return to his mother’s bed in fear.

His fear of death would follow him for the rest of his life and intensified his private fantasies and he adopted many roles, almost like an outsider peering through the window of his life. Despite all the confusions and defeats he suffered he knew that any life could be epic in its own way and even when times became hard in his childhood, he looked back with fondness.

By the time of his senior year at Lowell High School, Jack had developed into a track and football star and fell in love for the first time. By the big game of the season between Lowell and Lawrence High school in 1938, Jack had played enough football for scouts to be watching him. After scoring the final touch down for his team, he was offered an athletic scholarship to either Boston College or Horace Mann School in Columbia. He chose Columbia.

At Horace Mann, his team was made up of athletes like himself on scholarship making up credits for college. He played good football and still had time to write for the school newspaper and literary magazine where he received praise that “Brains and Brawn found a happy combination in Jack..” for a piece he wrote called, “The Brothers”.

He had done well at Horace Mann, but the next year as a freshman at Columbia, he found the situation very different and became the turning point in his life.

He broke his leg early in his freshman football season and never got to play on the varsity team, causing a crushing personal defeat for Jack. He dropped out for a time and returned to the field in 1941 but didn’t stay long.

Walking out of the training house, without saying goodbye to his coach, he left football behind and took a joyride greyhound trip to Washing DC and then to his parent’s cottage in New Haven. Furious that he had left Columbia, Jack moved into a furnished room in New Haven, working as a grease monkey at a gas station, despite not knowing a thing about cars.

Unsure of his direction, he briefly moved back to Lowell with his parents, working for a few months at the Lowell newspaper, before quitting and moving to Washington DC taking up odd jobs as a short order cook and selling soda. Acting on the impulse that he had to make something heroic happen in his life he signed aboard as a scullion on the S.S.Dorchester sailing that afternoon to Greenland and hand writing his first unpublished novel, The Sea Is My Brother. In October 1942 he returned to Lowell before re enrolling at Columbia and living for a time in New York’s Upper Street West with his girlfriend and future first wife, Edie Parker. It was during this time he was introduced to Allan Ginsberg, who was then a seventeen year old freshman at Columbia, and William Burroughs the then twenty-nine Harvard graduate.

When Jack met Burroughs, he was awed by his style, despite Burroughs not considering himself a writer at the time, but it didn’t take long before the trio were united in their passion for literature and artistic consciousness, with Jack introducing the phrase, ‘Beat Generation’ in 1948.

In 1944, Jack was arrested as material witness in the murder of David Kammerer and would collaborate with Burroughs on the novel, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks that was finally published in 2008. While in jail, Jack’s father refused to post bail and Jack agreed to marry Edie if her parents would pay the bail instead. The marriage lasted two months before they separated in 1946 and the marriage was legally annulled in 1948, although they remained friends until his death. Jack’s parents had by now moved to New York and he lived back with them for a time in Ozone Park, a neighbourhood of Queens where he wrote his first published novel, The Town and The City and started work on his famous, On The Road novel in 1949.

In 1950, The Town and The City was published under the name, John Kerouac and while it received some respectable reviews, it sold poorly. Not long after he met his second future wife, Joan Haverty on his way to a party and two weeks later they married with Allan Ginsberg as best man. They moved in with Jack’s mother in Queens and when he couldn’t write, he frequented neighbourhood bars while Joan clerked at Saks until tensions between Jack’s mother and Joan came to a head and the couple moved out to a place of their own. During this time Jack continued working on the final draft of On The Road and typed so quickly that putting in a new piece of paper distracted him, so he taped together 20ft strips of paper that was narrower than typing paper so he could type uninterrupted. Jack paid little attention to Joan during this period, and with having to support Jack and work herself, she kicked him out.

Not long after, she announced she was pregnant and filed for divorce. While she didn’t feel ready to have children, Jack insisted she get an abortion to which Joan refused and went and lived with her mother in Albany, New York until their daughter, Janet Michelle was born February 16th, 1952

Jack would see his daughter Jan twice in his life, the first when she was ten and he agreed to take a paternity test, that showed he was her father. The second meeting, when she was fifteen on her way to Mexico. According to Jan, he was “Sitting in a rocking chair, watching The Beverly Hillbillies and drinking a quart of whiskey” barely acknowledging she was his daughter, except for the words, “Oh, you’re going to Mexico, huh? Well, go ahead. Write a book and you can use my name.”

In the time between writing On The Road and its publication in 1957, Jack became famous and the spokesperson for the Beat Generation. He moved to Orlando, Florida with his mother and third wife, Stella Sampas. Personally, he was spiralling, frequently appearing drunk and interviews often turned into arguments. In 1958 he wrote a follow up to On The Road called, The Dharma Bums but then stopped writing for four years. By 1960 he was an alcoholic and had suffered a nervous breakdown.

On October 20th, 1969, Jack began vomiting blood and was taken to hospital suffering from an esophageal haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis, the result of long time alcohol abuse. He died the next morning having never regained consciousness from the attempted surgery and was buried at Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts.

He was 47.