It's the birthday of Jack Kerouac, (books by this author) born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922, the author of On the Road (1957), a book that brought him instant fame and labels like "King of the Beats" and "the voice of a generation." Writers Ken Kesey, Haruki Murakami, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, and Tom Robbins have all pointed to Kerouac as a defining influence on their writing. And songwriter Bob Dylan said about On the Road: "It changed my life like it changed everyone else's."
Jack Kerouac was born Jean Louis Kirouac to French-Canadian immigrants, and he didn't learn to speak English until grade school. He was a star athlete; he ran the 100-meter hurdles and played running back on the football team at Columbia University. He ended up dropping out of Columbia but staying in New York, with his girlfriend Edie Parker, who years later said of him:
"He seemed immediately larger than life. He just didn't look like anyone in New York. He had a ruddy complexion and jet-black hair. He looked like he had just walked in from the woods. ... As he often was, Jack was dead broke the night I met him."
During that time in New York, he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and others who would help found the Beat Movement. It was with Neal Cassady that he would take the momentous cross-country road trip in a Cadillac limousine in 1949, going over 100 miles an hour on two-lane roads until the speedometer broke, the trip that would form the backbone of his book On the Road.
The story about how Kerouac composed On the Road is well-known: He cut up strips of tracing paper so that they'd fit in the typewriter, and taped them all together so he wouldn't have to interrupt his flow of writing to adjust or add paper. He wrote the whole thing from start to finish in three weeks, with no paragraph breaks and minimal punctuation; and when he got up from his typewriter, he had in his hands a 119-foot-long scroll of a book that defined his generation.
But there's a bit more to the story. For almost a decade, Kerouac had been keeping careful, meticulously detailed journals — notebooks full of them — about his cross-country travels, and much of the material in his journals appear in his first manuscript. And though he did sit down and have a three-week marathon session in which much of the first draft was produced in 1951, it was not until 1957 that the book was published. In those intervening years, Kerouac was constantly revising the book, trying to please publishers, who kept rejecting his manuscript. One publisher who rejected the book wrote, "His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don't think so."
Kerouac replaced the real names of his friends with pseudonyms (publishers feared libel suits) and he removed sexually explicit passages (publishers feared obscenity charges; this was beforeGinsberg's Howl trial), and Kerouac added various literary touches and rewrote sections of the book.
And scholars have recently discovered that Kerouac had in the early 1950s written another book about his travels on the road that had never been published. It was written in a French dialect called joual that Kerouac grew up speaking, and is called Sur le Chemin, which translates to "On the Road." An additional unpublished French-language novel written by Kerouac has been found. It's entitled La nuit est ma femme.
And just last year, the curator of the Kerouac Archives at the New York Public Library, Isaac Gewirtz, published a 75-page book detailing Jack Kerouac's little-known obsession with fantasy baseball, called Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats (2009). Throughout his early life, Gewirtz explains, Kerouac created elaborate teams, players, and games. Kerouac gave his players names like Wino Love, Heinie Twiett, Warby Pepper, Phegus Cody, and his teams got names like the Cincinnati Blacks and the New York Chevvies. He meticulously recorded their exploits on index cards.
In On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote: "... the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"