By The Greater Astoria Historical Society
Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac is considered the father of Beat Generation literature. His iconoclastic works, such as “On the Road,” “The Dharma Bums” and “Vanity of Duluoz,” were the mouthpiece of a 1950s counterculture.
His novels and poems were often marked with a spontaneous style and explored such eclectic topics as Catholicism, Buddhism, drugs and traveling. His writings have influenced other artists, including Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder and Haruki Murakami. Kerouac died in 1969 after a lifelong battle with alcoholism.
Jean-Louis Kerouac was born in Lowell, Mass., on March 12, 1922. His parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, were French-speaking immigrants from Quebec. Jack, who could not speak English comfortably until a teenager, also had an older brother named Gerard who died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at age 9.
A heartbroken Jack would later immortalize him in his 1963 work “Visions of Gerard.” The loss of their young son caused his mother to seek comfort in her Catholic faith, but Leo-Alcide increasingly sought comfort in the bottom of a bottle or the end of a cigarette. Jack, who would also adhere to Catholicism throughout his life, found an escape from the childhood sadness and grinding poverty of Lowell in football. Kerouac decided to attend Columbia University.
Kerouac’s gridiron career was short-lived. After cracking a tibia and arguing constantly with the coach, the future Beat writer quit football. Although he soon dropped out of Columbia, it was not before he provided a glimpse of his future brilliance, writing sports articles for the student newspaper. For several years, the young Jack drifted, living with a girlfriend in Manhattan, serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II and living with his parents for a time in Ozone Park.
It was during this wilderness period that he accumulated friends, including fellow Beat writers Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs, and experiences that would shape his writing for years to come.
While in Queens, he published his first book, “The Town and the City,” and began writing perhaps his best known work, “On the Road,” in 1949. This largely autobiographical work chronicled his travels through the country and Mexico and his friendships with other members of the Beat Generation.
The author had a hard time finding a publisher. Early 1950s publishing houses were uncomfortable with the book’s graphic descriptions of homosexuality and drug use and its sympathetic view toward ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts native supported himself performing odd jobs. This was not enough, however, to save his relationship with his second wife, Joan Haverty, who gave birth to Kerouac’s only child, a daughter named Jan, after their separation.
Following his divorce, Kerouac found himself on the road, traveling extensively in the United States and Mexico. Depression was a regular traveling companion, which he often drowned with alcohol and drugs. During these years he wrote drafts for several books that chronicled his journeys. In 1954, the 32-year-old writer developed an interest in Buddhism after reading a book on the topic at the San Jose Library. This inspired him to write a biography of Siddhartha Gautama, which was published in 2008, 39 years after his death.
After years of wandering, the author decided to move to Orlando in 1957. Just as he settled into his modest home, he saw “On the Road” published to rave reviews. His new found fame brought more than he had bargained for as attention from the news media and unanticipated criticism of a work he wrote on Buddhism titled “The Dharma Bums” drove him deeper into drink and illegal drugs.
In the 1960s, Kerouac’s life entered a downward spiral. He considered suing CBS television, insisting that the program “Route 66” borrowed too liberally from the pages of “On the Road.” Later, in 1968, the author made what would turn out to be his last television appearance, clearly drunk while speaking with host William Buckley about the hippie counterculture on the show “Firing Line.”
Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Oct. 21, 1969, of internal hemorrhaging brought on by decades of alcohol abuse.