Sunday, November 11, 2012
In high school, Kerouac was a star football player earning him a scholarship to Columbia University. During freshman year, he broke his leg playing football. He quit the team and dropped out of school. He enlisted in the navy but served only 8 days before being diagnosed with a "schizoid personality" which led to an honorable discharge.
Kerouac returned to New York and moved in with an old girlfriend, Edie Parker. He worked odd jobs as a short order cook, railroad brakeman and construction worker. During this period, Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs and other odd characters who became synonymous with the Beat Generation. (Kerouac coined the term "beat" to describe a person with little money and few prospects.)
In 1945, Kerouac was diagnosed with phlebitis in his leg connected to his old football injury. He was confined to a bed in his parents home next to his father who was dying of stomach cancer. He began writing, fueled by benzedrine and coffee. The result was The Town and the City, an 1,100 page novel about his boyhood in Lowell and the junkies and intellectuals he met in Greenwich Village. The novel was published to poor reviews sending Kerouac into a deep depression.
In the winter of 1948, Kerouac went on a road trip with Neal Cassady driving across the country at light speed. They visited old friends, all night cafes, broken down bars and forgotten towns. They acquired food, money and gas by whatever means possible. Kerouac and Cassady arrived in San Francisco in 1949, broke and exhausted. Reflecting on his trip with Cassady, Kerouac experimented with a frenetic, benzedrine-fueled writing style he called "Self-Ultimacy." He would fall into a deep trance and write with chaotic speed, channeling spontaneous prose that jibed with the ethos of "first thought best thought." His writing style was influenced by the jazz music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and the concept of breathing in Buddhist meditation. Kerouac's words had an inherent rhythm and cadence, especially when spoken aloud.
Kerouac completed the first draft of On the Road in three weeks. He typed on a teletype roll, a single-spaced, unbroken paragraph resulting in a 120-foot long scroll. On the Road was published by Viking in 1957. The book became a bestseller and Kerouac became an overnight sensation. To Jack, the novel was simply about "two Catholic buddies who roamed the country in search of God." To the world, the book changed the face of literature and spawned the 60's hippie movement. Teenagers began hitchhiking across country, experimenting with drugs and sex and scrawling spontaneous poetry in dogeared journals. Ironically, Kerouac turned his back on the hippies and flower children ("It's politics, not art").
Kerouac despised his newfound fame. After getting beat up outside a New York bar, he began to fear the public. He grew estranged from Neal Cassady and his old 'Beat' friends. Jealous novelists attacked Kerouac in the press. (Truman Capote famously said, "That's not writing, it's typing.") Kerouac continued writing and publishing novels (Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Visions of Cody) but none garnered the acclaim given On the Road. He continued abusing drugs and alcohol and his writing and vitality suffered. In 1961, Kerouac moved to Big Sur in an effort to kick drinking and rekindle his writing talents. Instead he had a mental breakdown and returned to San Francisco to drink himself into oblivion (chronicled in Big Sur).
Beaten and lonely, Kerouac left California to live with his invalid mother in Florida. He never learned to drive and his house had no phone. He spent his days listening to jazz music and drinking Johnny Walker Red and cheap wine. He remained deeply religious, devoted to his unique brand of Buddhist-tinged Catholicism. When friends insulted God or religion he would respond, "Ah, Jesus died for bums like you." In 1969, after a night of heavy drinking, Kerouac hemorrhaged and was rushed to the hospital. He died the next morning at the age of 47. In 2009, the original manuscript of On the Road sold at auction for $2.4 million. (5" x 6", black ink print)