It’s the birthday of American writer Jack Kerouac (books by this author), Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He is best known for his iconic Beat Generation novel, On the Road (1957), in which poetic drifter Sal Paradise knocks about the United States with his pal Dean Moriarty. In the book, Sal says, “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 like fabulous yellow roman candles.”
The book sparked a nerve among young people and became a classic story of ennui and rebellion, but a lot of people simply hated it, too, like writer Truman Capote, who dismissed the Beat Generation by sniffing, “None of the people have anything interesting to say and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac.” Even novelist John Updike got into the act, mocking the novel’s heady, breathless prose in a parody in The New Yorker magazine called “On the Sidewalk.” Two young men on a scooter ride “into the wide shimmering pavement” through a bed of irises. “Contemplate those holy hydrants,” one of the boys calls out.
Kerouac’s parents were immigrants from Quebec, and he learned French before English. He loved to read more than anything, especially the 10-cent fiction magazines from drugstores, but he also loved football, baseball, and track, and knew that sports would be his ticket out of Lowell. He got a football scholarship to Columbia University, but broke his leg and quit the team abruptly, leaving New York City for jobs like pumping gas in Hartford, Connecticut, and joining the construction crew building the Pentagon.
Back in New York City, Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and writer William Burroughs became fast friends, taking drugs and writing strange, quick poems and stories. Kerouac typed up the beginning pages of Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, but stopped because it gave him nightmares. Allen Ginsberg called Kerouac “a very unique cat — a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Beat Catholic savant.”
Kerouac wrote a fairly traditional first novel called Town and the City (1950). It received good reviews, but made no money. He befriended a happy-go-lucky, somewhat sinister drifter named Neal Cassady and together, they crossed the United States, a series of adventures that inspired Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Kerouac liked to tell people he wrote the whole book in three weeks on a borrowed typewriter on a continuous scroll of paper more than 120 feet long, which is partly true. He did write on the scroll, but the last several feet had to be retyped after a dog chewed them, and part of the book was inspired by a 40,000-word letter Neal Cassady wrote to him. Kerouac called his practice of typing without stopping or revising, “spontaneous prose,” and while he found it exciting, publishers didn’t, and On the Road did not find a home for six years. When it did, Kerouac was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the voice of his generation. His girlfriend said, “Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.”
Kerouac thought revising your work was akin to lying. He once said: “Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact. […] If he pauses to blow his nose, isn’t he planning his next sentence? And when he lets that next sentence loose, isn’t it once and for all the way he wanted to say it?” When he submitted his novel The Dharma Bums (1958) to the publisher, his editor added commas and other punctuation, which Kerouac then meticulously removed. His publisher billed him $500.00 for making the changes.
Jack Kerouac’s 18 novels include Dr. Sax (1959), Maggie Cassidy (1959), and The Subterraneans (1958), which he claimed took him three days to write. His books were translated into more than 20 languages. He died in 1969. About writing, he said, “You think out what actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can.”
And, “I’m only a jolly storyteller and have nothing to do with politics or schemes and my only plan is the old Chinese way of the Tao: Avoid the authorities.”