He is born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town. His French-Canadian parents christen him Jean-Louis Lefris de Kérouac and send him to Catholic parochial schools. Following graduation from Horace Mann School in New York, he attends Columbia University on a football scholarship. He leaves Columbia in 1941, going to Virginia “to become a big poet.” He serves in the Merchant Marine and returns to Columbia in October 1942, only to leave school once more and lease an apartment near the campus which soon becomes a gathering-place for many young intellectuals, including Allen Ginsburg, author of the free verse poem Howl. In 1943 he once more begins to travel extensively.
His first novel, The Town and the City, takes three years to write and is published in 1950. Favorable reviews compare him to Thomas Wolfe and praise what one critic calls his “zest for the ordinary.”
His next novel is written on a long roll of paper in a single-spaced deluge of words, without paragraphs or punctuation. Thus, On the Road, a fictionalized chronicle of the travels and adventures of the author and his friend Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the novel), is written in three weeks. With its modified stream-of-consciousness technique he hopes to convey the experiential essence of his rambling existence. Allen Ginsburg praises him as the “new Buddha of American prose.” With the publication of On the Road he becomes the spokesman, as well as the archetypal hero, of the beat movement of the Fifties.
He coins the term beat to describe his generation. When asked what he means by it, he tells an interviewer: “To me it meant being poor, like sleeping in the subways . . . and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about the apocalypse and all that . . .” He later amends this statement and says that beat is an abbreviation of beatific, which term he uses to describe those who reject materialism. He is called by some “the godfather of the hippies.”
Later novels include The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums, both examining and proclaiming the life styles adopted by the beats, the latter being heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism.
In his last years he becomes something of a recluse, inaccessible to all but a few. In one of his last interviews he says: “I get lonely here. I live with my mother. She’s paralyzed.”
Jack Kerouac dies in St. Petersburg, Florida, on October 21, 1969, sitting in a rocking chair, reading the National Review, drinking a can of Schlitz beer.