Born in a French Canadian Catholic family in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac (1922-1969) spoke French before learning English in public school. Kerouac entered Columbia University in 1940 on a football scholarship, but when he broke his leg and left college, he discovered the Greenwich Village bohemian scene in New York City. After working as a sports reporter for the Lowell Sun, he joined the Merchant Marines (1942) and served briefly in the U.S. Navy.
After World War II, Kerouac led the nomadic existence recorded in his autobiographical 1957 novel, On the Road. It was written rapidly as “spontaneous prose,” like all of his books and poetry, to record his restless trips hitchhiking and driving from New York to San Francisco with his companion Neal Cassady. Dharma Bums (1958), a more conventional novel, describes his search for self-fulfillment through Zen Buddhism. He also wrote poetry in Mexico City Blues (1959) and travel pieces in Lonesome Traveler (1960). Among his other works are The Subterraneans (1958), Book of Dreams (1961), and Desolation Angels (1965).
Kerouac's work popularized the term Beat Generation for the disaffected young Americans who dropped out of mainstream society. Kerouac and other Beats sought their identity and truth in an alternative lifestyle centered on alcohol, drugs, sex, music, travel, and Zen Buddhism. Kerouac often associated with the poets and writers Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as with many jazz musicians. Like him, they embraced the ecstatic moments of everyday life through spontaneity and free artistic expression. Kerouac's sequel to On the Road, Big Sur (1962), is about the Beats'retreat on the California coast.
In New York City and San Francisco, Jack Kerouac reached celebrity status as the leading voice for the Beat Generation. On the Road, his testament to the unconventional Beat lifestyle, is a major contribution to modern literature. It inspired the alternative beatnik movement and the later hippie counterculture. However, Kerouac was unsuited for fame or mainstream society, and he succumbed to excessive drinking. His athlete's body and dark good looks ravaged by alcoholism, Kerouac died on October 21, 1969, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Literary fans and bohemians still visit his grave in Lowell, and various sites in the city are preserved by the National Park Service in his memory. His posthumously published words include Selected Letters, 1940-1956 (1995), Selected Letters, 1957- 1969 (1999), and the poetry collection Book of Blues (1995).
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