Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac, baptised Jean Louis Kirouac, was the youngest of three children of French-Canadian immigrants from Quebec, Canada. He was raised speaking the French-Canadian working class dialect Joual until he learned English at age five.
Kerouac studied at local Catholic public schools and the Horace Mann School in New York City, as well as Columbia University and The New School. He was awarded athletic scholarships to attend Boston College, University of Notre Dame, and Columbia University, though an injury during his freshman season at Columbia kept him from playing and eventually led to his dropping out of school.
In 1942, Kerouac joined the United States Merchant Marine, and a year later joined the United States Navy—he served only eight days of active duty before being honorably discharged on psychiatric grounds. Soon after, Kerouac was involved in the murder of David Kammerer, having helped his friend Lucien Carr dispose of evidence, and was arrested as a material witness. Unable to convince his father to pay for bail, Kerouac agreed to marry fellow writer Edie Parker in exchange for her financial support and moved to Detroit, Michigan. Their marriage was quickly annulled due to infidelity, and Kerouac returned to New York City in 1944.
Upon Kerouac’s return to New York, he lived with his parents in Queens, where he wrote his first novel, The Town and the City (Harcourt Brace, 1950). Through Carr, Kerouac had met many of the literary figures now associated with the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and in 1949 he began his most famous literary work, On the Road (Viking Press, 1957), which was tentatively titled “The Beat Generation” and “Gone on the Road.” Kerouac finished the largely autobiographical novel in April 1951, though it remained unpublished until 1957. During that time, Kerouac completed ten other autobiographical novels, including The Subterraneans (Grove Press, 1958); Doctor Sax (Grove Press, 1959); Tristessa (Avon, 1960); and Desolation Angels (Coward McCann, 1965).
In July 1957, Kerouac moved to Orlando, Florida, while awaiting the release of On the Road later that year. Soon after, the New York Times ran a review lauding Kerouac as the voice of a new generation. The success of the novel garnered Kerouac celebrity status as a major American author, and his friendship with Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Gregory Corso cemented the influence of what became known as the Beat Generation. Other poet friends of Kerouac within this movement included Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, Lew Welch, and Amiri Baraka.
Though best known for his novels, Kerouac is also associated with poetry of the Beat movement, including spoken word. Kerouac wrote that he wanted “to be considered as a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday.” And in his “Statement on Poetics” for The New American Poetry, he asserts:
Add alluvials to the end of your line when all is exhausted but something has to be said for some specified irrational reason, since reason can never win out, because poetry is NOT a science. The rhythm of how you 'rush' yr statement determines the rhythm of the poem, whether it is a poem in verse-separated lines, or an endless one-line poem called prose . . .
In his introduction to Kerouac’s Book of Blues, the poet Robert Creeley writes, “A complaint commonly lodged against Kerouac is that he was at best a self-taught ‘natural,’ at worst an example of the cul de sac the autodidact in the arts invariably comes to, a solipsistic ‘world’ of his own limitations and confusions.” He goes on to state that Kerouac’s poems themselves “provide an intensely vivid witness of both writer and time.”
Other books published later in Kerouac’s career include The Dharma Bums and Big Sur.
Jack Kerouac died from a chronic liver disease on October 21, 1969, at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.