In the 1950’s Jack Kerouac coined the phrase “Beat Generation” – for the group he co-founded with poet Alan Ginsberg and others. The “Beats” held a philosophy based on of the rejection of formalized conventions of art and literature, which they felt suffocated creativity.
In 1957, Kerouac achieved critical and popular success with his novel, “On the Road.” The unconventional style brought years of rejection from publishers. Finally, Viking Press took it on. Enough writers have opted Kerouac’s style to qualify him as one of the most influential writer of his generation.
On October 21, 1969 his bar tab came due on twenty some years of boozing. Doctors were unable to stop internal hemorrhaging that had continued for over six hours. At 5:15 am Kerouac died. He was only 46.
He left us with something special – the provocation of thought.
- “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” – The Dharma Bums
- “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
- “The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view” – On The Road
- “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.“
- “I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” – On The Road
- “But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back.”
Jean Louis (Jack) Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on March 12, 1922. Jack had a brother, Gérard, five years his senior, who died from rheumatic fever at nine. Jack was deeply affected and for the rest of his life he kept Gérard in his consciousness. The death changed the family dynamic. Jack’s father drank heavily and his mother practiced her Catholic faith with greater devotion, teaching Jack that he must be devout. In 1963 he published Visions of Gerard.
A Young Man
Kerouac was a star running back in high school. He turned down scholarships from Boston College and Notre Dame, choosing Columbia University. An injury occurring early in his first season kept him on the bench long after he began to argue that he was fit to return to the field. The discouragement eventually led him to drop out. After leaving school he continued to live in the New York apartment that he shared with his girlfriend Edie Parker. By 1942, when Kerouac left for a stint in the Merchant Marines the friendships had already been formed -those with the people who would be known collectively as the founders of the Beat Generation. The group included Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs.
In 1943 after completing his service in the Merchant Marines, Kerouac joined the navy to continue his service. The details are not clear but after about a week on duty he was in civvies holding an honorable discharge along with a medical evaluation from the navy characterizing him as “schizoid” and concluding him to be of “indifferent character.”
The events of the following year included a charge of accessory to murder and a two month marriage to Edie Parker. Kerouac’s indictment alleged he assisted his friend, Lucien Carr, in destroying evidence of a murder committed by Carr. Eventually charges were dropped. Carr had killed someone, but it was judged an act of self-defense.
The Road to Success
It was during the late forties that Kerouac and Neal Cassady took off on the road trip that provided the experiences and ideas that Kerouac would craft into his groundbreaking novel, On the Road. In 1950 his novel The Town and the City was published. It was not very successful but he showed no discouragement. This period included another brief marriage, to Joan Haverty, lasting eight months. He continued to work hard, finding reward at the publication and popularity of On the Road in 1957. He moved to Florida, and spent the next dozen years publishing another half dozen books, and alternately loving and loathing his celebrity status. He was on his third marriage when he widowed Stella Sampas Kerouac in 1969.
Romance paints the story as the triumph of the creative over the literary artifacts, sequestered in moldy universities. In fact, the struggle was with the commercial houses that speculate on the printing and distribution of books as a financial endeavor. In the 1950s there were no alternatives for writers, publishers brandished the majority of power. Success for Kerouac and the Beats was not in Viking’s determination of market value, but in the reading public’s acceptance and enjoyment of the work. Viking tossed the dice and provided access to the guy with the name with the beat and the rhyme, “nick knack paddy wack,” Beat, Jack Kerouac.
1950 – The Town and the City
1957 – On The Road
1958 – The Subterraneans
1958 – The Dharma Bums
1959 – Doctor Sax
1959 – Maggie Cassidy
1960 – Tristessa
1960 – Lonesome Traveller (autobiographical)
1960 – Book of Dreams
1962 – Big Sur
1963 – Visions of Gerard
1965 – Desolation Angels
1966 – Satori in Paris
1968 – The Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education 1935-46
1971 – Pic
1972 – Visions of Cody
1995 – Some of the Dharma (a collection of early writings)
2000 – Orpheus Emerged (from a novella completed in 1945)
2008 – And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (with William S. Burroughs, originally written in 1944)
From Wikipedia discussing the Beat Generation
In 1982, Allen Ginsberg published a summary of “the essential effects” of the Beat Generation:
- Spiritual liberation, sexual “revolution” or “liberation,” i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women’s liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism.
- Liberation of the world from censorship.
- Demystification and/or decriminalization of cannabis and other drugs.
- The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other popular musicians influenced in the later fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets’ and writers’ works.
- The spread of ecological consciousness, emphasized early on by Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, the notion of a “Fresh Planet.”
- Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization, as emphasized in writings of Burroughs, Huncke, Ginsberg, and Kerouac.
- Attention to what Kerouac called (after Spengler) a “second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization.
- Return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation.
- Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures, as proclaimed by Kerouac in his slogan from On the Road: “The Earth is an Indian thing.”