...in 1948, Lowell native Jack Kerouac happily noted in his diary that he had written 2500 words. If he could keep up this pace, he would finish his first novel in a matter of weeks. The highly autobiographical The Town and the City was published in 1950, the same year he began writing On the Road, the novel that earned him the title "Father of the Beat Generation." By the time he died at the age of 47 Jack Kerouac had published 14 books. On the Road is Kerouac's most-read work today; it is widely considered one of the most important and influential American novels of the twentieth century, and Jack Kerouac is celebrated as one of Lowell's favorite sons.
In the spring of 1948, 21-year-old Jack Kerouac struggled to complete his first novel, a mammoth work of 12,000 manuscript pages that he had wrestled with for over two years. In the fall of 1947 the Lowell youth began recording the number of words he wrote each day in a "writing log."
As the months wore on the writing began to get easier. On Friday, November 7th Kerouac noted in his journal, "2500 words today in a few hours. This may be it freedom. And mastery! so long denied me in my long mournful years of work . . . Not that it's easier, it's only more myself." By March 23, 1948 an upbeat Kerouac estimated that at his current rate he could complete his 360,000-word project in the next two months. In a jaunty journal entry he wrote: "Now if I can only get a dime for each one of those words I'll buy a farm in Colorado and write another book."
Kerouac did not buy a farm in Colorado, but he did write another book, On the Road, one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century. Kerouac spent several years crisscrossing the United States on a bohemian odyssey with his friend, Neal Cassady. As he traveled, he filled his notebooks with his observations of everyday American life.
Over a period of three weeks in the spring of 1950, Kerouac typed one, unbroken paragraph about his travels on ten 12-foot rolls of paper that he later taped together. For 56 years, this original, unedited version of the novel remained unpublished, accessible only to scholars.
Kerouac spent the next six years revising the book. When On the Road was published in 1957, a New York Times reviewer was quick to describe it as "an historic occasion." Kerouac's tale of two friends on a mad quest to find meaning through the sensuous pursuit of drink, sex, speed, jazz, and mysticism quickly became the bible of the restless post-war "Beat" generation.
Jack Kerouac was born in 1922, the son of French Canadian immigrants to the Merrimack Valley. His mother was a devout Catholic. Although he became deeply involved in practicing and popularizing Buddhism, he always considered himself a Catholic. His first language was Quebecois; learning English as a second language gave the young Kerouac an appreciation for the pliability of words.
In a brief "resume" of his life that he included in the beginning of his book Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac described his childhood as "beautiful"; he "roamed fields and riverbanks day and night, wrote little novels in my room. . . invented horse-racing and baseball and football worlds . . . ."
In reality, he grew up in a working-class ethnic neighborhood in an industrial city. His older brother idolized by his parents died tragically when Jack Kerouac was four. The death traumatized the family and left Jack with a lifelong sense of being unable to meet his parents' needs or expectations. The Kerouacs discouraged their son's dreams of writing as impractical and unpromising.
Kerouac turned his energies to sports and excelled at baseball, track, and football. A star athlete at Lowell High School, he received a scholarship to Columbia University. A broken leg ended Kerouac's athletic career when he was still a freshman, and he drifted in and out of Columbia for several years, leaving without a degree.
During World War II he served in the Merchant Marines and the Navy. After the war he returned to New York City and reconnected with friends from his college days, including the novelist William Burroughs and the poet Allen Ginsberg.
These men and women were well aware that their values were completely at odds with post-war materialism, the growing military-industrial state, and the rampant social conformism of 1950s society. They took to calling themselves and other young people who shared their "outsider" status the "Beats."
In 1946 Kerouac met Neal Cassady, a man who lived his life in a "mad rush," a restless search for sensory experiences and for an undefined mystical "it." The two traveled the country together, and their shared adventures formed the basis of Kerouac's second and greatest novel, On the Road. Kerouac said he wanted to write about "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 best known writer of the "Beat" generation, Jack Kerouac eventually wrote more than a dozen books. Young people were especially drawn to his work. Many established literary critics complained that his books had little or no plot and that his characters had no moral values. Others, such as the New York Times Gilbert Millstein, praised Kerouac's prose and heralded him as the voice of a generation searching for belief. "The 'Beat Generation' was born disillusioned," he wrote in 1958; "it takes for granted the imminence of war, the barrenness of politics and the hostility of the rest of society . . . It does not know what refuge it is seeking, but it is seeking."
Unnerved by the media spotlight and the extraordinary adulation of his readers, Kerouac spent more and more time at his childhood home. By 1966, he had returned to Lowell with his third wife to live with and care for his ailing mother.
In Lonesome Traveler, he concluded his "resume" by noting, "am actually not 'Beat' but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic . . . Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise (which comes to everybody anyway)." It did not turn out that way. Jack Kerouac died in 1969 at the age of 47 from a hemorrhage suffered in a drunken bar fight.
In June of 1988, Lowell held a week-long festival with poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg and others. The city dedicated the Kerouac Commemorative, a granite monument in the shape of a cross and arrow made up of eight three-sided panels, each etched with passages from Kerouac's work.
Of Kerouac's 14 books, On the Road
is still the most widely read today. It has sold over 3,500,000 copies and remains popular more than 50 years after it was written. In 2001 the scroll on which it was first typed sold at auction for $2,400,000; the money went to settle his estate's debts and the scroll went on a national tour, which included a stop in Lowell in the summer of 2007. In 2006 Viking Penquin announced that it would publish the original, unedited draft for the first time.
Jack Kerouac: Windblown World - The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, ed. by Douglas Brinkley (Viking, 2004).
Lowell Sun, May 23, 2001.
New York Times Book Review, September 5, 1957.
New York Times, September 8, 1957 and May 22, 2001.
"Jack Kerouac" in Dictionary of American Biography.
Boston Globe, July 27, 2006.