Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. His writings have inspired other writers, including Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Richard Brautigan, Curtis Meanor, Thomas Pynchon, Lester Bangs, Tom Robbins, Will Clarke, Ben Gibbard, Haruki Murakami, Jacquelyn Landgraf. Kerouac became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements. In 1969, at age 47, Kerouac died from internal bleeding due to long-standing abuse of alcohol. Since his death Kerouac's literary prestige has grown and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, among them: On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody and Big Sur.
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, of St-Hubert-de-Riviere-du-Loup in the province of Quebec, Canada. There is some confusion surrounding his original name, partly due to variations on the spelling of Kerouac, and partly because of Kerouac's own promotion of his name as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. His reason for doing so seems to be linked to an old family legend that the Kerouacs had descended from Baron François Louis Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac. Kerouac's baptism certificate lists his name simply as Jean Louis Kirouac, and indeed Kirouac is the most common spelling of the name in Quebec. Kerouac claimed he descended from a Breton nobleman, granted land after the Battle of Quebec, whose sons all married Native Americans. Research has shown that Kerouac's roots were indeed in Brittany, and he was descended from a middle-class merchant colonist, Urbain-François Le Bihan, Sieur de Kervoac, whose sons married French Canadians. Kerouac's own father had been born to a family of potato farmers in the village of Saint-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup. He also had various stories on the etymology of his surname, usually tracing it to Irish, Breton, or other Celtic roots. In one interview he claimed it was the name of a dead Celtic language and in another said it was from the Irish for "language of the water" and related to Kerwick. Kerouac, derived from Kervoach, is the name of one hamlet situated in Brittany in Lanmeur, near Morlaix.
The Kirouack family was living there in 1926 when Jack's big brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of nine. Jack was four at the time, and would later say that Gerard followed him in life as a guardian angel. This is the Gerard of Kerouac's novel Visions of Gerard.
Despite the future elaborations, around the house during his childhood, Kerouac was referred to as Ti Jean or little John. Kerouac spoke the French-Canadian dialect called Joual until he learned English at age six, not speaking it confidently until his late teens. He was a serious child who was devoted to his mother who played an important role in his life. She was a devout Catholic, instilling this into both her sons; this can be seen throughout his works. Kerouac would later go on to say that his mother was the only woman he ever loved. When he was four, he was profoundly affected by the death of his nine-year-old brother, Gérard, from rheumatic fever, an event later described in his novel Visions of Gerard. His mother sought solace in her faith, while his father abandoned it wallowing in drinking, gambling and smoking. Some of Kerouac's poetry was written in French, and in letters written to friend Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life, he expressed his desire to speak his parents' native tongue again. Recently, it was discovered that Kerouac first started writing On the Road in French, a language in which he also wrote two unpublished novels. The writings are in dialectal Quebec French.
On May 17, 1928, while six years old, Kerouac had his first Sacrament of Confession. For penance he was told to say a rosary, during the meditation of which he could hear God tell him that he had a good soul, that he would suffer in his life and die in pain and horror, but would in the end have salvation. This experience, along with his dying brother's vision of the Virgin Mary, and the nuns' fawning over the dying boy, convinced that he was a saint, incorporated with later found Buddhism and ongoing commitment to Christ, solidified into his worldview which informs his work.
There were few black people in Lowell, so the young Kerouac was not raised in an environment of racial hatred as many were at the time. Kerouac once recalled to Ted Berrigan, in an interview with the Paris Review, an incident from the 1940s, in which his mother and father were walking together in a Jewish neighborhood in the Lower East Side of New York, saying "And here comes a whole bunch of rabbis walking arm in arm... teedah- teedah - teedah... and they wouldn't part for this Christian man and his wife. So my father went POOM! and knocked a rabbi right in the gutter." His father, after the death of his child and apostasy, had treated a priest with similar contempt, angrily throwing him out of the house after an invitation by Gabrielle.
Kerouac's athletic skills as a running back in American football for Lowell High School earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University. He entered Columbia University after spending a year at Horace Mann School, where he earned the requisite grades to matriculate to Columbia. Kerouac cracked a tibia playing football during his freshman season, and he argued constantly with Coach Lou Little who kept him benched. While at Columbia, Kerouac wrote several sports articles for the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator and joined the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta. He also studied at The New School.
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