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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jack Kerouac


Today is the birthday of Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He was from a working-class French-Canadian family; he grew up speaking French, and he wasn't fluent in English until he was a teenager. Kerouac was a star football player, and after an impressive performance in the Thanksgiving Day game his senior year, he was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. In New York City, he met a group of friends who would eventually be known as the Beat Generation — Allen Ginsberg, William S. Boroughs, Neal Cassady, and others. Kerouac wrote his novel On the Road (1957) about Cassady.

Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in just 20 days, during a coffee-fueled writing spree in the spring of April 1951. He typed it on translucent draft paper that he found in a closet at a friend's apartment — he cut the paper to size and taped it together so it would work in his typewriter. It's true that Kerouac produced that version of On the Road in just a few weeks, but the novel itself was a long time in the making. In 1947, Kerouac began collecting material for a new novel. In 1948, he described it in his journal: "Two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don't really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else." Notes and ideas for the novel filled hundreds of pages of journals, letters, and notebooks. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "These ideas and plans obsess me so much that I can't conceal them [...] they overflow out of me, even in bars with perfect strangers." Throughout those years of writing Kerouac continued to take cross-country trips with Neal Cassady, and recorded their adventures and conversations.

In late March of 1951, his friend John Clellon Holmes had just finished a novel about the Beats, and he showed Kerouac the manuscript. Kerouac was angry, convinced that Holmes had stolen his subject matter. Kerouac's wife convinced her husband that instead of stewing about it, he should go ahead and get his own novel written. He began writing on April 2nd and finished on the 22nd. He wrote to Cassady: "Story deals with you and me and the road [...] Plot, if any, is devoted to your development from young jailkid of early days to later (present) W.C. Fields saintliness ... step by step in all I saw. [...] I've telled all the road now. Went fast because the road is fast ... wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long (tracing paper that belonged to Cannastra) — just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs ... rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road."

Once Kerouac finished that draft, he rewrote it, typing it up on normal paper. Then he tried to get it published, but it was rejected again and again. In 1957, On the Road was finally published by Viking, who had previously turned it down. They offered Kerouac a $900 advance, which his agent managed to negotiate to $1,000, but the publishers paid it out in $100 increments because they didn't trust that Kerouac would use the money well. Viking editors insisted that Kerouac change the names of real people so they couldn't be sued for libel, so Neal Cassady became Dean Moriarty.

When it was published, On the Road got mixed reviews, but its success made Kerouac famous — and uncomfortable. He wrote to a friend: "I really wanta dig into my art like a maniac and pay no attention to promotion (which everybody wants me to do ... what a waste of sweet life!)" But now that he was famous; he was able to publish the previously rejected novels that he had written before On the Road. Kerouac considered all of his novels as parts of a whole cycle, which he called The Duluoz Legend. He told his editor: "When I'm done, in about 10, 15 years, it will cover all the years of my life, like Proust, but done on the run, a Running Proust."

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