With influences spanning Zen Buddhism and jazz, the author’s oeuvre reflects his life as spiritual wayfarer
‘One day I will find the right words,’ Jack Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums. ‘They will be simple.’ For the father of the Beat Generation, best known for his 1957 novel On the Road, this ‘simple’ style entailed a process bordering on obsession. Rising in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Beats explored spirituality and adventure, often explicitly portraying the human condition as they saw it in underground and eccentric communities.
Kerouac would write unceasingly for weeks, and then spend months, sometimes years, struggling with his publishers, who insisted on editing his work. This extended to writing letters to his friends. Rather than texts separate from his oeuvre, these letters often served in lieu of rough drafts, and were penned in the same style as his novels, as if he were practicing, or seeing how it communicated meaning in practice.
In the Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts sale from 23 November to 7 December at Christie’s in New York, a selection of these letters will be exhibited for the first time.
Kerouac maintained a 22-year correspondence with his Columbia schoolmate Ed White, an architect. From ‘selling stories to buy beer’ in 1950 to the death of his friend and prominent character in his books Neal Cassady in 1968, the experiences recounted in Kerouac’s letters to White reveal the itinerant life and cast of characters that shaped his novels. In them, Kerouac also reminisces on how White influenced his prose style: ‘Did you know you were the one who gave me the idea about my new prose? Just sketch, “from memory”.’
Below are ten facts about one of America’s most important writers that explore those he influenced, as well as those who influenced him.
Kerouac’s first language was French, not English. Descended from a French Canadian family, he wrote a novella titled La Nuit est Ma Femme in native tongue before committing to English in his distinct steam-of-consciousness style for the On the Road scroll of 1951. Additionally, a collection of his writings in French, titled La vie est d’hommage, was published in 2016. It comprises two of his short French novels, as well as several unfinished short stories and fragments of work from mostly the early 1950s, with the latest being written in 1965.
The continued relevance of Kerouac’s oeuvre comes from the connection he fostered between writing and living. Much of the action in his novels comes from the experiences of real people. This raw, unvarnished quality connected his work to a wide audience who, at the time he was writing, were rethinking what literature could be and how to capture the polyphonic present in language.
The manuscript of On the Road was written in three weeks on a 120-foot-long roll of paper that Kerouac called ‘the scroll’. This scroll, made of scotch-taped pieces of tracing paper, was his method of translating the words from his mind to the page in the most effortless way. The end of the scroll, however, is missing — it was reportedly chewed by a dog.
After the scroll was typed up, On the Road took nearly six years of editing and revising before the eventual publisher, Viking Press, bought it. From there, fearing a libel suit, they insisted that Kerouac change the names of the real people referenced in the story. Finally, in 1957, the book was published in the form we read today.
While Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times praised the novel, other critics were less impressed. Robert Kirsch in The Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote ‘Mr. Kerouac calls this “The Beat Generation,” but a much more accurate description would be “The Deadbeat Generation.”’ This bad press was widespread, but if anything it only fueled the nearly instant notoriety that On the Road achieved. Published on 5 September, 1957, it sold so well that a second edition was printed on 20 September, and a third shortly afterwards, reaching as high as the 11th best-selling novel in the country during that year.
A practising Catholic, Kerouac was also interested in Buddhist teachings and philosophy. The Dharma Bums, released in 1958, contrasts a bustling life of parties and poetry readings with a simpler, sublime setting. The work considers the possibility of transcendence in the modern era.
According to Kerouac, the ‘Beat’ in Beat Generation was a double entendre. It meant ‘beat’ as in tired, but it was also an abbreviated form of ‘beatitude,’ or blessedness. This is one of the many associations that link his writing life to his spirituality.
Musicians including Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and the Beatles have credited the rhythmic prose of Kerouac as a significant influence on their sound. The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek wrote in his book Light My Fire: My life with The Doors: ‘I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed.’
‘I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed’ — Ray Manzarek, The Doors
Along with many of other Beat writers, Kerouac wanted his work to have a similar rhythmic feel as the jazz musicians of the era. In the 1950s, he saw Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis breaking the genre out of its constraints, announcing the explosive presence of bebop.
They were musical revolutionaries, outsider artists, as much as he was one in literature. In a live poetry reading in the 1950s, shortly after Parker’s death, Kerouac called him ‘a great musician, a great creator of forms who,’ much like Kerouac himself, ‘ultimately found expression in morays and what-have-you.’
Written after the boom generated from On the Road, the 1961 novel, which follows a popular writer who mirrors the author himself, borrowed techniques and themes from his previous work. As was characteristic of his writing, many of the characters are named after his friends and family, although, in the novel Visions of Cody he says, ‘Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work.’
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Beyond the Beat Generation and its offshoots, Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness style and suggestive themes paved the way for American postmodern novels later in the 20th century, such as the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Heller. Much of the criticism directed at his work targeted what ultimately made the style he pioneered so revolutionary: his willingness to depart from traditional linear structure and embrace spontaneous and transcendent inspiration.