Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jack Kerouac

I can't make heads or tails out of the man's work, but I'm told he's Terrribly Important, so here's something courtesy of The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He was part of the "Beat Generation," and he came up with the name. He said, "To me, it meant being poor, like sleeping in the subways ... and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about apocalypse and all that." Later, Kerouac decided that "beat" stood for "beatific."

His parents were from French-speaking Quebec, and he did not start learning English until grade school. He skipped second and third grades, and as a 16-year-old senior, he ditched class in order to go alone to the public library and read what he wanted: Hugo, Goethe, Hemingway, William Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, history books, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and books of chess problems. He was a good football player and received a scholarship to Columbia University, but he broke his leg in the first season and didn't play anymore. He dropped out of Columbia, joined the Merchant Marine and then the Navy, and was given a psychiatric discharge after only two months, having been labeled as a "schizoid personality." The next fall, he went back to Columbia where he dropped out again almost immediately, but kept his apartment near campus and it became a gathering place for young intellectuals. During that time, he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, Neal Cassady, and others who would help found the Beat Movement.

He spent the next seven years hitchhiking around the United States and Mexico, and in 1949 he and his friend Neal Cassady drove a Cadillac limousine from California to Chicago, going over 100 miles an hour on two-lane roads until the speedometer broke. In 1951, he sat at his kitchen table, taped sheets of Chinese art paper together to make a long roll, and wrote the story of Cassady and their trips. It had no paragraphs and very little punctuation. Allen Ginsberg called it "a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the road itself." It took him only three weeks to complete and became his novel On the Road (1957).

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