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About Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the central figure of the Beat Generation, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922 and died in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1969. Among his many novels are On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, and Visions of Cody.
Photo by USGov (National Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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September 5th, 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of On the Road
Inspired by Jack Kerouac's adventures with Neal Cassady, On the Road tells the story of two friends whose cross-country road trips are a quest for meaning and true experience. Written with a mixture of sad-eyed naiveté and wild ambition and imbued with Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz, On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope, a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.
First published in 1958, a year after On the Road put the Beat Generation on the map, The Dharma Bums stands as one of Jack Kerouac's most powerful and influential novels. The story focuses on two ebullient young Americans--mountaineer, poet, and Zen Buddhist Japhy Ryder, and Ray Smith, a zestful, innocent writer--whose quest for Truth leads them on a heroic odyssey, from marathon parties and poetry jam sessions in San Francisco's Bohemia to solitude and mountain climbing in the High Sierras.
Though Jack Kerouac began thinking about the novel that was to become On the Road as early as 1947, it was not until three weeks in April 1951, in an apartment on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan, that he wrote the first full draft that was satisfactory to him. Typed out as one long, single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper that he later taped together to form a 120 foot scroll, this document is among the most significant, celebrated, and provocative artifacts in contemporary American literary history. It represents the first full expression of Kerouac’s revolutionary aesthetic, the identifiable point at which his thematic vision and narrative voice came together in a sustained burst of creative energy. It was also part of a wider vital experimentation in the American literary, musical, and visual arts in the post-World War II period.
It was not until more than six years later, and several new drafts, that Viking published, in 1957, the novel known to us today. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, Viking will publish the 1951 scroll in a standard book format. The differences between the two versions are principally ones of significant detail and altered emphasis. The scroll is slightly longer and has a heightened linguistic virtuosity and a more sexually frenetic tone. It also uses the real names of Kerouac’s friends instead of the fictional names he later invented for them. The transcription of the scroll was done by Howard Cunnell who, along with Joshua Kupetz, George Mouratidis, and Penny Vlagopoulos, provides a critical introduction that explains the fascinating compositional and publication history of On the Road and anchors the text in its historical, political, and social context.
This urgently paced yet deeply introspective novel closely tracks Jack Kerouac’s own life. Jack Duluoz journeys from the Cascade Mountains to San Francisco, Mexico City, New York, and Tangier. While working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Cascades, Duluoz contemplates his inner void and the distressing isolation brought on by his youthful sense of adventure. In Tangier he suffers a similar feeling of desperation during an opium overdose, and in Mexico City he meets up with a morphine-addicted philosopher and seeks an antidote to his solitude in a whorehouse.
As in Kerouac’s other novels, Desolation Angels features a lively cast of pseudonymous versions of his fellow Beat poets, including William S. Burroughs (as Bull Hubbard), Neal Cassady (as Cody Pomeray), and Allen Ginsberg (as Irwin Garden). Duluoz draws readers into the trials and tribulations of these literary iconoclasts—from drug-fueled writing frenzies and alcoholic self-realizations to frenetic international road trips and tumultuous love affairs. Achieving literary success comes with its own consequences though, as Duluoz and his friends must face the scrutiny that comes with rising to the national stage.
Written in 1951-52, Visions of Cody was an underground legend by the time it was finally published in 1972. Writing in a radical, experimental form ("the New Journalism fifteen years early," as Dennis McNally noted in Desolate Angel), Kerouac created the ultimate account of his voyages with Neal Cassady during the late forties, which he captured in different form in On the Road. Here are the members of the Beat Generatoin as they were in the years before any label had been affixed to them. Here is the postwar America that Kerouac knew so well and celebrated so magnificently. His ecstatic sense of superabundant reality is informed by the knowledge of mortality: "I'm writing this book because we're all going to die. . . . My heart broke in the general despair and opened up inward to the Lord, I made a supplication in this dream."
"The most sincere and holy writing I know of our age." Allen Ginsberg
“[A] pleasant and underrated surprise . . . [Visions of Gerard] has a winning simplicity and sweetness.” —The Washington Post
The first book in Kerouac's Duluoz Legend, a novella detailing the writer's early life as refracted through the prism of the untimely loss of his brother
Unique among Jack Kerouac's novels, Visions of Gerard captures the scenes and sensations of earliest childhood, the first four years in the life of Ti Jean Duluoz as they unfold in the short, tragic-happy life of his brother, Gerard. Set in Kerouac's hometown of Lovell, Massachusetts, childhood's intensity, innocence, suffering, and delight unfold as Gerard interacts with animals, has visions of Our Lady in heaven, astonishes the priest in the church confessional, and observes his family as they laugh and drink and weep—that is, when he isn't sick and confined to bed.
A novel that Kerouac called "my best most serious sad and true book yet," Visions of Gerard is a beautiful, unsettling, and melancholic exploration of the meaning and precariousness of existence.
Bringing together selections from literary journals and his private notebooks, Jack Kerouac’s Scattered Poems exemplifies the Beat Generation icon’s innovative approach to language. Kerouac’s poems, populated by hitchhikers, Chinese grocers, Buddhist saints, and cultural figures from Rimbaud to Harpo Marx, evoke the primal and the sublime, the everyday and the metaphysical. Scattered Poems, which includes the playfully instructive “How to Meditate,” the sensory “San Francisco Blues,” and an ode to Kerouac’s fellow Beat Allen Ginsberg, is rich in striking images and strident urgency.
Kerouac’s widespread influences feel new and fresh in these poems, which echo the rhythm of improvisational jazz music, and the centuries-old structure of Japanese haiku. In rebelling against the dry rules and literary pretentiousness he perceived in early twentieth-century poetry, Kerouac pioneered a poetic style informed by oral tradition, driven by concrete language with neither embellishment nor abstraction, and expressed through spontaneous, uncensored writing.