Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac

On March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts (which is home to a surprising number of famous figures). Kerouac had a tough start; his older brother Gerard died when little Jack was just 4, his father was an alcoholic and his parents struggled financially amidst the Great Depression. Focusing on the positives in his life, reading and sports, Kerouac earned a football scholarship to Columbia University. Football didn’t pay off when Kerouac broke his leg early in his freshman year, but gaining exposure to the life and culture of New York as a 17 year old proved to be the catharsis for his free-spirited literary career. Kerouac dropped out of Columbia and spent the next 17 years travelling and writing under the influence of sex, drugs and jazz. He came into fame in 1957 when his novel On the Road, a somewhat fictionalized account of his travels supposedly written on a single 120-foot scroll in three weeks, fell into the hands of eager readers.

Historically, Kerouac is credited as one of the fathers of the Beat Generation along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The culture of the day is a subject in and of itself, but it’s his ideas on writing that I’m interested in. In addition to his popular list of 30 tenets about writing and thought, he also had a list of essentials that guided his style of “Spontaneous Prose.” I won’t list them all, but generally, the process is a one-and-done method. Begin writing, and don’t stop for anything, not even periods. You’re an improv jazz musician willing your performance on stage in the heat of the moment. If you can’t think of a word, oh well. If you didn’t write what you really meant, too bad. What you will end up with is a first draft that is full of truth, because revision forces you to lie about what you really meant in that moment, or so it goes. I personally can’t subscribe to this sort of writing. Just in this blog post, I’ve reread and edited sentences and I’m not even to the end yet. However, as an experimental form or as a means of battling writer’s block, I think there is something to this. The proof is in the pudding, so below is my attempt at this improv-style, Spontaneous Prose:

When I hear the name Jack Kerouac ai thinka bout what he must have been as a writer and what sort of thoughts he had and nits not babout what he would have felt after the thought–but what he may have been thinking in the moment but thats just sjtupid becaouse andyone can say that and not have to answer rfor the consqeuences but just have to come up with a reality fort it later

THIS IS REALLY TOUGH! I have a knee jerk reaction to backspace when I know I have a typo…

Kerouac brought a lot of new ideas to writing that may not seem so revolutionary now, but may not be in existence otherwise. He was a prolific writer, having written 34 books of poetry, short story and novel over the course of 33 years. He passed in October 1969 of an abdominal hemorrhage.

Here is an excerpt from On the Road which I haven’t read, but is now on my growing list:

Great Chicago glowed red before our eyes. We were suddenly on Madison Street among hordes of hobos, some of them sprawled out on the street with their feet on the curb, hundreds of others milling in the doorways of saloons and alleys. “Wup! wup! look sharp for old Dean Moriarty there, he may be in Chicago by accident this year.” We let out the hobos on this street and proceeded to downtown Chicago. Screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried food and beer in the air, neons winking–“We’re in the big town, Sal! Whooee!” First thing to do was park the Cadillac in a good dark spot and wash up and dress for the night. Across the street from the YMCA we found a redbrick alley between buildings, where we stashed the Cadillac with her snout pointed to the street and ready to go, then followed the college boys up to the Y, where they got a room and allowed us to use their facilities for an hour. Dean and I shaved and showered, I dropped my wallet in the hall, Dean found it and was about to sneak it in his shirt when he realized it was ours and was right disappointed. Then we said good-by to those boys, who were glad they’d made it in one piece, and took off to eat in a cafeteria. Old brown Chicago with the strange semi-Eastern, semi-Western types going to work and spitting. Dean stood in the cafeteria rubbing his belly and taking it all in. He wanted to talk to a strange middle-aged colored woman who had come into the cafeteria with a story about how she had no money but she had buns with her and would they give her butter. She came in flapping her hips, was turned down, and went out flipping her butt. “Whoo!” said Dean. “Let’s follow her down the street, let’s take her to the ole Cadillac in the alley. We’ll have a ball.” But we forgot that and headed straight for North Clark Street, after a spin in the Loop, to see the hootchy-kootchy joints and hear the bop. And what a night it was. “Oh, man,” said Dean to me as we stood in front of a bar, “dig the street of life, the Chinamen that cut by in Chicago. What a weird town–wow, and that woman in that window up there, just looking down with her big breasts hanging from her nightgown, big wide eyes. Whee. Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”


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