JACK KEROUAC is hardly an unfamiliar literary figure. In his lifetime he published seventeen books; several others have been published since his death. His best-known book, On the Road, has been translated into a score of languages. Kerouac has also been the subject of a number of biographies. The Portable Jack Kerouac and the first volume of Selected Letters, both edited by Ann Charters, were published in 1995. Also in 1995 a major scholarly conference devoted to Kerouac was held at New York University, signaling his full ascension to academic respectability. Kerouac's words and image appear in advertisements for cars and clothing. As the novelist William S. Burroughs observed, "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi's to both sexes."
But if Kerouac is not unfamiliar, he may nevertheless be underknown. Much of what he wrote has never been published. Indeed, much of what he wrote has been seen and read by only a handful of people. These unpublished materials, including letters, notebooks, and a voluminous diary that he started at the age of fourteen, are lodged in a bank vault in Kerouac's home town, Lowell, Massachusetts. In recent years the Kerouac estate has authorized the publication of a small portion of these writings. Now the great bulk of them has been turned over to the historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley plans during the next several years to produce, for Viking Press, a multi-volume edition of the Kerouac diaries and, based in part on this unpublished material, a new biography of Kerouac. With the excerpts and commentary that follow, Brinkley presents a preview of what the Kerouac archives offer—new insights into Kerouac's method of writing, his politics, his friendships, and the deepest preoccupations of a man who was, to say the least, deeply preoccupied.
by Douglas Brinkley
BORN on March 12, 1922, the youngest of three children in a French-Canadian family that had established itself in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac was by the age of ten already aiming to become a writer. His father ran a print shop and published a local newsletter called The Spotlight. Young Jack learned about layout at an early age in an atmosphere made intoxicating by the smell of printer's ink. Before long he began writing and producing his own sports sheet, which he sold to friends and acquaintances in Lowell. He attended both Catholic and public schools, and won athletic scholarships to the Horace Mann prep school (in New York) and then to Columbia University. In New York he fell in with fellow literary-icons-to-be Allen Ginsberg, the poet, and William S. Burroughs, the novelist. A broken leg hobbled his college football career, and Kerouac quit Columbia in his sophomore year, eventually joining the merchant marine and then the Navy (from which he was discharged). Thus began the restless wandering that would characterize both his legacy and his life.
To Kerouac, "Beat"—a shorthand term for "beatitude" and the idea that the downtrodden are saintly—was not about politics but about spirituality and art. The thirty published and unpublished books he wrote from 1941 to 1969 include Kerouac's thirteen-volume, more or less autobiographical "Legend of Duluoz"—a study of a particular lifetime, his own, in the manner of Honoré de Balzac's Human Comedy or Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
Kerouac set out to become the quintessential literary myth-maker of postwar America, creating his "Legend of Duluoz" by spinning poetic tall tales about his adventures. "I promise I shall never give up, and that I'll die yelling and laughing," Kerouac wrote in his diary in 1949. "And that until then I'll rush around this world I insist is holy and pull at everyone's lapel and make them confess to me and to all." At a time when Norman Mailer was playing sociologist by studying "White Negro" hipsters, Kerouac sought to depict his fascinatingly inchoate friend Neal Cassady as the modern-day equivalent of the Wild West legends Jim Bridger, Pecos Bill, and Jesse James. Like the Lowell boy he never quite ceased to be, Kerouac saw football players and range-worn cowboys as the paragons of the true America; his diaries teem with references to "folk heroes" and praise for Zane Grey's honest drifters, Herman Melville's confidence men, and Babe Ruth's feats on the diamond and in the barroom. Kerouac brought Cassady into the American mythical pantheon as "that mad Ahab at the wheel," compelling others to join his roaring drive across Walt Whitman's patchwork Promised Land.
While gathering material for On the Road, criss-crossing America, Kerouac stopped in the eastern Montana town of Miles City. Soon Kerouac had one of his many epiphanies. "In a drugstore window I saw a book on sale—so beautiful!" he wrote in his diary. "'Yellowstone Red,' a story of a man in the early days of the valley, & his tribulations & triumphs. Is this not better reading in Miles City than the Iliad?—their own epic?" Kerouac was intent on creating his own Yellowstone Red story—but in a modern context, where existential jazz players and lost highway speedsters would be celebrated as the new vagabond saints.