Jack Kerouac 1957-1969: The Years of Toxic Popularity

Jack Kerouac lived a life that symbolized freedom.  Kerouac’s great novel was about the freedom that comes from traveling.  His literary style was modeled after the improvisational free spirit of Jazz music.  After Kerouac first got published and fame came with the popularity of On the Road, he began to lose the latitude he enjoyed from being an unknown.   Jack Kerouac began to drink more as the world he knew and loved changed dramatically.  His books became accounts of his current despair and recollections of his youth. In his final days, Kerouac isolated himself from much of the counterculture movement he reluctantly started.

Jack Kerouac wanted to catalog his entire life in autobiographical novels similar to Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past.  Kerouac once said ‘I intend to collect all my work and reinsert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy” (Kerouac,Charters).  Kerouac began working toward this goal with The Town and the City . In the novel, Kerouac writes about his family’s struggles with finances and the differences between his life in the town and the city. (Amburn 123-127).  Allen Ginsberg hailed the book as a masterpiece and with the help of Kerouac’s former professor at Columbia University Mark Van Doren, the book was published in 1950 by Harcourt Brace

(Amburn 123-127).

Shortly after Kerouac started working on The Town and the City, he met Neal Cassady in 1946 and their first meeting is recounted in the book On The Road.  While The Town and The City followed a standard novel narrative format, On the Road debuted Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style (Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com).  In order to write in this style, Kerouac typed out the manuscript of On The Road on a roll of paper so that he would not have to pause and replace the paper in the typewriter. (Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com)

On The Road is considered the Great American Novel. (Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com). The story recounts Kerouac’s first trips across America between 1947 to 1950.  Joyce Johnson recounts Kerouac’s hopes for On The Road “ he was hoping the book would bring him a little money and some recognition in literary circles for what he called his “spontaneous bop prose.” (Johnson www.boingboing.net).  Jack Kerouac did obtain the recognition he desired after Viking Press released On The Road 1n 1957 and this success would change his life. (Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com).

The characters in On The Road, though renamed were also writers who became known as Beat writers. The term Beat is attributed to Jack Kerouac who first used the term and the literary movement became known as the Beat

Generation. (Kerouac,Charters).  The term beatnik became a blanket description of everyone associated with drugs, jazz and homosexuality and Jack Kerouac was referred to as the ‘King of the Beat Generation.”  The King of the Beats and much of what that title implied was rejected by Kerouac who said ‘I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic” (wikipedia).

Displayed his disillusionment toward his title in the following passage from Big Sur, “..the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic…about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers….I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me…like those pathetic five highschool kids who all came to my door in Long Island one night wearing jackets that said ‘Dharma Bums’ on them, all expecting me to be 25 years old according to a mistake on a book jacket and here I am old enough to be their father (Kerouac Big Sur pgs109-110)

The demands placed on Kerouac required him to make appearances on television and in his book Big Sur, the author recounts his experience on the Steve Allen Show,”the hell with the hot lights of Hollywood ( remembering that awful time one year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights on the Steve Allen Show….one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching..as he plunks at the piano, I sit there on the dunce’s stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth,’I don’t have to REHEARSE for God’s sake Steve!’-‘But go ahead, we just wanta get the tome of your voice’….and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute….finally I say ‘No I can’t do it’ and I go …get drunk)(but surprising everybody  the night of show by doing my job of reading just fine.(Kerouac, Big Sur Pgs.24-25)

Viking Press, the publishing house demanded Kerouac to produce a second book so they could build off of the success of On The Road. This second book  became known as The Dharma Bums . Unlike On the Road which had some names being changed and the toning down of content to make it more accessible, The Dharma Bums was altered drastically by Viking Press (Wikipedia,Gifford,Lee Jack’s Book).

The noted publicist Malcolm Cowely recounts  his experiences with Kerouac and The Dharma Bums “It’s very acceptable prose, but this time he had a terrible fight with Viking about the changes that his editor and copy-editing department had made in the style…he got mixed up and thought I was responsible for them. I never saw the manuscript…I read it as a book. I never liked the Dharma Bums very much, because it had no people in it except Jack and Gary Snyder.” (Gifford,Lee ‘Jack’sBook pgs242-243)

The story of the Dharma Bums is about Jack Kerouac and poet Gary Snyder’s search for Zen truths while they studied Buddhism.  Kerouac’s new found notoriety brought literary and content criticism from Zen teachers Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Alan Watts, the latter of which became a friend of Kerouac’s

(Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com).  As the figurehead of an entire movement, Kerouac became severely alcoholic while he received all of the pangs of his success.

Kerouac was aware of his alcoholism and his experiences which made up the text of Big Sur explain how the man was not coping with his problem.  In the following passage, Kerouac explains alcoholism. “Any drinker knows how the process works: the first day you get drunk is okay, the morning after means a big head…you can kill with a few drinks and a meal, but if you pass up the meal and go on to another night’s drunk, and wake up to keep the toot going, and continue on to the fourth day, there’ll come one day when the drinks wont take effect because you’re chemically overloaded and you’ll have to sleep it off but can’t sleep any more because it was alcohol itself that made you sleep those last five nights, so delirium sets in-Sleeplessness, sweat, trembling, a groaning feeling of weakness where your arms are numb and useless, nightmares (nightmares of death).” (Kerouac, Big Sur pgs 74-75). Big Sur was the last novel that would make up the Legend of Duluoz collection although the author would continue to write about his youth in future works.

In Big Sur, Kerouac concludes the novel with a detailed account of his nervous breakdown. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep-Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me” (Kerouac Big Sur Pg 200).

During a paranoiac passage, Kerouac explains a premonition of his death.

“But angels are laughing and having a big barn dance in the rocks of the sea…Suddenly as clear as anything I ever saw in my life, I see the Cross…it stays a long time, my heart goes out to it, my whole body fades away to it.(Kerouac Big Sur Pgs.204-205)

After Kerouac’s breakdown on Big Sur in 1960, he returned home to be with his mother in Northport New York.  Kerouac attempted to improve his physical health and continue to work. (Gifford, Lee Jack’s Book pg.295).

Big Sur was released in 1962. The novel earned critical success for its realistic accounts of sickness and madness (Gifford, Lee. Jack’s Book pg. 295) .  With the release of the novel, Kerouac began to move up and down the east coast. Kerouac still lived with his mother Gabrielle and together they relocated from New York to Florida in 1960 and from Florida to Lowell, Massachusetts in October 1962. (Gifford, Lee. Jack’s Book pg. 295) .

As the sixties progressed, Kerouac’s alcoholism removed him as the head of the counter culture movement.  Kerouac’s friend and fellow Beat writer became  the figure head of the counter culture movement.  Kerouac, still dismissive toward the movement said “Ginsberg’s messianic robes don’t suit him.” (Amburn. “Subterranean Kerouac” )

In November of 1966, Jack Kerouac married Stella Sampas in Hyannis, Massachusetts . John Clellon Holmes describes Kerouac’s mood the night he got married. “During their wedding celebration, he called us, and he put Stella on the phone. I had never met Stella-knew about her of course…he was drunk and happy. He sounded great. (Gifford, Lee Jack’s Book pg.304)

Though Kerouac was married, his wife describes his isolation after marriage.  “It was bad for Jack, living in Florida. He had no real friends. In Lowell, Jack was…as isolated as he had been in Florida. Though she (Kerouac’s Mother) was fairly incapacitated by her stroke he was still operating under the stern eye of Memere.” (Gifford, Lee Pgs305-306).

With Kerouac’s mother sick, the author attempted to continue his writing.  Between March and May of 1967, Kerouac wrote a reworking of the period of his life he covered in The Town and The City called the Vanity of Duloz. (Gifford,Lee Jack’sBook. Amburn, Subbteranean Kerouac Pg. 356)

In February of 1968, Kerouac was told by his friend Luanne Henderson that Neal Cassady had died in Mexico City.  Henderson spoke of Kerouac’s reaction after hearing of Cassady’s death “Afterward, Jack liked to pretend he didn’t really think Neal was dead, even telling interviewers from The Paris Review that Neal would show up again someday and surprise everyone.” (Gifford, Lee pg.310).

After resettling in Florida by 1968, Kerouac settled with his wife and together they tried to take care of the author’s ailing mother. Kerouac’s childhood friend  GJ Apostolos, recounted Kerouac’s life during his final year. “Jack wrote very little during his final year. He had two ideas for what the next book should be, speaking often to his new Florida friends of his desire to write a novel covering the ten years of his life since On The Road was published…only a few nights before his death, he had decided to call it ‘Spotlight Print’.  Because he needed the money, Jack resurrected Pic, his imaginary chronicle of a black boy in the South, padded it to a novella-length and sold it to Grove Press.  Stella and Memere talked him out of his original ending, in which the black boy who narrates the story hooks up with Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise. Jack to his typewriter to Gabrielle’s (Memere,Kerouac’s Mother) bedside, and she helped him write the final scene, in which a priest saves the boy from a wasted life on the road.  Jack rarely went out of the house. He had no one but Stella and Memere to talk to..sat with the shades drawn in against the Florida sun, watching television with the sound off, playing Handel’s Messiah on the phonograph as loud as it would go. He was forty-seven years old. (Gifford,Lee pgs 312-313)

Kerouac died on October 21st 1969.  The official cause of Kerouac’s death was bleeding esophageal varices caused by cirrhosis. (Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com).  Kerouac’s wake was described by his childhood friend Scotty Beaulieu as being  “ a big mess, full of hippies and whole crowd of people laughing and talking. It was so crowded and noisy you couldn’t even get close to his coffin. (Gifford,Lee. Jack’s Book Pg. 314)

Jack Kerouac lived a life devoted to the free spirit he cherished.  In his novel On The Road the life he lived became a symbol of freedom which resulted in the development of an entire Beat movement. The price for Kerouac’s vision led to his success which in turn resulted in excessive alcoholism.


Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac. New York, St.Martin’s Press, 1998.

Gifford, Barry & Lee, Lawrence Jack’s Book an Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac New York, St. Martin’s Press 1994

Kerouac, Jack. The Portable Jack Kerouac Ed. Charters, Ann. Penguin Books, 1995.

Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters 1957-1969 Ed. Charters, Ann. Penguin Books 1999

Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur Penguin Books 1962

Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody Penguin Books 1960

Kerouac, Jack The Town and The City New York. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1950

Johson, Joyce “Joyce Johnson: Jack Kerouac and the 50th anniversary of On The Road” boingboing.net posted by David Pescovitz. Date accessed Nov. 20, 2008


WikipediaStaff.wikipedia.com. date accessed Nov. 20, 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_Novel

Wikipedia Staff.wikipedia.com date accessed Nov. 20, 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Kerouac


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