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Jack Kerouac Biography

(1922–69), The Town and the City, On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax

city novel town visions

American novelist, born Jean Louis Lebrid de Kerouac of French-Canadian parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, educated at Columbia University and the New York School for Social Research. Following service in the US Merchant Marine, he worked in various capacities in New York while writing his first novel, The Town and the City (1950). The book's elaborate adaptation of his personal experience and familial history drew comparisons with the fiction of Thomas Wolfe; the ending, in which the principal protagonist leaves the city in his quest for more authentic values, links the work with his famous novel of restless journeying, On the Road (1957). The conventionally disciplined manner of The Town and the City was henceforth superseded by what Kerouac termed ‘spontaneous prose’, the urgently paced and fluently discursive idiom of his best-known work. His principal novels form quasi-autobiographical narratives of his highly mobile experiences from around 1949 onward; titles include The Dharma Bums (1958), an account of striving for purity of being through Zen Buddhism, in which Gary Snyder is portrayed as ‘Japhy Ryder’; The Subterraneans (1958), evoking the San Francisco literary milieu of the early 1950s; Doctor Sax (1959), concerning the adolescence of his persona ‘Jack Duluoz’; and Visions of Gerard (1963), an elegiac treatment of the death of a spiritually gifted child in which Kerouac's Roman Catholic sensibility is most clearly apparent. After the remarkable success of On the Road he was exposed to intense publicity, emerging in the public consciousness as the leader of the Beat Generation; Big Sur (1962) announced his increasing withdrawal from the identity his writing had conferred on him. Desolation Angels (1965), his last major work, forms a wistfully retrospective account of the earlier years of the Beat movement. Among his numerous other publications are Visions of Cody (1970), the most freely improvisatory demonstration of ‘spontaneous prose’; Maggie Cassidy (1959) and Tristessa (1960), both centring on love affairs; the travel sketches of Lonesome Traveller (1960); and the lyrical and experimental poetry of Mexico City Blues and Scattered Poems (1971). The fullest of several biographies of Kerouac is Gerald Nicosia's Memory Babe (1983). See also Black Mountain Writers and San Francisco Renaissance.

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