Jack Kerouac is one of the most prolific authors of all time, known for writing the 1957 travel novel, On the Road. He was a leader of the infamous Beat movement of writers, and his literature had a broad cultural influence. Kerouac was also keenly aware of the society and the spirit of the 1950s.

October 21, 2019, marked the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s death. People know Kerouac, but they probably don’t know everything about him. Did you know he was a poet? Did you know he invented a form of poetry? There’s more to know about Kerouac than what meets the eye.

One of the Beat poets  

Born on March 12, 1922, as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac grew up as the son of a printer and a shoe factory employee. He attended a French-Canadian school, and he spoke fluent “joual,” a Canadian dialect of French. Because of this dialect, Kerouac considered himself a foreigner in his native country.

In 1940, Kerouac enrolled at the prestigious Columbia University, where he met two influential writers who would become his best friends: Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. The trio might not have been household names then, but they would eventually become prominent figures of the Beat literary movement.

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To fully understand Kerouac’s biography, readers need to understand the Beat poetry and literary movement. Known as the “down-and-out” movement in the 1950s, writers signified the bottom of entire existence (both financially and emotionally). However, through their writing, they were the most spiritually high group of individuals. These writers openly reflected American culture and politics, often criticizing society.

For example, Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl,” boldly declares: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Did you know he invented a form of poetry?

Kerouac dove headfirst into the Beat movement, and he wasn’t afraid to write what he felt was important. Following the advice of one of his friends from Columbia, who told Kerouac to sketch “like a painter, but with words,” Kerouac began writing poetry.

Inventing the American haiku  

Kerouac began writing poetry in the early 1950s, and he completed a collection of poems, Visions of Cody, in 1951-52. The collection was published posthumously in 1972. While he loved experimenting with poetic forms and prose styles, Kerouac departed himself from his fellow friends in the Beat movement by rewriting the Japanese haiku. He shifted from the traditional 17-syllable, three-line stanza to an American haiku. The poem still features three lines, but there isn’t a syllable regulation.

“I don’t think American haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop…I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language,” Kerouac explained. “Above all, a haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture.”

Kerouac’s mastery of the new form was demonstrated in his 1958 novel, The Dharm Burns. Kerouac clearly knew language, but that doesn’t mean he was always happy with his work.

His unfortunate decline

It’s hard to imagine Kerouac didn’t consider himself as a talented writer. He was often unhappy with the pace of his prose. But he soldiered on and kept writing, even long after the 1957 publication of his famous novel, On the Road.

But in 1969, Kerouac was broke, and many of his books were out of print. An alcoholic, he would often get into fights at bars. He was living with his third wife, Stella Kerouac, and his mother in St. Petersburg, Florida, when he died of internal hemorrhaging on October 21, 1969, while sitting in front of his television set.

But Kerouac’s legacy has persisted. Today, he is known for his “true-life” novels, and his quest for pure, unadulterated language. His prose was spontaneous. There will never be another voice like Jack Kerouac’s. No writer has even tried to compete against the literary legend.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Learn about the mysterious death of another famous literary figure, Edgar Allan Poe.

Read the biography of one of America’s most prolific authors, Ernest Hemingway.