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Jack Kerouac's "On the Road": Fiction or Autobiograpy?

Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12, 1922, the youngest of three children in a French-Canadian family in the factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts. The family lived in French-Canadian neighborhoods in Lowell and spoke the French-Canadian dialect of joual in their home. It was Kerouac’s first language, and he spoke it in conversations with his mother, whom he called “Mamère,” and lived with on and off throughout his adult life, she in fact was a model for the character of aunt in "On the Road". He spent his childhood in Lowell, attending local Catholic and public schools, and his early adulthood in the East, attending Columbia College in New York City on a football scholarship. It was at Columbia College where he first met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

Following a quarrel with the football coach in his sophomore year, Kerouac left Columbia College, joined the Merchant Marines, and sailed to various Atlantic and Mediterranean ports as a seaman during World War II. In 1944, he was arrested as a material witness, having failed to report a homicide committed by Lucien Carr, one of his friends at Columbia. Believing him to have “disgraced the family name,” his father refused to post the $100 bail. On the condition that Jack marry Edie Parker, an art student at Columbia through whom he’d first met Lucien Carr, his father came up with the money. Jack and Edie separated soon afterwards and Kerouac signed aboard another merchant ship.

His first book, The Town and the City, published in 1950, was an attempt to explain “everything to everybody.” Kerouac had borrowed the style and structure of Thomas Wolfe’s Look HomewardAngel as his literary model for The Town and the City, but grew dissatisfied with the conventional result. As he later stated in a note prefacing his collection of poetry, Mexico City Blues: “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.” 

In a struggle to fashion a method of writing that could capture the freedom and creativity of Bebop in his prose fiction, Kerouac’s encounter with Neal Cassady, whom he would portray as Dean Moriarty in On the Road, proved to be pivotal. Cassady was visiting from Denver with his teenage wife, LuAnne, and staying with Hal Chase, a student at Columbia. Having grown up in Denver, living in skid row hotels with his alcoholic father, and serving time in a reformatory for stealing cars and joyriding, Cassady later decided to become a writer by learning how to write from Kerouac and Ginsberg. At first disconcerted by Cassady’s tough looks and demeanor, Kerouac’s second meeting with Neal early in 1947, described in the opening chapter of On the Road, opened him to the world of sex, drugs, and other wild “experiments” of his Columbia friends.

Kerouac with Neal Cassidy

As early as 1948, Kerouac had begun writing and making notes for the book he was already calling “On the Road.” Following initial bursts of excitement and hope for the project, he ended up dissatisfied, believing his work was too imitative of his models, Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe, and that his writing failed to capture the spontaneity and freedom of his “road” adventures. Having returned to his mother’s home from one of his trips in February 1949, and emotionally shattered by his wild rides with Cassady, he realized his “factualist” attempts at his “road book” could not be salvaged. In November 1950, feeling his life was drifting, Kerouac impulsively married for a second time a woman he had met a short time before in New York named Joan Haverty. Back in Denver, Cassady had begun writing letters to Jack that stunned both him and his new wife, Joan, with their loose, rambling sentences and meticulously detailed observations. Thinking Cassady’s letters “among the best things ever written in America,” as well as being inspired by the honesty of Burroughs’ first-person narratives of his drug addiction, Kerouac finally found the catalyst he needed to break with his earlier literary models, making the decision to “write it as it happened.”

In April 1951, taping together twelve-foot-long sheets of tracing paper, and feeding them into his typewriter as a continuous roll, Kerouac completed On the Road in a marathon burst of typing that lasted three weeks. Discouraged that his “road” book, along with several other novels and collections of poetry written between 1952 and 1957 were continually turned down by New York publishers, Kerouac gave up on the publishing world and turned to Buddhist practice. 

In 1953, he began writing reading notes on Buddhism for his friend, Allen Ginsberg. As his Buddhist study intensified, what had begun as notes evolved into an all-encompassing work of nonfiction, incorporating poems, haiku, prayers, journal entries, meditations, fragments of letters, ideas about writing, overheard conversations, sketches, blues, and more. The final manuscript (published as Some of the Dharma by Viking in 1997) was completed in 1956, to become part of what Kerouac thought of asThe Duluoz Legend.

Kerouac was thirty-five years old when On the Road was published in 1957. The media response was unrelenting, and he was besieged with questions about the lifestyle he had described in his novel. Kerouac was never able to convince his critics that the Beat Generation was “basically a religious generation,” and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. And unfortunately, he never managed to gather all his autobiographical novels together in a uniform binding published with the names of the “real life” people returned to them. His novel Big Sur (1962) contains an account of the disintegration of all his hopes.

At eleven o'clock, on the morning of October 20, 1969, in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kerouac was sitting in his favorite chair drinking whiskey and malt liquor, working on a book about his father's print shop in Lowell, Massachusetts. He suddenly felt nauseated and walked to the bathroom, where he began to vomit blood. Kerouac was taken to a nearby hospital, suffering from an abdominal hemorrhage. He received several transfusions in an attempt to make up for the loss of blood, and doctors subsequently attempted surgery, but a damaged liver prevented his blood from clotting. He died at 5:15 the following morning at St. Anthony's Hospital, never having regained consciousness after the operation. His cause of death was listed as an internal bleeding, the result of longtime alcohol abuse. A possible contributing factor was an untreated hernia he suffered in a bar fight several weeks earlier.
He is buried at Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts.

At the time of his death, he was living with his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, and his mother Gabrielle. Kerouac's mother inherited most of his estate.

Jack Kerouac and his mother, Gabrielle

He was honored posthumously with a Doctor of Letters degree from his hometown University of Massachusetts Lowell on 2 June 2007.

It is important to remember that the term “Beat Generation” was Invented by Kerouac in 1948 and introduced to the public by an article on “New York Times Magazine”. 


1. tired - reaction against capitalism and Puritan middle-class values.

2. beatific - Kerouac’s reverence for certain aspects of Catholicism and Buddhism.

Beatniks 1950s

And that is how "the beatniks" were born: a suffix -nik was borrowed from Sputnik, a Russian satellite. They prefered illegal way of life, acting on first impulses over the tradition. They also advocated escapism and created an original underground culture. Their influence upon artisctic movements was undeniable. Among any other things, they believed in:

  • Spiritual and sexual liberation.
  • Liberation from censorship.
  • Decriminalization of the use of marijuana.
  • The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll.
  • The spread of ecological consciousness
  • Attention to a “second religiousness” 
  • Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures (“The Earth is an Indian thing”.)

Considering the above information, it's not surprising that many considered "On the Road" to be kind of a diary of Kerouac. In fact the actual journal written by Kerouac is almost identical to On The Road. And many of the characters can be identified as people who were his friends:Sal (the narrator) stands for Kerouac himself; Dean - for Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassidy. Other characters are: Carlo (Allen Ginsberg), Marylou (Carolyn Cassidy), Ed (William S. Burroughs), Terry (Bea Kozera; you can read about her life in “Mañana Means Heaven” by Tim Z. Hernandez).

part of Kerouac's journal


But one has to admit that there are some changes: though many of his poet and artist friends were gay, Kerouac, as revealed in his personal correspondence and journals, considered homosexuality to be a fault, a sin, a vice. In On the Road, Sal’s friend Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg) is openly gay, but Kerouac decides to hide the fact that in real life he had an affair with Dean (Neal Cassidy). So, the final decision if it's a novel describing his life, or just inspired by some elements of it, I leave up to you.