American Literature Jack Kerouac
Matt Theado
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0126


Jack Kerouac (b. 1922–d. 1969) was a novelist and poet whose bestselling novel On the Road is considered an American classic. Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac to working-class French-Canadian parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town that suffered economic difficulties even before the Great Depression, he spoke French as his first language. A standout athlete in high school, Kerouac enrolled in Columbia University in 1940 on a football scholarship. He left Columbia during his sophomore year and served for two years in the Merchant Marine and six months in the Navy before being discharged on medical grounds by reason of “indifferent character.” In the mid- to late 1940s he met Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, and other key figures in what became known as the Beat Generation, a phrase Kerouac coined. While he worked on his first published novel, The Town and the City (1950), he traveled extensively across the United States; these travels provided the material for his second and best-known novel, On the Road (1957), the novel that made him famous but also notorious as a countercultural figure, leading to belittlement of his literary skills. He had written six novels before the publication of On the Road made him a celebrity, and these books were brought out quickly after its success. Kerouac drew from experiences in his own adventurous life and from the exploits of his friends; thus, like Jack London, he became as famous for his romantic adventures as for his literary output. Kerouac planned his work—novels, poems, and nonfiction books—as a loosely arranged series that contributed to his life’s story that he called the Duluoz Legend. Their congested publication plus Kerouac’s claim that he composed them quickly, without revision, led Truman Capote to quip that his novels were not writing; they were typewriting. In addition, social observers attacked Kerouac for encouraging an ethic of recklessness and nihilism among young people. Kerouac’s life spiraled into a tragic drunken spree, and he died at age forty-seven of complications resulting from alcoholism. As the years passed, Kerouac has been recognized as an innovative literary artist who developed new styles of expression in prose and poetry, and his development of a “spontaneous prose” style is placed alongside other artistic achievements in the 1950s, such as Jackson Pollack’s “action painting” and Charlie Parker’s bebop jazz. Kerouac remains a popular writer outside the curriculum even as On the Road is regularly assigned in the classroom.

General Overviews

In the late 1950s, Kerouac was a celebrity who appeared on popular television programs and whose characters were caricatured as “beatniks” in popular media. Even before his death in 1969, his popularity had faded as the politically engaged hippies replaced the disengaged beatniks in the public eye. The development of Kerouac’s literary reputation has been a slow process and is far from complete. Hipkiss 1976 is the first book-length treatment to focus on Kerouac’s work, apart from commentary on the Beat Generation hysteria; hampered by a lack of access to Kerouac’s journals, letters, and manuscripts, Hipkiss nonetheless offers serious, close readings. French 1986 brings Kerouac into the Twayne United States Authors series of writers, a solid step toward collegiate academic respectability. Theado 2000, in the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, builds on Kerouac’s letters and journals in his comprehensive introduction to Kerouac’s works; as is the case with Hipkiss and French, Theado’s discussion and analysis focus on the novels, and each of these three serves as a helpful introduction to Kerouac’s work for new readers. For advanced students, Grace 2009 is more academically and intellectually challenging and embraces a broader scope of Kerouac’s work. Giamo 2000 is similar in thematic approach to Grace 2009 but less steeped in the critical theory that might deter nonacademic readers.

  • French, Warren. Jack Kerouac: Novelist of the Beat Generation. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

    French, an American studies professor well known for his books on Steinbeck and Salinger, offers an excellent guide to Kerouac’s life and novels that avoids both hagiography and critical putdowns. Out of print but available in libraries.

  • Giamo, Ben. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

    Counters the popular claims that Kerouac was a hedonistic sensation-seeker with extensive, insightful analyses of how Kerouac’s spiritual paths (Catholicism and Buddhism) influenced his novels’ themes and styles throughout his career. Includes thematically linked discussion of most of Kerouac’s novels.

  • Grace, Nancy. Jack Kerouac and the Literary Imagination. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Wide-ranging study explores Kerouac’s fiction, poetry, religious writing, journals, and correspondence. Centers on Kerouac’s religious and spiritual motifs and figures his Duluoz Legend as a “wisdom quest.” Aimed at readers with graduate study background.

  • Hipkiss, Robert. Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism. Lawrence: Regents of Kansas, 1976.

    Hipkiss’s introductory-level book, as its title suggests, presents Kerouac as a Romantic writer, influential in shifting American mid-century literary trends. Out of print but available in libraries.

  • Theado, Matt. Understanding Jack Kerouac. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

    A book-by-book approach to Kerouac’s novels in the order in which he composed them, tracing the writer’s artistic development. Background drawn from letters and journals buttresses biographical criticism and analytical close-reading.

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