Today is the 90th birthday of the Beat writer Jack Kerouac. He was born March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian immigrants. He grew up speaking the Quebec French dialect Joual, and didn’t learn English until he was six years old. “The reason I handle English words so easily,” Kerouac once said, “is because it is not my own language. I re-fashion it to fit French images.”
In novels like On the Road and Visions of Cody, Kerouac developed an improvisational style inspired by the jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He called it “spontaneous bop prosody,” and in 1950 he wrote in his journal: “I wish to evoke that indescribable sad music of the night in America–for reasons which are never deeper than the music. Bop only begins to express that American music. It is the actual inner sound of a country.”
Fueled by coffee, Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road in three frenzied weeks in April of 1951 on a long paper scroll. His friend Philip Whalen later described Kerouac at work on the book:
He would sit–at a typewriter, and he had all these pocket notebooks, and the pocket notebooks would be open at his left-hand side on the typing table–and he’d be typing. He could type faster than any human being you ever saw. The most noise that you heard while he was typing was the carriage return, slamming back again and again. The little bell would bing-bang, bing-bang, bing-bang! Just incredibly fast, faster than a teletype. And he’d laugh and say, Look at this!
Some critics didn’t approve. Truman Capote famously said, “That isn’t writing; it’s typing.” But 42 years after his death Kerouac’s books are all still in print. His writing embraces the ecstasy and sadness of life, often in the same breath. The closing passage of On the Road, which echoes that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a case in point. The paragraph is one long sentence, winding and turning like the road itself:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
To help celebrate Kerouac’s birthday we present Kerouac, the Movie, a 1985 documentary directed by John Antonelli and narrated by Peter Coyote. It features interviews with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady and others who knew Kerouac, along with dramatizations of events in the writer’s life. Actor Jack Coulter plays Kerouac. The film runs one hour, 11 minutes, and has been added to our collection of Free Movies Online.