Celebrate Jack Kerouac’s 90th Birthday with Kerouac, the Movie

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.

H/T The Writer’s Almanac


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Comments (5)
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  • Chris A says:

    On the Road is one of my favorite books. Pret­ty sure it was­n’t just cof­fee he was fueled by when writ­ing it

  • zed says:

    me too. i though ‘Fueled by cof­fee’ was a euphemism for tanked up to the gills on speed.

  • Mike Springer says:

    The pop­u­lar myth is that Ker­ouac wrote On the Road while on Ben­zadrine, but in a let­ter to Neal Cas­sady, Ker­ouac said (the cap­i­tal­iza­tions are his):

    “I wrote that book on COFFEE, remem­ber said rule. Ben­ny, tea, any­thing I KNOW none as good as cof­fee for real men­tal pow­er kicks.”

    Years lat­er, when Allen Gins­berg wrote in a Vil­lage Voice arti­cle that Ker­ouac had used Ben­zadrine while writ­ing the book, Ker­ouac cor­rect­ed him in a per­son­al let­ter:

    “Road was not writ­ten on ben­ny, on cof­fee.”

  • joe says:

    Ker­ouac is an amer­i­can icon free­wheel­in and free

    Ker­ouac is an amer­i­can icon of free­wheel­in and free­thinkin

  • Jenny says:

    I’m afraid it says it has been tak­en down by the user.

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