Some time ago, we brought you a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, featuring the academic Lewis Yablonsky, wild-haired poet Ed Sanders, and a seemingly drunk Jack Kerouac discussing hippies. By this point, convincing someone that the bloated Kerouac was the same man who penned beat mainstays such as On The Road and Doctor Sax would have been a tough task. Less than a year later, he would die of alcoholism. Viewers unfamiliar with Kerouac’s work would have undoubtedly labeled him a sloppy, solipsistic drunk, likely missing out on some of the 20th century’s most vivid American writing.
As a corrective measure, we bring you John Antonelli’s Kerouac, the Movie (1985), which renders the beat icon’s brief life into a short but nuanced documentary. Antonelli begins with Kerouac as a child in Lowell, Massachusetts, already certain of his future as a writer, and follows him to Columbia University, where Kerouac lands a football scholarship. As Kerouac’s friends and lovers recount his life story, it is not the author’s penchant for self-destructive drinking that resonates, but his willingness to bleed for his work. A shy, yet handsome and effortlessly charming young man, Kerouac drops out of Columbia once an injury prevents him from playing football, and spends his time reading, travelling, and working menial jobs, all to write and find his voice.
Kerouac completed On The Road, his major novel, in three weeks of uninterrupted labor on a single scroll of typewritten paper during 1951. Or so the legend goes. For the next six years, he would attempt, with mounting despair, to publish it. In 1952, he wrote to his friend and author John Clellon Holmes a hopeless, miserable letter:
What have I got? I’m thirty years old, broke, my wife hates me and is trying to have me jailed. I have a daughter I’ll never see. My own mother, after all this time of work and worry is still working her ass off in a shoe shop. And I’ve not a cent in my pocket for a decent whore. Goddamn son of a bitch, sometimes I think the only thing that’s ready to accept me is death. Nothing in life seems to want me or even remember me. You know how I feel about this lousy life. Lyric epic novels aside, and all things, and my talent, if any exists, I still know there’s nothing but doom and despair on all sides waiting for everyone, and especially for me who is all so alone. I’m the loneliest writer in America and I’ll tell you why – it’s because I have written exactly 3 full length novels since March 1951 or thereabouts and not one is wanted now.”
This sense of bankruptcy haunted Kerouac until 1957, when Viking finally published On The Road. It became an overnight hit, compared by the New York Times to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. While the torrent of financial success validated Kerouac’s career choice, many of his friends thought that it had also been responsible for drowning his sense of self. Over the years, friends such as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and artist Stanley Twardowicz remember his growing despondence, coupled with a worsening drinking problem. By the time Kerouac appeared on Buckley’s show, there was little of Kerouac left.
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Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.