For many people today, The “father of the Beat Generation” Jack Kerouac epitomizes the romance of the open road and the passion of mad wanderings. He has become an icon of wanderlust, a role model for those that wish to emulate his life of spontaneity and perpetual restlessness, moving from one city to another, one woman to another.
In reality, Kerouac was an intensely complicated man, filled with contradictions. Let’s take a look at five unique habits of Kerouac that just might shatter some of your preconceived illusions about the mythical author.
Anyone who has read On the Road can see distinct similarities between the free-wheeling novel and the Hippie movement that came soon after. The characters in the book roam the country, going on wild adventures while living in the now (to sum it up in a very cliche fashion). Yet Kerouac himself was a staunch conservative, in both politics and religion. He, an anti-communist, had immense disregard for hippies, who he once described dismissively as “hippie flower children out in the park with their peanut butter sandwiches and their live-and-let-live philosophy”, and believed they were unpatriotic and rude. That’s rather unfortunate, given how many view Kerouac as progenitor to the entire hippie movement.
Not only that, but he was a big fan of conservative author and TV host William F. Buckley, even appearing on Buckley’s show, he was known to cheer for Joe McCarthy during the McCarthy trials, and he was a big supporter of the Vietnam war. While he did indeed have a great interest in Buddhism and other religions, he self-identified as Catholic until his death (he even claimed On the Road to be about religious journey).
A poetic jock? Many find this to be an odd pairing of stereotypes. But Kerouac was indeed an athlete and a sports fan. He scored college football scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University after his success as a running back in high school. He chose to accept the scholarship from Columbia based on its NYC location–he was already dreaming of being a writer and thought New York would be the best place to hone his skills. He dropped out before graduating due to a cracked tibia.
The idea of Kerouac as a poetic jock is perhaps more evident in his love for fantasy baseball. In his childhood, he invented and played an intricate and imaginative game in which he charted the successes of made-up players, tracking their stats, analyzing their performances, and even handling the imaginary finances and media coverage of the league. Each character had its own name and detailed backstory: for example, one player named Wino Love was the league’s leading hitter with a .344 average, and, as Kerouac explained, “He’s called ‘Wino’ because he drinks, but he’s still a great hitter”. The game was something of a lifelong obsession and he continued to tinker with it until his death.
For someone infamous for their perceived restlessness, Kerouac remained firmly planted to his roots throughout his life–and he also remained firmly tied to his mother’s apron strings. After the childhood death of his brother Gerard, young Kerouac developed an intense attachment to his mother that lasted until his death. When he moved around the country, he often took Memère, as he called her, along with him. When she became an invalid, he lived with her and cared for her. Memère reinforced the relationship both by infantilizing Kerouac and constantly comparing him to his deceased saint-of-a-brother.
Fellow Beat writer and ex-girlfriend Joyce Johnson speculated that Kerouac’s womanizing ways were due in part to his maternal relationship: “I think he had a grass-is-greener idea about women. I also think he was very messed up about women because of his overly intense relationship with his mother. And in a way, I think, flitting from woman to woman was his way of staying faithful to his mother – no one was ever going to supplant her as the fixed figure in his life.”
“It isn’t writing, it’s typing”
Truman Capote famously made the above statement about Kerouac’s signature stream-of-consciousness writing style, dubbed ‘spontaneous prose‘. In order to keep the spontaneity flowing while writing On the Road, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips and taped them together into a 120-foot long roll, which allowed him to type continuously without needing to pause to change sheets of paper. He completed the final draft (no, it wasn’t 100% spontaneous prose–he made many outlines and rough drafts) in April 1951 after typing for 3 weeks. The scroll was rejected by publishers over and over, until it was finally accepted in the mid-50s. The publisher heavily edited it, changing character names and shortening prose. It’s even possible that the On the Road you see clutched in a teenager’s hands today has a different ending than the original–the end of the original scroll is missing, explained simply by a handwritten note: “Ate by Patchkee, a dog”.
En français, s’il vous plaît
Not that speaking French should by any means be considered an unusual habit, but many people are surprised to discover that Kerouac’s native tongue is Joual, a dialect of Quebec French mainly spoken by working-class people in Montreal. Although Kerouac was born in Massachusetts, his parents were both French-Canadian. He didn’t start learning English until he was 6, and hadn’t become comfortable with his fluency until his teen years. His insecurities about speaking English lasted well into adulthood.
He even wrote a few works in his native language, including an early draft of On the Road. Some believe that he did most of his thinking in French, and that the effects can be seen in the structure and style of his spontaneous prose. Kerouac once said of his native language: “I am French Canadian, brought to the world in New England. When I am angry I often swear in French. When I dream I often dream in French. When I cry I always cry in French.”
Kerouac was most certainly an intriguingly flawed man, with many contradictions of character that are likely to surprise his modern fans. Which of these 5 habits surprised you the most?