In order to understand the movement and the book, we first have to know more about the writer. Jack Kerouac was born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, and died in 1969 in St Petersburg, Florida. His family was originally from Brittany in France, hence the name Keroack, which gave Kerouac; moreover, is real name was Jean-Louis Kerouac and began to learn to speak English at six, so it took him many year to become bilingual. He began to write early, and was also very skilled at sports, especially at football. Thanks to that, he got a scholarship and studied at the University of Columbia in New York, but he was made fun of because of his willing to write. His secret idea was to get a job in journalism thanks to sport, and then becoming a writer. While studying in New York he discovered Jazz music, which fascinated him. At nineteen, after breaking his leg, he stopped playing football and dived more into New York’s night life, drugs and prostitution. He met with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who were to become major Beat Generation writers along with Kerouac. He worked on a freight ship and simulated madness to avoid becoming a soldier during WWII. Then, he met with Neal Cassady, who told him the life he lived being on the road, and he was fascinated. Therefore, he decided to cross the country to get the same kind of experiences. From New York to Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Mexico, he travelled a lot, alone or with friends, hitchhiking, and he got really addicted to drugs, but never gave up writing, even if he was having hard times trying unsuccessfully to have his works published, which accounts for his being broke most of the time. On the Road is published in 1957, and is a huge success, but it triggered tensions with his friends. Getting increasingly alcoholic, he progressively criticized his former friends, the so-called Beat Generation movement, and several west-wing American politicians, which damaged his reputation. He kept on writing but his works were criticized by the media and by publishers. He spent the rest of his life with his third wife and his mother, and died in 1969 in Florida, bequeathing only 91 dollars to his heirs.
He wrote both fiction and poetry, and his main works are The Town and the city (1950), On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), that deals with his spiritual quest with Buddhism. Visions of Gerard (1963) is about his elder brother who died at nine, and he once said that his death was a wound that never healed.
We can see that his works were closely linked to his own experiences. When it comes to On the Road, it really looks like an autobiographical work. Indeed, the characters are taken from Kerouac’s relatives. He, the narrator, is named Sal Paradise, his friend Neal Cassady who initiated him to travelling adventures is named Dean Moriarty in the story, William S. Burroughs is Old Bull Lee and Allen Ginsberg is Carlo Marx. Moreover, he took numerous notes during his own travels across the US to write On the Road, and these travels are often exactly the same as those he did. For example, he truly failed to go first to Chicago, and then he headed to Denver, and San Francisco, and LA, and New York again… The story tells about Sal Paradise’s life on the road, fascinated by Dean Moriarty’s travelling experiences and by the West. On the Road depicts Sal’s adventures with drivers, hitchhikers, girls, friends, jazz, alcohol and drugs across the country.
Kerouac is often seen as the father of the Beat generation. Jack Kerouac is known for inventing in 1948 the term “Beat Generation” in a letter to a journalist at the New York Times, John Cletton Holmes. Additionally, as soon as in 1951 when he finished the Scroll (the 120-feet-long manuscript of the book) he had already used this expression in Sal’s words “They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining” (Kerouac 54). Therefore, the concept was pretty clear in his mind, which allowed him to discuss the meaning of “Beat Generation”, arguing that it was closer to “Upbeat” and “Beatific” than to “Beaten Down” or “Beaten Up”. In addition, the success of On the Road was immediate. This is interesting because this work gathers a big part of the ideology of the Beat Generation: The desire to live life to the full, that is to say a craving for freedom, independence, spontaneity and boldness through travels, Jazz, drugs and sex. The fact that he settled in San Francisco with his friends also had an influence on the so-called “San Francisco Renaissance”, a poetic effervescent movement in this city (some contemplate it even as a broad literary and cultural movement). More generally speaking, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road influence is really significant and not only nationwide since it had fallout in Europe too. For instance, Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player in the Doors, wrote “I suppose if Jack Kerouac had not written On the Road, the Doors would never have existed” (Light My Fire : My life with the Doors, 1999), Dylan or Woodstock were also influenced by Kerouac’s work, along with the hippie movement or movies such as Easy Rider (1968).