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Kerouac: The Definitive Biography

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This is the authoritative biography of legendary writer, poet, and Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whose novel On the Road catapulted him to the forefront of the literary world and influenced budding writers for generation to come. Here, Paul Maher offers not a linear study of Kerouac's life, but an integrated pastiche of his life and work. He investigates t This is the authoritative biography of legendary writer, poet, and Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whose novel On the Road catapulted him to the forefront of the literary world and influenced budding writers for generation to come. Here, Paul Maher offers not a linear study of Kerouac's life, but an integrated pastiche of his life and work. He investigates the key relationships that affected his development as an artist, including his three wives, numerous girlfriends, and beloved mother. He also provided insight into Kerouac's spontaneous prose, with its echoes of jazz, in The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, Desolation Angels as well as some of his lesser known works.


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This is the authoritative biography of legendary writer, poet, and Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whose novel On the Road catapulted him to the forefront of the literary world and influenced budding writers for generation to come. Here, Paul Maher offers not a linear study of Kerouac's life, but an integrated pastiche of his life and work. He investigates t This is the authoritative biography of legendary writer, poet, and Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whose novel On the Road catapulted him to the forefront of the literary world and influenced budding writers for generation to come. Here, Paul Maher offers not a linear study of Kerouac's life, but an integrated pastiche of his life and work. He investigates the key relationships that affected his development as an artist, including his three wives, numerous girlfriends, and beloved mother. He also provided insight into Kerouac's spontaneous prose, with its echoes of jazz, in The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, Desolation Angels as well as some of his lesser known works.

30 review for Kerouac: The Definitive Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    The myth vs. the man: well, he made the myth didn't he, and the myth ate him alive. His sad, lonely writer existence filled with the highest of the highest self-aggrandizement fables, his nonstop memoir myth, that caught up to him with fame, after On the Road got published in 57, and he started the descent into a media that wanted to lampoon him and alcohol that would devour him. He was married to his mother from a young age, who kept his wild friends away most of the time, his wild friends he w The myth vs. the man: well, he made the myth didn't he, and the myth ate him alive. His sad, lonely writer existence filled with the highest of the highest self-aggrandizement fables, his nonstop memoir myth, that caught up to him with fame, after On the Road got published in 57, and he started the descent into a media that wanted to lampoon him and alcohol that would devour him. He was married to his mother from a young age, who kept his wild friends away most of the time, his wild friends he would idolize and scorn in equal measure, his wives, lovers, and daughter he'd abandon, always restless, always certain the world was uncertain, and all he really wanted was a little ol' hermit cabin to curl up in, and forgo the whisky, wine, and beer, but it was too deep ingrained in him, the only discipline he really had was to write, and that was indulgence just as much as booze and speed and weed, always out to escape reality and create a new one, close to reality, but always a step away, his golden eternity always out of reach, lost in a bottle of tequila on god's hidden shores. Quotes: One of Kerouac's most vivid memories, he later revealed to Neal Cassady, was that his youthful habit of washing his own handkerchiefs met with an obstacle: his mother, who assumed he was doing so because he was masturbating. To combat this Catholic violation in her house, she would sneak up on Jack when he was lying in his bed: "my mother was real rough on me in that respect, she wouldn't allow any kind of sex in the house. They say that makes a man nutty. I guess I'm nutty then." His journal, now more than ever, served as a "castle" that kept him "aloof" from the rest of humanity, even while that same humanity was spiraling into violent international conflict. "What is sex? Sex is rigid bone, covered in velvet skin, pounding and ripping into fleshy cavity with heart-pounding passion and blood-red lust. Sex is bang! Bang! That's sex, brother, and don't kid yourself. Bang! Pound! Bang! And then comes a rush of luscious fever, an ocean of pin-prick sensation, and shuddering climax of gushing hot blood. Pow! And then to hell with sex. That's sex, kid." Saroyan's message to budding writers was potent. He advised them hat the "writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody's best friend and only true enemy—the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops." "I began to write a novel right the City Room [of the Lowell Sun newspaper] about Lowell and the three attendant ills of most middlesized cities: provincialism, bigotry, and materialism." [second trip that he doesn't take of the SS Dorchester blows up by torpedo] It was a notion that Sebastian thought pretentious since the core of the Young Prometheans had been sent to all corners of the world to fight the war. He also felt that Kerouac did not understand the essence of what the Prometheans were trying to achieve: "Maybe the picture of being misunderstood and lonely, defying all mankind, appeals to you—it doesn't to me." "Debauchery is the release of man from whatever stringencies he's applied to himself. In a sense, each debauchery is a private though short-lived insurgence from the static conditions of his society." Kerouac's assessment of Hemingway was that he was a "supreme craftsman". Ginsberg also frequented the outskirts of the campus with a select few who straddled the fine line between unbridled village bohemia and the stale polish of academia. "I have always been restless, unhappy, and seeking new horizons. What shall I do?" Burroughs turned to his bookshelf, grabbed two books, and made a gift of each: to Ginsberg, Yeat's A Vision, and to Kerouac, Splenger's Decline of the West. "Eddify yer mind, me boy," Burroughs drawled. Gabrielle still believed that Jack should be pitied and loved for his errant ways and his writing ability. His irresponsibility was that of turbulent genius. She missed her boy sorely; each time she looked out her window, she expected to see him walking down the street. "I know that you don't belong to me anymore but that's life and sooner or later I'll get used to the idea." It was his new goal, he told Ginsberg, to work hard and establish his "fortune swiftly" and buy a "decent flat" in Montparnasse. He encouraged Allen to discontinue his studies at Columbia and join him in Paris, where the "New Vision would blossom". There was a penalty to be paid, he felt, for his narcissistic self-absorption. "I do not want to be lonely or to work, I cannot be practical and I cannot die and I am an apprentice nihilist." Nietzsche quote Jack likes: "Art is the highest task and the proper metaphysical task of this life." Burroughs found Kerouac's quest for Self-Ultimacy absurd, seeing no use for self-destruction as a means of achieving high art. Burroughs recommended instead a "bang of morphine". He ate the soaked paper from Benzedrine inhalers, and ingested the ever-present morphine (Burrough's drug of choice). Gabrielle, often ruled by her bigotry and anti-Semitism, did not like them either (Allen and Bill); she thought Allen was the "devil himself". Huncke, seven years his senior, was to Kerouac the apotheosis of beat, the Manhattan drug-world slang for being reduced to one's essentials. "I dedicate myself to myself, to my art, my sleep, my dreams, my labours, my sufferances, my loneliness, my unique madness, my endless absorption and hunger—because I cannot dedicate myself to any fellow being." At age nine Cassady lost his virginity, and, after that, his libido knew no bounds. He had sex with everybody he could, from prepubescent girls to the elderly. He stole an estimated five hundred cars (by his count) between the ages of 14 and 21. Cassady was a sociopath who refused to resign himself to society's conventions, preferring to ride the razor's edge of experience strictly for thrills. Before he would commit himself to a spell of writing, Kerouac prayed to Jesus Christ and read from the Holy Bible that he kept on his writing desk. Neal's conversation sometimes bordered on gibberish and was laced with occasional pseudo-intellectual smatterings. Kerouac knew Cassady was a con, yet he felt that there was some worth to befriending him. "I have been a liar and a shifty weakling by pretending that I was a friend of these people—Ginsberg, Joan, Carr, Burroughs, Kammerer even—when all the time I must have known that we disliked each other." As he typed, girls constantly passed by his apartment window and it drove him "crazy" that they remained oblivious to him. He wondered why, if a man was doing important "big work", such as his devotion to his novel, did it mean that he had to be "alone and poor" most of the time. Why couldn't he find a woman who would devote her "time and love" to him exclusively?" Kerouac, whose loneliness was mostly self-imposed Young, horny, moody, and as impulsive as ever. Once when he was alone, to alleviate his randiness, Jack flicked out a hole in the ground. He dropped his pants and "fucked the earth". "I am too insane to love anybody else but me." "The thing that distinguishes these people [John Clellon Holmes' circle] from my Carr-Burroughs-Adams-Ginsberg crowd is that they try their best to be humanly good, while still 'knowing as much', in a way, as the others. I don't feel cold and lost among them." Such an assessment reveals why Holmes' friendship, lasting from 1948 until Kerouac's death, remained consistent. The road seemed by turns formidable and inspiring. Anchoring his self-doubt from turning to sheer panic, Kerouac resorted to spirituality to guide him: "God is what I love," he closed his journal entry with that first day on the road. In Cassady's presence, Jack felt "inauthentic", as many people did; for example, when Neal stole a car or scammed a gas station attendant, this put a scare in Jack, who still for the most part retained his middle-class, Catholic, small-town values. Kerouac's desire to split life open, to seize the belly of the beast, outside of his writing, could be experienced vicariously through Neal. Burroughs: "Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract, meaningless motion. He is the The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another. Wife and child may starve, friends exist only to exploit for gas money..Neal must move." "I was never a "rebel," only a happy, sheepish imbecile, open-hearted & silly with joys. And so I remain." "Within two years I'm going to marry a young lady. My aim is to write, make money, and buy a big wheat farm." Disgusted, Kerouac thought Hemingway, the "fat ass," was nothing more than a "fool" for writing of such gory spectacles with such unabashed zeal: "a bull dies too big a death for the cowards in their seats." Lately Joan had been uncomfortable with their sex life and told him that she felt like a "frog" during intercourse. "It is the woman who suffers for the sins of man" Joan saw that her husband did as his mother asked because he was indebted to Gabrielle, who provided physical and emotional comfort to such a degree that he would never be comfortable anywhere (or with anyone) else. The high-spirited extrovert her husband became when he was drinking easily metamorphosed into a deeply melancholic and introspective man when sober. 29 years old when wrote On the Road in 21 days, 125,000 words. He'd later have to edit it. He imagined various literary figures duking it out to reign over his artistic sensibilities—Wolfe vs. Proust, Whitman vs. Dostoevsky, Melville vs. Celine, and Faulkner vs. Genet. Skeptical Kerouac was leery of entering the mountains with Burroughs, who frightened Jack (intentionally) with tales of tree-dwelling vipers and the bellicose "Auca" tribe, which thrived on killing men. He wrote to Holmes while riding the crest of a tremendous peyote high. He would complete the bulk of his literary oeuvre between 1951 and 1956. Kerouac had stocked up on drugs: goofballs, laudanum, opium, speed, and pot. He preferred to live by Thoreau's credo, opting to sit on a pumpkin rather than a crowded velvet cushion. Burroughs, who had returned to the United States with a clutch of "dried telepathic vines." Alene [of The Subterraneans] started to read it and immediately was shocked by Jack's version of their times together: "I could look at it one way and feel it was like a little boy bringing a decapitated rat to me and saying, 'Look, here's my present for you'. Neal intimated to Carolyn that his friend Jack was a "freeloader". Buddhism, he hoped, would be the key to correcting all of the negative character traits that he felt skewed his behavior. Lust for women and for alcohol, for example, clouded his thinking. That we all dream proves that "the world is really transcendental" after all. "Drinking heavily, you abandon people—and they abandon you—It's a form of partial self murder but too sad to gall all the way" "As for a woman, what kind of man sells his soul for a gash? A fucking veritable GASH—a great slit between the legs looking more like murder than anything else." Eventually he hoped to abandon his writing as "just so much sad, human, and arbitrary poppycock" and to retire in a hut by the sea to practice "tranquil meditation unto the grave". A "pop" is an American haiku consisting of short three-line poems, a "tic" is a "vision of sudden memory", a "blues" is one complete poem a notebook page in length, and "flashes" are "short sleepdreams or drowse daydreams of an enlightened nature describable in a few words." Helen came to know "the dark underside of all this enthusiasm". She found him "erratic" and "unpredictable". After only two weeks of living together, her psychoanalyst convinced her to have them break up. "It's a great burden to be alive. A heavy burden, a great big heavy burden. I wish I were safe in Heaven, dead." The image of the beatnik—a parody on the be-bop style of Thelonious Monk's goatee and beret—totally derailed any serious allusions to being beat. Now, turtlenecked, bongo-banging beat wannabes plagued the Village. Gabrielle had intercepted Ginsberg's letters from Paris to Kerouac and informed her son that Ginsberg and Burroughs were no longer allowed in "her" home, an ultimatum that he thought odd since he 36 years old and the owner of the house in question. Dutifully, and sadly, Kerouac obeyed this command well into the next decade. I wish I were free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead The critic characterized Kerouac's style as infected by solipsism. Gabrielle, a devout Catholic who festooned the Long Island home with religious artifacts, who would not permit women to spend the night. In truth, it was hardly Kerouac's home at all. He was merely a guest abiding by his mother's bigotry. It was as if they were husband and wife. Ginsberg at their house: "We sat by the television set and there was a retrospective news broadcast about Hitler and the concentration camps. Kerouac and his mother were both drinking. She was also a great tippler, both were drunk, and they began arguing among themselves. And then some German refugee came on the screen and talked about the Holocaust and Kerouac's mother said in front of me: "They're still complaining about Hitler, it's too bad he didn't finish them off." Kerouac agreed with her. I sat there and nodded. Then he said to her, "You dirty cunt, why did you say that?" And she said, "You fucking prick, you heard me say that before." And then began an argument of violence and filth such as I had never heard in any household in my life. I was actually shocked." [It's possible Ginsberg made this up,] his campaign to subtly smear Kerouac's legacy only began to take place after Kerouac's death. "I wanted to give you an idea of what a crock of shit it is to have to satisfy every tom dick and harry stranger in the world. No wonder Hemingway went to Cuba and Joyce to France. I was in love with the world thru blue purple curtains when I knew you [Gary Snyder] and now I have to look at it thru hard iron eyes." The vicious and unrelenting criticism did not extend beyond the United States. Amphetamines didn't fuel his novels of the early 1950s; pure, burning ambition motivated him. He planned to buy a cabin with acreage in upstate New York, much to Gabrielle's chagrin. She told Caroline that she was "working overtime" to dislodge these plans from her son's mind. Whatever she did to thwart his plans eventually succeeded. To Kerouac's detriment, Gabrielle continued to interfere with his life. He needed to get away, to feel like the Ti Jean of old, to reorganize his splintered identity. He felt that the "monster they've built up in the papers is beginning to take shape inside my body like Burroughs' 'Stranger.'" Buddhism he told Carolyn, was useless, as were the last three weeks in Big Sur, which only added boredom to his bleak life. Kerouac foresaw that his "vision of America" was being annihilated by the "beatnik movement" and that it was nothing more than "a big move-in from intellectual dissident wrecks of all kinds with placards who call themselves beatniks." Kerouac was convinced that LSD was not the key to enlightenment. Kerouac told Ferlinghetti that he and his fellow writers and poets should "join hands" in the spirit of poetry not politics. Jack also questioned his choice of politics, asking him if Cuba's choice of the death penalty (the firing squad) was not "evil." Lawrence replied to Jack that he was being "brainwashed by yer one-eyed cyclopses," the television set where Jack and Gabrielle spent so much of their time nursing their port and ice. "I'll be in an insane asylum soon." Herbert Gold: "What can a beat do when he is too old to go on the road? He can go on the sauce." According to the Lowell Sun, he stopped traffic to perform a spontaneous poetry reading while holding in one hand the ever-present jug of wine. Former High School peer: "The once dark-maned, clear-eyed Endymion youth had become a soggy, booze-bloated hulk." "The only thing that people try to avoid, loneliness, is the only thing that makes their life precious." Jack's welcome to his daughter was distant. Acknowledging his paternity faintly, he assured her that she could use the Kerouac name to write books once she reached Mexico. The reunion was brief and Gabrielle was disturbed by the girl's appearance. Jan left and headed south, where she gave birth to a stillborn baby and buried it beneath the hot sands of the desert. Jack clearly looked upon his paternity as a hapless mistake that fell in line with the flaws of the human condition: "Women are hooked on the habit of birth and death, which are synonymous, but men, ignorance itself personified, suspecting it, nevertheless follow like goats." He never saw his daughter again.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Oxalis

    An excellent read for the Kerouac lover. I cuddled with this hardcover at night until I finished it! It tells an in-depth and honest story of Jack's life; Maher's heart and soul went into its making. It also includes numerous sources and bibliographic information for further reading. I absolutely loved it!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ted

    New letters, manuscripts, notebooks, journals, etc., are constantly appearing from the privately-held Kerouac vault, so new Kerouac biographies are constantly superceding previous efforts. Maher's biography was with the full consent and permission of the estate to examine everything, for the first time. And who knew Kerouac was such an incredible filer and organizer; it turns out he kept, and organized, everything. So this book is aware of all the details and, because Kerouac was so fascinating, New letters, manuscripts, notebooks, journals, etc., are constantly appearing from the privately-held Kerouac vault, so new Kerouac biographies are constantly superceding previous efforts. Maher's biography was with the full consent and permission of the estate to examine everything, for the first time. And who knew Kerouac was such an incredible filer and organizer; it turns out he kept, and organized, everything. So this book is aware of all the details and, because Kerouac was so fascinating, is a great read. The only reservation is that Maher refuses to look at certain issues, most notably the issue of Kerouac's sexuality -- or let's say, sexual fluidity. Now this had already been done -- clumsily, even egregiously -- by Ellis Amburn's Subterranean Kerouac, which wanted to read every Kerouac childhood wrestling match as homoerotic, and every football game as sublimated gay-bashing, and likes to dish through very badly footnoted/attributed stories. But Maher will tell the story of Columbia University officials barging into Ginsburg's dorm room and finding the two naked in bed without commentary, even though Kerouac would repeatedly in later years lash out at any suggestion of homosexuality in his work (which, after all, is all autobiographical). Maher evidently has been commissioned next to write a 3 volume Kerouac biography, with the first volume to appear in 2010, the second in 2012. Maybe Maher will feel more confident interpreting the Kerouac legacy in a deeper work, reflective of more time spent absorbing the vast Kerouac material -- or maybe the estate will have a less firm censoring hand, if that has been the problem. In any case, this is a step in the right direction, very readable, and worth it while you wait for the Accelerated Global Warming Edition.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Quentin

    While Kerouac bios seem to have become something of a cottage industry, this one's definitely "best-in-breed." Scholarly, painstakingly researched and loaded with detail. A MUST read for any true Beat aficionado!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Pace

    Maher had access to gold, restricted original material. He used it to beef up a tedious fan fiction type of biography. He has probably damaged Kerouac scholarship for decades. Another Sampa scam.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kel

    This books is wonderful, I'm really only about half-way through. But if you are looking for a biography about Jack Kerouac, this is the best book I would recommend to read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mattc

    great biography. brutal ending.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Barbara B Eddins

    Kerouac: His Life and Work is a most accurate and fascinating account that will further place Jack Kerouac foremost in literary history of the last half of the twentieth century. Paul Maher Jr. writes in his own captivating style to carry the reader along on the back-stories of Ti Jean. This factual and myth-dispelling resource was produced by Maher’s extensive research of newly available archives and personal interviews. Also, as in one of Kerouac’s books, Life and Work can be opened at any sp Kerouac: His Life and Work is a most accurate and fascinating account that will further place Jack Kerouac foremost in literary history of the last half of the twentieth century. Paul Maher Jr. writes in his own captivating style to carry the reader along on the back-stories of Ti Jean. This factual and myth-dispelling resource was produced by Maher’s extensive research of newly available archives and personal interviews. Also, as in one of Kerouac’s books, Life and Work can be opened at any spot to get a glimpse into Jack’s world. The details are here, illustrious along with the grim. The literary record is here including influences, the rejections, the re-worked, and the undiscovered, stacked up in an incredible body of work. Kerouac would be honored by Mr. Maher’s book. I felt as though I was living beside Jack. Anyone who is a fan or curious to discover Kerouac will have an extraordinary experience.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Paul Maher Jr.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lane

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  12. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

  13. 5 out of 5

    Russell

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chad Weidner

  15. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin Stuart

  16. 5 out of 5

    Aubrey

  17. 4 out of 5

    Alan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Horatio Kitsmiller

  19. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin Stuart

  20. 5 out of 5

    Barbara B Eddins

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lux

  22. 5 out of 5

    Fehrsen Colburth

  23. 5 out of 5

    James

  24. 5 out of 5

    Evan

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jason Leary

  26. 5 out of 5

    John

  27. 4 out of 5

    Philippe Lebon

  28. 5 out of 5

    George

  29. 4 out of 5

    J. D. Kessey

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alison

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