Interesting facts from the life of Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road
1. Jack Kerouac typed up his novel On the Road on one continuous roll of paper that was 120 feet long. Kerouac called it ‘the scroll’ – a stream of tracing paper that Kerouac had created through taping individual sheets together. Although he wrote the original manuscript quickly, in just three weeks in 1951, Kerouac then spent time revising bits of the text before it was finally published six years later. Kerouac’s friends William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg both appear in the novel, as the characters Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx respectively. The book became a key text for the Beat Generation: the ‘Beatnik Bible’. On the Road inspired John Updike to write his Rabbit tetralogy of novels: Updike objected to the ‘irresponsibility’ of Kerouac’s book and responded by writing Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of his four ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom novels, which appeared three years after the publication of On the Road. The book was intended, Updike said, ‘to be a realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road: the people left behind get hurt.’
2. Kerouac’s full name at birth was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac – at least, according to Kerouac himself. Born in 1922 – the key year of modernist literature – Kerouac was actually named on his baptism certificate simply as ‘Jean Louis Kerouac’, but the author himself claimed descent from French nobility, specifically Baron François Louis Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac. (Kerouac’s parents were both French Canadian, so there may well have been a bit of French noble blood in there.)
3. Kerouac suggested the title for William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. Another iconic novel of the Beat Generation was Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, published two years after On the Road in 1959. Burroughs credited Kerouac with the catchy title: ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’ Kerouac later told Allen Ginsberg that the idea for the title had been something of a fortuitous mondegreen: he had misheard ‘naked lust’ as ‘naked lunch’.
4. According to Jack Kerouac, the ‘Beat’ in ‘Beat Generation’ is actually derived from the word ‘beatitude’, meaning ‘blessedness’. With Burroughs, and poet Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac is regarded as one of the trio of writers who helped define the Beat Generation. But where did the ‘Beat’ come from? Kerouac coined the term in 1948, drawing on the colloquial term ‘beat’ meaning ‘tired’, but he later claimed that he also had in mind the word ‘beatific’, meaning ‘blessed’.
5. In 1991, Johnny Depp paid $15,000 for Jack Kerouac’s raincoat. In the 1990s, various pieces of Kerouac memorabilia were sold off, and the entire Kerouac collection – including that original scroll on which he typed On the Road – is reckoned to be worth between $10 million and $20 million. On the Road continues to sell steadily, as new generations discover the Beat Generation and the books that helped to define it.
Image: Jack Kerouac wearing a short crew cut in 1943 (picture: USGov), Wikimedia Commons.