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About Jack Kerouac
Photo by USGov (National Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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September 5th, 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of On the Road
Inspired by Jack Kerouac's adventures with Neal Cassady, On the Road tells the story of two friends whose cross-country road trips are a quest for meaning and true experience. Written with a mixture of sad-eyed naiveté and wild ambition and imbued with Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz, On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope, a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.
First published in 1958, a year after On the Road put the Beat Generation on the map, The Dharma Bums stands as one of Jack Kerouac's most powerful and influential novels. The story focuses on two ebullient young Americans--mountaineer, poet, and Zen Buddhist Japhy Ryder, and Ray Smith, a zestful, innocent writer--whose quest for Truth leads them on a heroic odyssey, from marathon parties and poetry jam sessions in San Francisco's Bohemia to solitude and mountain climbing in the High Sierras.
Though Jack Kerouac began thinking about the novel that was to become On the Road as early as 1947, it was not until three weeks in April 1951, in an apartment on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan, that he wrote the first full draft that was satisfactory to him. Typed out as one long, single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper that he later taped together to form a 120 foot scroll, this document is among the most significant, celebrated, and provocative artifacts in contemporary American literary history. It represents the first full expression of Kerouac’s revolutionary aesthetic, the identifiable point at which his thematic vision and narrative voice came together in a sustained burst of creative energy. It was also part of a wider vital experimentation in the American literary, musical, and visual arts in the post-World War II period.
It was not until more than six years later, and several new drafts, that Viking published, in 1957, the novel known to us today. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, Viking will publish the 1951 scroll in a standard book format. The differences between the two versions are principally ones of significant detail and altered emphasis. The scroll is slightly longer and has a heightened linguistic virtuosity and a more sexually frenetic tone. It also uses the real names of Kerouac’s friends instead of the fictional names he later invented for them. The transcription of the scroll was done by Howard Cunnell who, along with Joshua Kupetz, George Mouratidis, and Penny Vlagopoulos, provides a critical introduction that explains the fascinating compositional and publication history of On the Road and anchors the text in its historical, political, and social context.
This urgently paced yet deeply introspective novel closely tracks Jack Kerouac’s own life. Jack Duluoz journeys from the Cascade Mountains to San Francisco, Mexico City, New York, and Tangier. While working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Cascades, Duluoz contemplates his inner void and the distressing isolation brought on by his youthful sense of adventure. In Tangier he suffers a similar feeling of desperation during an opium overdose, and in Mexico City he meets up with a morphine-addicted philosopher and seeks an antidote to his solitude in a whorehouse.
As in Kerouac’s other novels, Desolation Angels features a lively cast of pseudonymous versions of his fellow Beat poets, including William S. Burroughs (as Bull Hubbard), Neal Cassady (as Cody Pomeray), and Allen Ginsberg (as Irwin Garden). Duluoz draws readers into the trials and tribulations of these literary iconoclasts—from drug-fueled writing frenzies and alcoholic self-realizations to frenetic international road trips and tumultuous love affairs. Achieving literary success comes with its own consequences though, as Duluoz and his friends must face the scrutiny that comes with rising to the national stage.
Esperanza/Tristessa, however, proved to be a far more troubled and contentious companion than Kerouac had bargained for. Kerouac had entered a particularly contemplative time in his life—he had discovered an inner peace through Zen Buddhism and was practicing an ascetic lifestyle that included celibacy—a choice he later regretted. Although Kerouac managed to control his alcoholic tendencies much of the time in Mexico, Tristessa sank deeper and deeper into the belly of morphine addiction.
Kerouac returned to Mexico City a year later (1956) hoping to resume his platonic friendship with Tristessa and perhaps even pursuing a physical relationship with her only to find a desperately junk-sick, emaciated Tristessa who could barely function. Shocked, disappointed, and largely ignored by his brown-skinned goddess, Kerouac left Tristessa trembling and barely coherent, taking only his notebooks and memories from the unpleasant experience.
Blending his incandescent, highly-evocative, careening prose with alternately blissful and rueful meditations based on his Zen and Catholic teachings, Jack Kerouac in Tristessa documents a painful episode in the beatest of his Beat style. Tristessa remains a Kerouac classic—an iconic work emblematic of the world that existed far outside the living rooms of ’50s America.
The new Devault-Graves Digital Editions version of Tristessa contains a wealth of new material for both the casual reader and the student of Beat Generation literature. Included are: extensive annotations and endnotes, an original Afterword by author Tom Graves, a bibliography of Jack Kerouac’s literary works, a guide for further study on works about Jack Kerouac, a guide for further study of books by other key Beat Generation writers, and an annotated Character Key to identify the characters in Tristessa.
Published seven years before his iconic On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s debut novel follows the experiences of one family as they navigate the seismic cultural shifts following World War II. Inspired by Kerouac’s own New England youth, the eight Martin children enjoy an idyllic upbringing in a small Massachusetts mill-town. Middle son Peter, a budding intellectual and promising athlete, most strongly feels the lure of the future. When war breaks out, the siblings’ lives are interrupted by military service; their parents must sell their house after the family business goes bankrupt; and Peter, eager to see the world, voyages overseas as a Merchant Marine.
After returning home, Peter is drawn to the kinetic energy of New York City and the progressive, bohemian ideas springing from its denizen young poets, writers, and artists. His new friends are fictionalized versions of Kerouac’s contemporaries: Allen Ginsberg (as Leon Levinsky), Lucien Carr (as Kenneth Wood), and William Burroughs (as Will Dennison), and other members of the Beat Generation. Seen by Peter’s parents as hoodlums and junkies, the Beats challenge conventional American ideas of everything from authority and religion to marriage and domestic life.
A touching autobiographical novel of adolescent love in a New England mill town, Maggie Cassidy is a remarkable, bittersweet evocation of the awkwardness and the joy of growing up in America.
“Each book by Jack Kerouac in unique, a telepathic diamond … Such rich natural writing is nonpareil in later half xx-century, a synthesis of Proust, Céline, Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, Genet, Thelonious Monk, Basho, Charlie Parker, and Kerouac’s own athletic sacred insight."—Allen Ginsberg
About the author
Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922, the youngest of three children in a Franco-American family. He attended local Catholic and public schools and won a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City, where he first met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. He quit school in his sophomore year after a dispute with his football coach. In 1947, enthused by bebop, the rebel attitude of his friends and the throng of hobos, drug addicts and hustlers he encountered in New York, he decided to discover America and hitchhike across the country. His writing was openly autobiographical and he developed a style he referred to as ‘spontaneous prose’ which he used to record the experiences. His first novel, The Town and the City, appeared in 1950, but it was On the Road, first published in 1957 and memorializing his adventures with Neal Cassady, that epitomized to the world what became known as the Beat Generation, and made Kerouac one of the most controversial and best-known writers of his time. Publication of his many other books followed, among them The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, and Big Sur. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1969, at the age of forty-seven.
During an unexplained fainting spell, Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac experienced a flash of enlightenment. A student of Buddhist philosophy, Kerouac recognized the experience as “satori,” a moment of life-changing epiphany. The knowledge he gained in that instant is expressed in this volume of sixty-six prose poems with language that is both precise and cryptic, mystical and plain. His vision proclaims, “There are not two of us here, reader and writer, but one golden eternity.”
Within these meditations, haikus, and Zen koans is a contemplation of consciousness and impermanence. While heavily influenced by the form of Buddhist poems or sutras, Kerouac also draws inspiration from a variety of religious traditions, including Taoism, Native American spirituality, and the Catholicism of his youth. Far-reaching and inclusive, this collection reveals the breadth of Kerouac’s poetic sensibility and the curiosity, word play, and fierce desire to understand the nature of existence that make up the foundational concepts of Beat poetry and propel all of Kerouac’s writing.