Blog: Jack Kerouac Woodcut

Loren Kantor, local woodcut artist, carves original woodcut prints inspired by his favorite cultural figures. (woodcuttingfool.blogspot.com)

Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac was a novelist and poet who became the face of the Beat Generation. Born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was four when his older brother Gerard died of a rheumatic heart condition. This event would inform much of Kerouac's writing. In high school, Kerouac was a star football player earning him a scholarship to Columbia University. During freshman year, he broke his leg playing football. He quit the team and dropped out of school. After a short stint in the navy, he returned to New York and worked odd jobs as a short order cook, railroad brakeman and construction worker. During this period, Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William Burroughs who became synonymous with the Beat Generation. (Kerouac coined the term "beat" to describe a person with little money and few prospects.) In 1945, Kerouac was diagnosed with phlebitis in his leg. Confined to a bed in his parents home next to his father who was dying of stomach cancer, Kerouac wrote his first novel The Town and the City. The book was published to poor reviews sending Kerouac into a depression. In 1948, Kerouac went on a road trip with Neal Cassady driving across the country at light speed. They visited old friends, all night cafes, broken down bars and forgotten towns. Reflecting on his trip, Kerouac experimented with a frenetic, benzedrine-fueled writing style he called "Self-Ultimacy." He would fall into a deep trance and write with chaotic speed, channeling spontaneous prose that emphasized "first thought best thought." His writing style was influenced by the jazz music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and the concept of breathing in Buddhist meditation. Kerouac completed the first draft of On the Road in three weeks. He typed on a teletype role, a single-spaced, unbroken paragraph resulting in a 120-foot long scroll. On the Road was published by Viking in 1957. The book became a bestseller and Kerouac became an overnight sensation. To Jack, the novel was simply about "two Catholic buddies who roamed the country in search of God." To the world, the book changed the face of literature and spawned the 60's hippie movement. Teenagers began hitchhiking across country, experimenting with drugs and sex and scrawling spontaneous poetry in dogeared journals. Kerouac despised his newfound fame. After getting beat up outside a New York bar, he began to fear the public. He grew estranged from Neal Cassady and his old 'Beat' friends. Jealous novelists attacked Kerouac in the press. (Truman Capote famously said, "That's not writing, it's typing.") Kerouac continued abusing drugs and alcohol and his writing and vitality suffered. In 1961, Kerouac moved to Big Sur in an effort to kick drinking and rekindle his writing talents. Instead he had a mental breakdown and returned to San Francisco to drink himself into oblivion (chronicled in Big Sur). Beaten and lonely, he left California to live with his invalid mother in Florida. He never learned to drive and his house had no phone. He spent his days listening to jazz music and drinking Johnny Walker Red. He remained deeply religious, devoted to his unique brand of Buddhist-tinged Catholicism. When friends insulted God or religion he would respond, "Ah, Jesus died for bums like you." In 1969, after a night of heavy drinking, Kerouac hemorrhaged and was rushed to the hospital. He died the next morning at the age of 47. In 2009, the original manuscript of On the Road sold at auction for $2.4 million. (woodcuttingfool.blogspot.com)

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