Off the Road, On the Page: Starter Reading on Jack Kerouac’s Life

Off the Road and On the Page: Starter Reading on Kerouac's Life
Jack Kerouac (Naval reserve © US Gov. | Profile © Tom Palumbo)

Today, we at Signature would like to wish a hearty happy birthday to  Jack Kerouac, born March 12th, 1922. Kerouac, best remembered for his stream-of-consciousness writing known as "spontaneous prose," was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents. His mother was a devout Catholic, but his father abandoned his faith for the bottle when young Jack’s older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926. Kerouac went to Columbia on a football scholarship, but dropped out after a tibia injury kept him benched the beginning of his sophomore year.

After leaving Columbia, he met the group of poets, writers, and drug users who would eventually become the core members of the Beat Generation. Many of Kerouac’s novels, about wandering aimlessly with a crowd of like-minded (and usually drunk) male scribblers, draw heavily on life experience, but it’s not easy to get an overall sense of his life from his books alone. Here are a few of our favorite biographies and memoirs about the man, the myth, the legend, Jack Kerouac.

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson

In 1957, Joyce Johnson, a Barnard college drop-out and aspiring writer, went on a blind date with pre-On the Road Jack Kerouac. That night, he moved into her apartment. In her memoir, Johnson recounts the two years during which the pair sporadically dated, and her precarious position as a fringe member of a band of outsiders. Johnson, the author of seven books total, also wrote The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, which is more of a straightforward biography of Kerouac.

Kerouac: A Biography

Kerouac: A Biography by Ann Charters and Allen Ginsberg

Who better to tackle Kerouac’s life than a noted Beat scholar and Kerouac’s friend and confidante? A book that the Los Angeles Times called "a beautiful combination of love and toughness," this biography, though slightly dated, is a must-read for Kerouac devotees.

Jacks Book

Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee

Poet and novelist Gifford and journalist Lee set out less than a decade after Kerouac’s death to get his friends -- famous and unknown -- to go on record about his extraordinary life. The result is this riveting collection of memories of Kerouac offered by everyone from his childhood sweetheart to Gore Vidal.

Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America by Dennis Mcnally

This offering is perhaps the most successful at placing Kerouac at the helm of the Beats, and fleshing out the ways in which he, a working class boy from Massachusetts, influenced and was influenced by the rise of Bohemianism in the late fifties and early sixties.

One and Only

One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos

Neal Cassady, a dynamo whom Kerouac called "tremendously excited with life," was the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road and serves now as a role model for millions of restless teenage boys the world over.  When Cassady first met Kerouac, he was married to a shy Denver-born teenager named LuAnne, who sensed that the two, initially wary of one another, should join forces. Henderson’s book reveals the story behind this iconic piece of literature, and, like Johnson’s Minor Characters, gives voice to the long-ignored female contingent of the Beat Generation.