Born on March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac lived a life full of darkness and tragedy. Although his personal search for freedom ultimately eluded him, he became a defining voice of the Beat Generation.
“I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his most famous work, On the Road.
Confusion haunted Kerouac his entire life. Through his spontaneous, raw and rambling prose in books like On the Road, The Subterraneans, and Big Sur, Kerouac helped define what was known as the Beat Generation, the post World War II literary and cultural movement in America that rejected standard norms and searched for its identity through spirituality, psychedelic drugs and sex.
But Kerouac, as much as he was a pioneer in the counterculture zeitgeist of the 1950s, was also the stereotypical tortured artist. He experienced the death of his older brother when he was four. And like his father, whom he had a strained relationship with, Kerouac would later turn to the bottle to bury his inner demons.
Embittered by years of constant rejection from publishers, when success finally came with On the Road, Kerouac despised his newfound celebrity and the expectations it brought. The more public attention he received, the more he drank. He would divorce twice, and his earlier embrace of Buddhist philosophy and morality slipped away. As the years passed, the heavy tension between his conservative Catholic values and his free-wheeling, hedonistic experimentalism of his youth became more distinctly evident.
Disillusioned, disconnected and lonely, Kerouac never got his bearings. In 1969, he died of internal bleeding from decades of alcohol abuse. He was 47.
Despite Kerouac’s tragic life, the unfettered rebellious idealism of his 20s and his depiction of a vibrant, promising America in works like On the Road still manages to outshine the memory of his personal struggles and failures. His art, indeed, became larger than his life.