Photo of Jack Kerouac

American Voices: Jack Kerouac

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented  voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Jack Kerouac

In 1957, Viking Press published On the Road, a fictionalized account of Kerouac’s numerous cross-country trips. Kerouac famously drafted the book in a three-week explosion of “spontaneous prose,” lending the text a jazz-like cadence and stream-of-consciousness narrative. On the Road became a defining work of the Beat Generation, a loose collaborative of artists and writers who rejected the mainstream in favor of the experimental and spiritual.

The now-classic book began as a sprawling, 120-foot long manuscript scroll. Kerouac taped paper together so he did not have to stop typing to change the paper in his typewriter. The scroll was the centerpiece of the AWM’s first exhibit in the Roberta Rubin Writer’s Room, The Beat Journey: Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” The scroll is now digitized and accessible to view in a digital display at the AWM, allowing visitors to scroll the scroll!

The "On the Road" Scroll, half-closed
Jack Kerouac’s original On the Road scroll on display at the American Writers Museum, on loan from the collection of James S. Irsay.

Kerouac’s fascination with American vernacular stemmed, in part, from his origins as a cultural outsider. He was the son of French-Canadian immigrants and did not begin speaking English until age six. Kerouac’s father was a printer and publisher, inspiring young Kerouac to illustrate and write mock sports pages and racing reports. As an adult, he designed a cover for On the Road that was ultimately rejected by the publishers.

Fast Facts about Jack Kerouac

Photo of Jack Kerouac. © Walter Lehrman Photograph Collection. Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library
  • He was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts and died October 21, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida
  • His birth name was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, reflecting his French-Canadian ancestry.
  • On the Road is his most well-known work, and he also wrote poetry.
  • He was a prominent member of the Beat Generation.

© Walter Lehrman Photograph Collection.
Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library

“‘It’s not the words that count,’ Kerouac wrote, ‘but the rush of what is said.’ His goal was ‘spontaneous prose’: not a form but an explosively lyrical voice to express everything ‘serious’ literature left out — ‘the speed and tension and ecstatic tomfoolery of the age.’ A voice soaring, ecstatic, meditative, funny, passionate, goofy, sorrowful, and soulful, embracing in its flow echoes of Melville and the Katzenjammer Kids, ordinary American talk and Buddhist sutras.”

—Max Rudin, Vice President & Publisher, Library of America

Selected Works by Jack Kerouac

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