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Kerouac: A Biography

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Now that Kerouac's major novel, On the Road is accepted as an American classic, academic critics are slowly beginning to catch up with his experimental literary methods and examine the dozen books comprising what he called 'the legend of Duluoz.' Nearly all of his books have been in print internationally since his death in 1969, and his writing has been discovered and enjoyed by new readers throughout the world. Kerouac's view of the promise of America, the seductive and lovely vision of the beckoning open spaces of our continent, has never been expressed better by subsequent writers, perhaps because Kerouac was our last writer to believe in America's promise--and essential innocence--as the legacy he would explore in his autobiographical fiction.

432 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1973

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About the author

Allen Ginsberg

322 books3,430 followers
Books of American poet Irwin Allen Ginsberg, a leading figure of the Beat Generation known for his long incantatory works, include Howl (1956) and Kaddish (1961).

Naomi Ginsberg bore Irwin Allen Ginsberg, a son, to Louis Ginsberg, a Jewish member of the New York literary counterculture of the 1920s. They reared Ginsberg among several progressive political perspectives. Mental health of Naomi Ginsberg, a nudist, who supported the Communist party, concerned people throughout the childhood of the poet. According to biographer Barry Miles, "Naomi's illness gave Allen an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis."

As an adolescent, Ginsberg savored Walt Whitman, though in 1939, when Ginsberg graduated high school, he considered Edgar Allan Poe his favorite poet. Eager to follow a childhood hero who had received a scholarship to Columbia University, Ginsberg made a vow that if he got into the school he would devote his life to helping the working class, a cause he took seriously over the course of the next several years.

He was admitted to Columbia University, and as a student there in the 1940s, he began close friendships with William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac, all of whom later became leading figures of the Beat movement. The group led Ginsberg to a "New Vision," which he defined in his journal: "Since art is merely and ultimately self-expressive, we conclude that the fullest art, the most individual, uninfluenced, unrepressed, uninhibited expression of art is true expression and the true art."

Around this time, Ginsberg also had what he referred to as his "Blake vision," an auditory hallucination of William Blake reading his poems "Ah Sunflower," "The Sick Rose," and "Little Girl Lost." Ginsberg noted the occurrence several times as a pivotal moment for him in his comprehension of the universe, affecting fundamental beliefs about his life and his work. While Ginsberg claimed that no drugs were involved, he later stated that he used various drugs in an attempt to recapture the feelings inspired by the vision.

In 1954, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco. His mentor, William Carlos Williams, introduced him to key figures in the San Francisco poetry scene, including Kenneth Rexroth. He also met Michael McClure, who handed off the duties of curating a reading for the newly-established "6" Gallery. With the help of Rexroth, the result was "The '6' Gallery Reading" which took place on October 7, 1955. The event has been hailed as the birth of the Beat Generation, in no small part because it was also the first public reading of Ginsberg's "Howl," a poem which garnered world-wide attention for him and the poets he associated with.

Shortly after Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956 by City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The work overcame censorship trials, however, and became one of the most widely read poems of the century, translated into more than twenty-two languages.

In the 1960s and 70s, Ginsberg studied under gurus and Zen masters. As the leading icon of the Beats, Ginsberg was involved in countless political activities, including protests against the Vietnam War, and he spoke openly about issues that concerned him, such as free speech and gay rights agendas.

Ginsberg went on publish numerous collections of poetry, including Kaddish and Other Poems (1961), Planet News (1968), and The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973), which won the National Book Award.

In 1993, Ginsberg received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters) from the French Minister of Culture. He also co-founded and directed the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado. In his later years, Ginsberg became a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College.

On April 5, 1997, in New York City, he died from complications of hepatitis.

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617 (37%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 47 reviews
Profile Image for Meike.
1,469 reviews2,296 followers
February 27, 2022
When it comes to theoretical books about the Beat generation, Ann Charters is the scholar to turn to. She met the main protagonists of the movemnet as a student and followed their careers all of her life - until this day, hers is the ultimate biography of Kerouac (although this writer would deserve more options, simply to offer readers different angles on his life). Charters, with the help of Allen Ginsberg, re-counts Kerouac's life in great detail and explains the circumstances of his literary output.

The tone is rather sober, the text is filled to the brim with dates and descriptions - which is great for lirerary researchers. But Kerouac's life is also the epic legend of an anti-hero, and that's an additional book that needs to be written by someone else.

One last remark about the book as an object: The issue by St. Martin's Press is a disgrace to the industry, as it falls apart on first read, and it's also full of typos while the letters look terrible. Come on, guys, you can't be serious!
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,178 reviews9,211 followers
May 29, 2012
This is strange and I don't understand it. The received idea is that once On The Road beat-fame sluiced all over Kerouac's life he couldn't take it and he became a misanthropic drunk and eventually a dead beat, at the age of 47, cursing everything and everyone but especially the hippies he had so inspired. Most of that is true, but this 12 year burn-out goes like this :

The Dharma Bums (1958)
Lonesome Traveler, short story collection (1960)
Big Sur (1962)
Desolation Angels (1965)
Satori in Paris, novella (1965)
Vanity of Duluoz (1968)

Those were the new ones. In his last 10 years he also exhumed, prepared, polished and published :

Visions of Cody (1951–1952; published 1960)
Pic, novella (1951 & 1969; published 1971)
Doctor Sax (1952; published 1959)
Book of Dreams (1952–1960; published 1960)
Maggie Cassidy (1953; published 1959)
The Subterraneans, novella (1953; published 1958)
Tristessa, novella (1955–1956; published 1960)
Visions of Gerard (1956; published 1963)

Man, that's a ton of work for a burnout drunk.

Well, I read this when I was a fan and I'm not a fan anymore and it did provide me with the handy and well-known life lesson of not taking too close a look at your heroes because the dose of reality you get is discombobulatory in the extreme and might lead to tears before bedtime.

Also : it later dawned on me that Ann Charters was the wife of Samuel Charters who pioneered the concept that old 78s made by black people were worth listening to, and he wrote the first book about that called The Country Blues and then he proceeded to produce records by Country Joe and the Fish and John Fahey.

Mr and Mrs Charters, a dynamo 60s countercultural team.

Profile Image for Serenity.
51 reviews2 followers
July 4, 2008
The definitive biography of Jack Kerouac. Helps dispell the myth of Kerouac as a total free spirit and liberated beatnik who helped pave the way for the sixties. Rather, it shows him to be the extremely conflicted man that he was, caught between two opposing value systems that he could not reconcile within himself and that eventually destroyed him, leaving him to retreat into isolation, alcoholism, and closed-mindedness at the end of his unfortunately short life.
I recommend paring this reading with "Ginsberg: A Biography" to get a complete portrait of the man, although the light shines on the Kerouac's torment and self-destruction even more harshly in the Ginsberg bio, to the point where it becomes depressing.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books216 followers
February 27, 2022
Somehow I've always managed to avoid reading this book. Even Charters is apologizing in the newish introduction. The book is at its worst with Buddhist elements. Kerouac desperately needed a teacher and Charters is even more lost trying to explain 3rd or 4th-hand Buddhist concepts to us.

Life is Suffering is given as "Buddhist law" but it is merely an observation— one of what is known as the four noble truths. Poor drunk Jack took refuge in suffering and his ego did not let go. There are three more noble truths Jack! But no he is too drunk. Charters also describes the Buddhist "ideal" of escaping from life which is complete and utter nonsense.

One feels that all the writer knows about Buddhism she picked up from the ravings of an ego-taught speedster. Still, three stars.
Profile Image for Simon Robs.
432 reviews89 followers
May 30, 2019
"On The Road," the "Little Rock Nine" and "Sputnik" all came about in Sept./Oct. of 1957, oh, and so did I - looking back now with age creeping in at the corners of memory to worldly events surrounding one's birth and wondering if along with DNA could these outside dynamics play a role as imprints on un/consciousness? I, without full credulity, [like to] think so, in that once denied borders were crossed, new horizons were envisioned and doors of perception flung wide open to the making it new.

Kerouac is for hipster kids, for youth, and also nostalgic for those whose youth now gone is memory pulling at strings of hope once held as future to behold. All told, Kerouac's life reads tragic, paradoxical and, fuddled, logorrheic, depressiveness with heights of earned and not grandeur. He was a man at vanguard to his time with change afoot beaten down and beatified. He's known for a few of his several books mainly, though to him as with Proust all the books run together to complete the whole one story of his life. Yet it's mostly the peeps who surround him that are the real story. Jack it seems was a sad & solemn soul from front to back and back again just like his legendary crisscrossing the land at dizzying pace of a Benzedrine high. His bop prose, lunatic Zen humanity & Catholic mysticism bolsters the myth of Duluoz. Such as it is. Beat meat for the generations.
Profile Image for Monica.A.
344 reviews33 followers
September 16, 2017

Affronta ed analizza il complesso rapporto esistente fra Kerouac e Cassady, e quello molto discusso fra Kerouac e la madre.
Senza inutili fronzoli ma servendosi minuziosamente delle opere dell'autore e di tutto il materiale devotamente raccolto, il libro ricostruisce e racconta in modo rispettoso e sensibile, per quanto possibile, la Leggenda di Duluoz.

Jack era la presunzione e le contraddizioni dei suoi libri, era il tono totalmente candido e i riferimenti sempre personali, era la capacità di dire qualunque cosa sull'onda dell'entusiasmo; non era però lo stile di vita che rappresentava. [...] Incontrandolo mi resi conto che la realtà dell'uomo Kerouac era tragica, ma che la particolarità del suo genio era stata quella di creare dei romanzi dalla tragedia della sua vita personale. In quanto artista aveva trasformato la propria esistenza colma di sofferenze e l'aveva ampliata nella finzione letteraria perchè fosse più grande della vita stessa. In questo consisteva la forza del suo genio, la sua originalità.

Ma nessuno è in grado di parlare di Kerouac come Kerouac stesso:

I miei amici di San Francisco dicevano che ero un Pazzo Zen, o almeno un Pazzo Ubriaco, però se ne stavano seduti con me sui prati al chiaro di luna a bere e a cantare [...] ero un Paranoico Ambizioso - Niente poteva impedirmi di scrivere libroni di prosa e poesia gratis, senza cioè la minima speranza di vederli pubblicati [...] Strano a dirsi, questi scarabocchi erano i primi del loro genere al mondo, stavo dando inizio (inconsapevolmente, dite voi?) a un nuovo modo di scrivere sulla vita, nessuna invenzione, nessun mestiere, nessun ripensamento [...] tutto questo una continua innocente confessione, la disciplina di rendere la mente schiava della lingua senza alcuna possibilità di mentire o di rielaborare [...] Perchè ero Ti Jean e la difficolà di spiegare tutto ciò compreso "Ti Jean" sta nel fatto che a chi non ha letto i miei lavori precedenti sfugge il contesto -

Profile Image for Laura.
17 reviews9 followers
September 14, 2008

Interesting...don't know how objective it is. Charters is good about putting all the facts in, but manages to excuse a lot of things that, if you were close to Kerouac and his compatriots, were probably not excusable. I enjoyed reading something set in the 1940s and 50s that wasn't Donna Reed-esque...reinforces that all the societal problems we have today were around, the mainstream and media just ignored them.
Profile Image for Ronald Wise.
826 reviews24 followers
August 1, 2011
I don't think I've ever ready anything by Kerouac, but this was the second time I've read this biography from my personal library. Coincidentally I read it this time when the 50th anniversary of the publishing of his On the Road was being noted in the media, and so I heard a lot of supplemental biographical information on National Public Radio. It also meant more to me this time because I've had close personal encounters with individuals in the last five years who were selfish and/or self-destructive hedonists, and so now better understood that mindset.
Profile Image for Steven.
29 reviews2 followers
January 15, 2014
Excellent, intimate look at Kerouac's adult life. Nicosia's biography is richer, with more information and analysis of each of Kerouac's books. Where Charters succeeds is in giving us a vivid portrait of the tragedy of Jack Kerouac's life - a masterful, groundbreaking writer whose influence can still be felt, and the deeply flawed man. Jack Kerouac was Beat in both senses of the word. He was beaten down, crushed by his shyness and self doubts, as well as the pressures of being a celebrity. He was also beatific, always dreaming, always hopeful.
3 reviews
February 11, 2012
I would have given it more stars, if I hadn't read "Memory Babe". If you're looking for a brief overview of Kerouac's life, Charter's book will suit you just fine. If you're really interested in the beat generation, Kerouac and his work get the biography written by Nicosia.
Profile Image for Karolina.
49 reviews21 followers
January 25, 2020
"In Lowell, Kerouac's grave still has no marker. Not that he would have cared. His books are evidence of his presence, the young Jack still alive on his pages to rush on to the next adventure so long as there are people who read the Legend of Duluoz." ❤️
Profile Image for Anna Ligtenberg.
Author 1 book6 followers
October 11, 2013
I've always reviewed books for semi-business-like reasons, but the ones I really love, own? Never. THAT felt a bit like... these are my friends, let's talk about strangers! Suddenly, I'd like to review my way through my own shelves before I die... and since I'm accident prone and living alone for the first time in eons... it seems like death by tripping down the stairs on the ragged hem of a pair of jeans... seems like that could be right around the corner, some days. Yep... Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, back to back, they just bring out my sunny side, don't they? I'm gonna need something like Is Elvis Alive?, some Joey Ramone... maybe Krassner's Pot Stories next or I might kill myself before my jeans get around to it.

I first read a teeny tiny bit of this book (not this edition, of course...) when I found it in (and stole it from) my mom's dresser when I was in 8th grade. Then my dad spotted it and flipped his shit for reasons then unknown.

As a picture of Kerouac, and even moreso of the times, I love this book. Learn a thing or two, see something from a new angle... add a new shadow or light to the picture you already have... Books that do that make me happy, and this one does a nice job of that but... and I hate to say this because I'm usually not the type to write an entire review based on something NOT in the book... but when I read that the first edition was rejected by the family, apparently for the claim that Jack's sister committed suicide, I was... more turned off this book than I like to admit.

Either the suicide story was true, and a carefully protected family secret... or Charters got it so damned wrong because her personal connection to Kerouac - the thing, outside of Jack himself, that made this book of special interest - was perhaps a wee bit flimsier than advertised. In either of those cases, that made everything else... potentially suspect, one way or another. Also entirely possible - the whole "rejected first edition" story was bullshit... No matter which was the truth, I started looking at Charters' book with wary suspicion. Sometimes the Internet is like one big fat douchebag tattletale. Boo.

The book is more than readable. It's really quite well done - other than a couple weird lapses in writing style - and I don't expect infallible from anyone... but if it comes down to a fight for space, I do believe that Nicosia's Memory Baby will shove Charters off the shelf in a heartbeat. Lucky for her, I'm just getting started and may forget my annoyance by the time I start winnowing for space.
206 reviews
March 6, 2022

I acquired Kerouac: A Biography by Ann Charters over thirty years ago after I saw the author appear on the TVOntario show “Imprint”, which at that time was hosted by Daniel Richler. How I loved that show, which featured intelligent discussions about books with the host and three other literary figures (usually authors, naturally) sitting around a small round table. Charters appeared on an episode about the Beats. I was so taken in by her reminiscences of Kerouac that I called up Abelard Books, a longtime antiquarian and retail bookseller at Yonge and Collier in Toronto, to order this biography. This was at a time before the Internet and Amazon existed, so if customers wanted a book, they had to call up a bookstore to order it for them. And, so typical of my retail book habits, I buy a book and then leave it unread for years, or in this case, over three decades. As I commemorate Jack Kerouac during his centenary year I am finally reading all of my books by or about Kerouac that I have not yet read.

This particular edition was published in a large font, which made it a gentle read for my weak eyesight. The text filled the entire page, as the top and side margins were minimal. I didn’t mind the solid bricks of text as long as I could easily read them. Even though this was my fourth Kerouac biography and the third one I have read this year, I did not find this to be a tedious read, as one might expect with a rapid turnover of biographies about the same person. Charters told Kerouac’s story as if the reader was in the same room with him witnessing the events first-hand. This was especially true as we sat with Kerouac in the 1960’s, wasting himself on port wine. I couldn’t even stand it, reading how he drank himself to death as his wife and mother did nothing. Sometimes they even drank themselves to sleep right along with him.

Charters herself had met Kerouac and been to his house as she worked to prepare a definitive Kerouac bibliography, and it was her personal memories of him that I liked best in the entire book, although I had to wait until page 350 (of 367) to read them (not that I’m complaining). Charters clearly charmed him as a scholar and not as one of many who randomly showed up at his door looking to get drunk with him. She stayed for dinner–Jack merely drank scotch and beer and ate potato chips–and was even allowed to take a few photos. The part about her trying to sneak out of the Kerouac house for the first time will have you in stitches, although it probably terrified Charters at the time:

“He scowled at me, ‘I won’t let you back in here tomorrow if you don’t spend the night with me.’ There was no real menace in the threat, his loneliness unmistakable as he desperately tried different ways to get me to stay.”

This biography wasn’t published until 1973, four years after Kerouac’s death. It has earned the reputation of being one of the best Kerouac biographies, and, after reading four of them, it definitely deserves the praise heaped upon it. Another reason for such praise is the second appendix on notes and sources, where Charters documented every book, interview, letter and phone conversation she used, not merely as a list of references, but attached stories to each one. Her timeline on the entire Kerouac oeuvre was a fascinating chart in the third appendix. It organized each book chronologically by the date each specific work took place in Kerouac’s life versus by the year the work was written or the year it was published. There was a spiderweb of overlap in regards to when Kerouac wrote about each part of his life and when it was eventually published. This will enable the reader to follow the Duluoz Legend book by book, regardless of publication date. The fourth appendix was an identity key that identified the various pseudonyms Kerouac used for his friends in his novels. They often had different names in different works, but not always.

This particular biography has been of great help by providing the most detailed background for Kerouac’s novels. In regards to the ones that I own which I still haven’t read, I would have read them by date of publication had I not known about Charters’s biographical chronology. I will now read them based on how they fit within the Duluoz Legend, which seems the way Kerouac would have wanted it.

Profile Image for Bryan Duffy.
41 reviews8 followers
September 28, 2007
Will tell you every little secret you did and didnt want to know about Kerouac. Warning, you might not like the guys persona after reading it. Youll respect him more as a writer...but youll find some things about him that you may not have found in his novels.

Profile Image for Jason Evans.
86 reviews1 follower
November 13, 2007
I realize you think you know all about Jack's life because that is what he mainly writes about, right? Not so fast my friend! Ann takes you behind the scenes, the real stories and Jack's maniacal writing sessions, fast and frenzied. Good read for Kerouac fans.
Profile Image for Jeff.
15 reviews
October 3, 2008
My favorite bio on Dulouse! Charter gets her info right as far as I know, and she did get to work with him before he died. And I like Charter's style...lays it down, very readable.
Profile Image for Joseph Cochran.
9 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2013
Definitive Biography of one of the greatest writers of all time. Kudos to Charters on the Research
Profile Image for Don Clark jr.
6 reviews2 followers
June 26, 2013
this is a Kerouac biography that I revisit at least once a year. Ann Charters gives me a glimpse into a world I can only wish I had been born early enough to witness firsthand.
Profile Image for Emile.
26 reviews
January 12, 2021
Jack Kerouac is a holy romantic vagabond wanderer who inspired masses of youths to leave their homes and set out across America in search of life. Ann Charters was one such youth. Jack's life was short and sad and full of wonder. This is what keeps us reading him today.

Charters does a great job of bringing the man alive on these pages.

Using Kerouac's novels, poems, notes, letters, tape recordings as well as her own experiences of working with him, Charters talks us through everything that made this man who he is.

Anyone who is reading this book is likely a fan of Jack Kerouac already, so I would say don't waste any time and pick up this book!

Charters understands the man, his work, his mission, but also and perhaps most importantly she inhabits a lineal position very much on the fringes of 'Beat' circles, thus she offers an unbiased, outsiders perspective on the life, work and times of this man, while also having the unique ability to understand, synchronise and explain information and events in a way very few others are able to do. There is no better voice to bring this to the reader than hers.

She captures the sadness, the magic, the rhythm, the blues of his life, and the wanderlust that made Kerouac who he is.

A wonderful, moving portrayal of the life of the 'King of the Beats' (I hope he wouldn't mind me using that term).
Profile Image for Allen.
2 reviews
June 24, 2018
I fell in love with On the Road, then The Dharma Bums, then Big Sur, then his poetry, then things here and there. Kerouac was my go-to. I thought I knew him like an old friend, "ol' reliable." And then I read this biography by Ann Charters, which gave me an entirely different perspective on the life and times of my beloved Kerouac. I'll be honest, it's a hard pill to swallow at times. There are things about Kerouac's life and behavior that are hard to come to terms with after having revered him and his writing for so long. With that said, though, this biography is extremely enlightening and eye-opening. I now feel that I now Kerouac differently, but I feel like our writer-reader relationship is stronger than ever. If nothing else, I now understand that Kerouac was human like the rest of us. He had his trials and tribulations and hardships and disappointments, and he also had his triumphs, his victories, his climaxes. No doubt a must-read for any Kerouac aficionado.
Profile Image for laila.
77 reviews
September 25, 2022
A very solid biography by the foremost Kerouac scholar. Less immersive than other biographies I’ve read (like Morgan on Ginsberg) but still gave a strong impression of him. Whatever my personal view is of Kerouac the Man (I got some things to say), I idolize Kerouac the Writer. Surely never before or since has there been a person whose every atom is geared towards writing. That’s all he did in his life (though this is enviable, it raises some important questions about what a life of accomplishment can look like). He was not the genius he believed himself to be, but his style of spontaneous prose was revolutionary and On The Road is a superlative novel.
Good detail of the impact of Neal Cassady on the trajectory of American culture but, in my view, really not enough. Maybe it’s because for me life is who’s around, but I would’ve paid much more attention to Jack’s Oedipal hangups and the impact of Cassady’s death on him.
Still, very good.
Profile Image for Bertie.
67 reviews
February 9, 2018
Magnificent. It would be hard to write a book about Jack Kerouac that isn't interesting to be honest, but I feel Ann Charters does a fantastic job here. I was entertained throughout the whole book, even though at times Mr Kerouac's life was seriously dragging... The author never dwindles on a topic or segment of his life for too long, and the story skips along and gives us all the great juicy gossip that is Jacks life from the age of four to his death, and boy did I learn a thing or too about Jack (and his friends).

Top drawer, full marks.
3 reviews
May 19, 2018
3.5 / Really enjoyed reading this. Gave me a good idea of Kerouac's life to understand his works better and the time he lived in. Charters knew him so what she wrote seems more realistic and accurate than biographies of people just studying his works. I also really liked that its not just about him but also his friends and the people who influenced him. She doesn't conceal his bad characteristics though not giving a subjective opinion about them e.g. denying child support and care for his children
February 24, 2022
From free spirit to conservative. Great overview of Jack's life, especially the identity key so you know who's who when reading his books. Shame how boring his life became once he was famous, living with mum, abandoning his friends and losing his days to alcohol. He's like the opposite of Charles Bukowski.
Profile Image for Erica Basnicki.
82 reviews1 follower
March 30, 2021
If I have one complaint it’s that this book was obviously written by a fan. It’s a great book, and I learned a lot and appreciate Kerouac’s dedication to writing even more having read it. I just wonder if it lacks a bit of objectivity, but that’s a very minor issue.
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