When I think of the authors I’ve taught who have truly fascinated students, Jack Kerouac’s name is high on the list. No matter how much they learn about Kerouac’s problems and sometimes boorish behavior, most of them still love him at the end of the semester. They’re responding not just to his writing or his life story but to the whole package. Call it charisma. What accounts for it in Kerouac?
He has a great name. He was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, and that is a wonderful banner of a name. When he published The Town in the City in 1950, he called himself John Kerouac–a serious name. By the time On the Road came out in 1957, he was Jack Kerouac and that’s what stuck. Jazzy and fun to say, it’s a little poem that dances on the tongue. Jack Kerouac!
He is photogenic. The pictures of him in his prime are dazzling. No matter whether he’s dressed in plaid shirt and chinos or suit and tie, Kerouac is a knockout. His strong jawline, tousled dark hair, and smoldering gaze appeal to both men and women. His French Canadian heritage bangs against the all-American bravado. Once you’ve seen that sleek, stubborn face, you won’t forget it.
His voice is distinctive. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Lowell accent is smoky and rough-edged. By the time Kerouac was giving readings and interviews, he had traveled a lot and his accent seems to have faded. Recordings give us a wonderfully resonant voice, both light and deep, seasoned with the salt of Lowell.
He’s the king of sentences. Open up any book by Kerouac, close your eyes, and let your finger drop on a sentence. Read it aloud. It will give you a jolt and maybe a lift. Kerouac’s true gift as a writer is at the sentence level. It’s those musical sentences, not characters or plot or symbolism or anything else, that keep drawing in new generations of readers.
He’s all about possibility. Call him selfish, call him obsessive, Kerouac did exactly what he wanted to with his life. His many books are a brilliant legacy but also a challenge. You want to write or paint or learn to play the didgeridoo? Well, who’s stopping you?