Essential Kerouac: Birthday Edition

It’s Jack Kerouac’s 93rd birthday. Let’s celebrate by returning to the thirty numbered “essentials” in his “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose,” subtitled “List of Essentials.” Here are four to ponder:

4. Be in love with yr life

Being in love with your own life means it’s new and fresh and alluring; it’s full of surprises. You want to take your life out for an expensive dinner and wind up in bed with it that night. Wow!—as Sal Paradise would say—that’s a great life.

19. Accept loss forever

Only Kerouac the Catholic Buddhist could come up with this. What does it mean? Tonight, when you’re out on a hot date with yr life, whisper this line across your wine glass and see where the conversation goes.

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

The snows of February brought this one home to me. After we came out of our caves and shoveled paths to the road, I looked with amazement at friends and strangers alike. How animated their smiles, how bright their eyes! I hardly listened to what anyone had to say, I was so struck by the beauty of each human face.

29. You’re a Genius all the time

How did Kerouac know that about you and me? He just did. Thanks, Jack! And happy birthday to you, out there, up there, down there, in the hearts of all who love you.

Jack Kerouac’s Charisma

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?

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac