Jack Kerouac's Battle with Fame: 'What a Waste of Sweet Life!'

This Friday a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel 'Big Sur' opens in theaters, revealing the author's battles with fame and alcoholism. Read about his journey to self-destruction.
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Although Jack Kerouac might not have believed it himself, in 2013 he is more famous than ever. This year has seen the publication of two new Kerouac-related books and the film adaptation of On the Road finally came to cinemas after many previous failed attempts. Not only that but Kill Your Darlings, a film featuring Kerouac (played by actor Jack Huston), also went into wide-release this month. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, this Friday a filmed version of Big Sur hits the screens.

In Kerouac's novel Big Sur, the protagonist Jack Duluoz, a stand-in for the author, is a successful writer who is in a downward spiral. Uncomfortable with the fame generated by his work, battling alcoholism, and feeling in need of spiritual regeneration, he seeks solace in the woods at a friend’s cabin. Unfortunately, though, he ends up continuing his descent into self-destruction while there:

We all agree it’s too big to keep up with, that we’re surrounded by life, that we’ll never understand it, so we enter it all in by swigging Scotch from the bottle and when it’s empty I run out of the car and buy another bottle, period.

The book ends on an optimistic note, but the general feeling it leaves is one of existential malaise:

I remember seeing a mess of leaves suddenly go skittering in the wind and into the creek, then floating rapidly down the creek towards the sea, making me feel a nameless horror even then of 'Oh my God, we’re all being swept away to sea no matter what we know or say or do.'

Jack Kerouac never seemed to shake this feeling during his short career. The book that propelled him to fame, On the Road, was both a boon and a curse. Initially he reveled in his newfound notoriety after years of hard scrabbling, but his attitude towards being in the public eye soon turned sour, and fame became a nuisance that distracted him from his work. His life lasted a mere seven years beyond Big Sur’s publication.

Watch Jack Kerouac's mini bio:

One wonders what Kerouac would make of this resurgence of interest in his life and work. Pre-fame, he had hoped that it was “true that a man can die and yet not only live in others, but give them life.” After fame, his outlook was less life-affirming. From Big Sur: “O hell, I’m sick of life – If I had any guts I’d drown myself in that tiresome water…” In the life of Jack Kerouac, there is a before and after – finding the road, and then finding out where the road led.

A Tentative Beginning

In a 1950 letter to a friend, Kerouac wrote that he wanted to “work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money.” But at the beginning, it didn’t seem that spinning tales was going to be his way out of his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Kerouac was a high school football star, and it seemed as if his sporting career would be his deliverance. He was talented enough to receive scholarship offers from the likes of Notre Dame and Boston College, but he settled on Columbia, which he attended in 1940 after a stint at the Horace Mann prep school. He eventually dropped out of Columbia, however, and after working odd jobs and making half-hearted stabs at being a sailor, he found his way to Queens where he lived with his parents between the frequent road trips with his friends that would form the basis of On the Road. Written in 1951 but not published until 1957, the book was initially shunned by publishers, but it was finally taken on by Viking Press and became an unexpected phenomenon.

The Beatniks breaking bread. [Left to right] Painter and musician Larry Rivers, Kerouac, poet Gregory Corso {back of head), musician David Amram, and poet Allen Ginsburg in the late 1950s. (Getty)

The Beatniks breaking bread. [Left to right] Painter and musician Larry Rivers, Kerouac, poet Gregory Corso {back of head), musician David Amram, and poet Allen Ginsburg in the late 1950s. (Getty)

The Price of Fame

The publication of On the Road transformed Kerouac’s life. A famous review in The New York Times referred to it as The Sun Also Rises of its day, a book that captured the feelings of a generation. This generation had already been dubbed the Beat Generation, a term coined by Kerouac. On the Road seemed to capture a mood that was developing in the nation, the same mood expressed by Marlon Brando in The Wild One and in rock ‘n’ roll music: a cry for freedom, a rebellion against the norm. But to the mainstream public, Kerouac was perceived more as a rabble-rouser than the inward-directed philosopher he actually was.

On the Road placed Kerouac square in the center of a maelstrom that would develop into the fervent '60s, but he was never comfortable as the spokesman for a generation. Although he enjoyed some of the fruits of success, such as being able to buy a house, he began to retreat from the role foisted upon him by commentators and members of the public. “I really wanta dig into my art like a maniac,” he wrote, “and pay no attention to promotion (which everybody wants me to do...what a waste of sweet life!).” Promoting his work and submitting himself to endless rounds of interviews that forced him to expound on the meaning and purpose of “the beats” wore him down and contributed to his over-reliance on pills and drink.

But even more seriously, his reputation as being the ringleader of a rebellious movement during the conservative '50s opened him up to death threats, unwarranted attention from cops eager to corral a “beatnik” for marijuana possession, and even actual physical violence. One night outside of a bar on Bleecker Street, Kerouac was beaten badly by three men who were never apprehended. One can safely assume that these gentlemen were not members of the Beat Generation.


'Frazzler of the Heart'

As the '60s dawned, there was no lack of new Kerouac in the bookstores. Between 1958 and 1960, seven new Kerouac titles were published, most of them written between 1951 and 1956, before On the Road’s publication. None of these books captured the public imagination the way On the Road had, however. Kerouac, meanwhile, felt himself swallowed up by the demands of people who wanted him to be iconic, or saw him as a pathway to their own achievement. In a famous interview with the Paris Review conducted by poet Ted Berrigan, he derided these people as “work destroyers.”

Work destroyers [are] secretly ambitious would-be writers, who come around, or write, or call, for the sake of the services that are properly the services of a bloody literary agent…the work-destroyers are nothing but certain people.

In the same interview, Kerouac admitted that his days of inspired composition were through. “I really hate to write. I get no fun out of it…,” he lamented. He also expressed the notion that pouring himself out in confessional novel after confessional novel with little reward but fading celebrity had taken its toll: “Notoriety and public confession in the literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.”

Kerouac reading a book with Ginsberg, 1959. (Getty)

Kerouac reading a book with Ginsberg, 1959. (Getty)

Fame's Firm Grasp

Drinking excessively and becoming more and more paranoid about being persecuted by critics, political figures, and even his closest friends, Kerouac had a nervous breakdown in 1960 (an event he wrote about in Big Sur). An ill-advised attempt to shed his reliance on alcohol by taking an early form of LSD had little impact; a couple of months afterwards, Kerouac embarked on an epic month-long drinking binge. His ability to write diminished, and he was often seen drunk in public, most famously as a guest on William F. Buckley, Jr.’s television program Firing Line in 1968.

Kerouac’s abused body finally revolted on October 20, 1969, when he began to vomit blood and couldn’t stop. An operation to repair his abdominal hemorrhage was hampered by a severely damaged liver. Cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol abuse was considered the primary cause of death, although a bar fight he had been involved in several weeks earlier may have had a contributing effect. He was only 47 when he died, a peculiar martyr to his own success.

After Kerouac’s death, reappraisal was not long in coming. In 1973, the first major biography of his life appeared, and several others would follow. Societies were formed, journal articles published, and new editions of his works rolled out. Previously unpublished works, such as Kerouac’s joint novel with William S. Burroughs or his "long lost" first novel, have appeared as recently as 2011.

Although On the Road remains Kerouac’s most celebrated work, the re-evaluation evident in recent documentaries like One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur or the new film of the novel, shows that even Kerouac’s darkest period is having new light shone upon it. Re-examining the post-fame period of Kerouac’s life adds dimension to the work of a man who felt caught up by circumstance and cast in a role for which he felt ill-suited. As time passes, and the literary reputation of his later work grows, Kerouac’s hope that “It’s our work that counts, if anything at all…” may prove to be justified.