US novelist and poet, a leading figure of the Beat group of writers.
Born in Massachusetts into a French-Canadian family, Kerouac studied at Columbia University (1940–42). A decisive event in his short career was his meeting with Allen Ginsberg at William Burroughs's apartment near Columbia: their names became indissolubly linked in the public mind as leaders of the Beats, a term supposedly coined by Kerouac from ‘beatific’. After leaving university and travelling about for a time, Kerouac wrote his first novel, The Town and the City (1950), drawing on the experiences of his family up to World War II. With On the Road (1957), written in a loose ‘spontaneous’ style, Kerouac was established as a hero of the Beat movement. An autobiographical novel, it relates the constant and aimless wanderings of characters whose only motive is self-gratification (chiefly through sex and drugs), though much is made of the spiritual quest that is somehow involved. In Dharma Bums (1958) the subject is similar but with an explicitly Buddhist theme of a search for truth (dharma). This was followed by The Subterraneans (1958), Doctor Sax (1959), Big Sur (1962), Desolation Angels (1965), and other novels. Mexico City Blues (1959) is a collection of poems. Long before his early death, caused by drink, Kerouac withdrew from the Beat scene; none of his later work equalled or had the influence of his first novels.