His work had appeared in school publications since the late 1930s, and his first novel, "The Town and City," was published in 1950, an autobiographical, Wolfe-influenced story set in New York and Massachusetts that received mixed reviews and little commercial interest.
Like a man juggling so many lovers, he often had numerous books going on at once and began "On the Road" in the late 1940s.
Kerouac was famous for his "spontaneous prose," for supposedly finishing "On the Road" in a single caffeinated rush, a long scroll on which words were flung as if he were Jackson Pollock. But the scroll, a collector's item that has just been released in book form, was only one of many versions of the novel, which evolved over several years and finally came together in the mid-1950s, with the help of Viking Press editor Malcolm Cowley.
"On the Road" was released in September 1957, after Ginsberg had set off an early Beat explosion with his poem "Howl." Kerouac's novel was immediately praised -- and immortalized -- by the New York Times' Gilbert Millstein as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat.' "
Set in the late '40s and early '50s, "On the Road" is almost visibly pregnant with a world it helped give birth to: the rock 'n' roll world, a world of sex and drugs and exploration, of cars on the open road.
"The rock 'n' roll generation sure picked up on Kerouac's book, but it was definitely not a rock 'n' roll book, and Jack was definitely not a rock 'n' roller," says Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, who has written often about Dylan.
Kerouac took up Eastern religion, smoked pot, dropped acid, slept around and generally seemed dedicated to the expansion, and destruction, of the senses. But he was more of a '50s rebel, deeply attached, like Elvis Presley, to his mother, and interested less in changing the system than in getting out of it. In one of his last published works, the essay "After Me, the Deluge," Kerouac rejected Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and other revolutionaries said to be carrying on in his name.
Kerouac drank himself to death, suffering a fatal internal hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Fla., in October 1969. He was 47, his last few years a blur of bar fights and bad reviews. But his passing was news enough to be reported by CBS-TV anchor Walter Cronkite and for a crowded memorial back in Lowell.
"In a lot of ways, he was a homeless man, Kerouac, and the one place that has a right to consider him as one of their own is Lowell," says Douglas Brinkley, who edited the Library of America volume.