This is part of a series of posts on the historical figures that are the inspiration for Immortal Perfumes. For more historical figures, check out the rest of the series.
Iconoclast. Pioneer of the Beat Generation. Catholic. Dharma Bum. Just a few descriptors that comprise the complicated identity of one of the 20th Century's most famous writers, Jack Kerouac.
Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents. (In fact, his birth name was Jean-Louis Kérouac and he wrote a fair amount in French that has only recently been published.) He spoke only French at home and did not learn to speak English until he was six years old. During this time, his older brother Gerard died which drove Kerouac's mother deep into her devout Catholic faith, and his father deep into drink. Kerouac himself believed Gerard was his guardian angel and eventually wrote a book called Visions of Gerard.
When he was six years old he participated in his first Confession. While he was praying the rosary afterward, he believed he heard God speak to him and tell him that while he had a good soul, he would suffer in life and die in pain and terror before ultimately receiving salvation.
A natural athlete, he played high school football and then received a scholarship to play for Columbia University. During this time he wrote for the student newspaper and joined a fraternity. But a football injury led him to eventually drop out of school. This turn of events was fortuitous however as it was then that he met his group of friends who would come to be known as the Beat Generation - Ginsburg, Cassady, and William S. Burroughs among others.
In 1951 he completed On The Road - his magnum opus outlining his road trip adventures across North America with his friend Neal Cassady. While Kerouac was a proponent of "spontaneous prose," contrary to popular lore, On The Road was pre-planned and outlined in his journals before he started his famous marathon writing session. In order to keep the words flowing, he cut up paper into long strips and taped them together to produce one long scroll. The scroll only had to be fed to the typewriter once so he didn't have to waste time reloading pages. Despite the speed at which he completed his work, finding a publisher was another story. In the interim, he was introduced to Buddhism and he wrote a biography of Siddhartha Guatama.
It took Kerouac six years to find a publisher due to the explicit talk of drugs and sex, but On The Road eventually came out in 1957. The New York Times immediately proclaimed him the voice of the Beat Generation.
The price of fame was deeply uncomfortable. While he had helped pioneer the group and coined the term, Kerouac identified as a Catholic first and didn't like being lumped in with beatniks. He continued writing and to this day all of his books are still in print. After years of heavy drinking, Kerouac succumbed to his demons on October 21, 1969 at only 47 years of age.
I personally came upon Kerouac's work when I was an English major in college taking a class called Road Write. Kerouac was definitely patron saint of the nomads and In this class we would read works such as The Dharma Bums and Big Sur and then take road trips to places like Big Sur and Joshua Tree. Once there, we would eat and drink together, go on hikes and then have time for quiet reading and writing reflection. As you can imagine it was a really fun class and while my parents were happy for me, I'm sure they were wondering what it was I was learning.
My Dharma Bum perfume oil was inspired by that trip to Big Sur with my friends. We read both books and I can still see the pristine ocean, the cliffs, the forest, the purple sand beach. I can still smell the trees and the spilled wine and coffee. I'll leave you with my favorite passage from The Dharma Bums.
“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”