Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, known as Jack Kerouac, was an American novelist and poet who pioneered the Beat Generation alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Of French-Canadian ancestry, Kerouac was raised in a French-speaking home in Lowell, Massachusetts. He "learned English at age six and spoke with a marked accent into his late teens."
During World War II, he served in the United States Merchant Marine; he completed his first novel at the time, which was published more than 40 years after his death. His first published book was The Town and the City (1950), and he achieved widespread fame and notoriety with his second, On the Road, in 1957. It made him a beat icon, and he went on to publish 12 more novels and numerous poetry volumes.
Kerouac is recognized for his style of spontaneous prose. Thematically, his work covers topics such as his Catholic spirituality, jazz, travel, promiscuity, life in New York City, Buddhism, drugs, and poverty. He became an underground celebrity and, with other Beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements. He has a lasting legacy, greatly influencing many of the cultural icons of the 1960s, including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jerry Garcia, and the Doors.
In 1969, at the age of 47, Kerouac died from an abdominal hemorrhage caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking. Since then, his literary prestige has grown, and several previously unseen works have been published. Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to French Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack (1889–1946) and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque (1895–1973).
There is some confusion surrounding his name, partly because of variations in the spelling of Kerouac and because of Kerouac's own statement of his name as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. His reason for that statement seems to be linked to an old family legend that the Kerouacs had descended from Baron François Louis Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac. Kerouac's baptism certificate lists his name simply as Jean Louis Kirouac, the most common spelling of the name in Quebec.
Research has shown that Kerouac's roots were indeed in Brittany, and he was descended from a middle-class merchant colonist, Urbain-François Le Bihan, Sieur de Kervoac, whose sons married French Canadians. Kerouac's father, Leo, was born into a family of potato farmers in the village of Saint-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec. Jack also had various stories on the etymology of his surname, usually tracing it to Irish, Breton, Cornish, or other Celtic roots.
In one interview, he claimed it was from the name of the Cornish language (Kernewek) and that the Kerouacs had fled from Cornwall to Brittany. Another version was that the Kerouacs had come to Cornwall from Ireland before the time of Christ, and the name meant "language of the house." In still another interview, he said it was an Irish word for "language of the water" and related to Kerwick. Kerouac, derived from Kervoach, is the name of a town in Brittany in Lanmeur, near Morlaix.