Kerouac: A Biography

I acquired Kerouac: A Biography by Ann Charters over thirty years ago after I saw the author appear on the TVOntario show “Imprint”, which at that time was hosted by Daniel Richler. How I loved that show, which featured intelligent discussions about books with the host and three other literary figures (usually authors, naturally) sitting around a small round table. Charters appeared on an episode about the Beats. I was so taken in by her reminiscences of Kerouac that I called up Abelard Books, a longtime antiquarian and retail bookseller at Yonge and Collier in Toronto, to order this biography. This was at a time before the Internet and Amazon existed, so if customers wanted a book, they had to call up a bookstore to order it for them. And, so typical of my retail book habits, I buy a book and then leave it unread for years, or in this case, over three decades. As I commemorate Jack Kerouac during his centenary year I am finally reading all of my books by or about Kerouac that I have not yet read.

This particular edition was published in a large font, which made it a gentle read for my weak eyesight. The text filled the entire page, as the top and side margins were minimal. I didn’t mind the solid bricks of text as long as I could easily read them. Even though this was my fourth Kerouac biography and the third one I have read this year, I did not find this to be a tedious read, as one might expect with a rapid turnover of biographies about the same person. Charters told Kerouac’s story as if the reader was in the same room with him witnessing the events first-hand. This was especially true as we sat with Kerouac in the 1960’s, wasting himself on port wine. I couldn’t even stand it, reading how he drank himself to death as his wife and mother did nothing. Sometimes they even drank themselves to sleep right along with him.

Charters herself had met Kerouac and been to his house as she worked to prepare a definitive Kerouac bibliography, and it was her personal memories of him that I liked best in the entire book, although I had to wait until page 350 (of 367) to read them (not that I’m complaining). Charters clearly charmed him as a scholar and not as one of many who randomly showed up at his door looking to get drunk with him. She stayed for dinner–Jack merely drank scotch and beer and ate potato chips–and was even allowed to take a few photos. The part about her trying to sneak out of the Kerouac house for the first time will have you in stitches, although it probably terrified Charters at the time:

“He scowled at me, ‘I won’t let you back in here tomorrow if you don’t spend the night with me.’ There was no real menace in the threat, his loneliness unmistakable as he desperately tried different ways to get me to stay.”

This biography wasn’t published until 1973, four years after Kerouac’s death. It has earned the reputation of being one of the best Kerouac biographies, and, after reading four of them, it definitely deserves the praise heaped upon it. Another reason for such praise is the second appendix on notes and sources, where Charters documented every book, interview, letter and phone conversation she used, not merely as a list of references, but attached stories to each one. Her timeline on the entire Kerouac oeuvre was a fascinating chart in the third appendix. It organized each book chronologically by the date each specific work took place in Kerouac’s life versus by the year the work was written or the year it was published. There was a spiderweb of overlap in regards to when Kerouac wrote about each part of his life and when it was eventually published. This will enable the reader to follow the Duluoz Legend book by book, regardless of publication date. The fourth appendix was an identity key that identified the various pseudonyms Kerouac used for his friends in his novels. They often had different names in different works, but not always.

This particular biography has been of great help by providing the most detailed background for Kerouac’s novels. In regards to the ones that I own which I still haven’t read, I would have read them by date of publication had I not known about Charters’s biographical chronology. I will now read them based on how they fit within the Duluoz Legend, which seems the way Kerouac would have wanted it.

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