Jack Kerouac was a pioneering member of the Beat Generation, a group of American writers, artists, and thinkers from the 1950s and 60s. The Beats were characterized by what was at the time a shockingly free spirited approach to alcohol, drugs, music, writing, and sex. Kerouac himself defined the word "beat" as a combination of many different connotations, including spiritually beatific, run down or tired, and musical.
The novel that made the generation, Kerouac, and the word "beat" famous was On the Road, published in 1957, which details the 1940s exploits of Jack Kerouac (known as alter-ego Sal Paradise) and friend Neal Cassady (known as Dean Moriarty). The novel is revolutionary in its prose style, which is characterized by free-form thinking, free-association, a lack of grammatical concern, and remarkable fluidity and rhythm, among other things. (Check out Shmoop's guide to On the Road for more on the famous novel.)
After On the Road, Kerouac was hit hard with the fame that comes with a groundbreaking novel. His lifestyle of drugs and drinking began to take its toll on his body and mind. By the 1960s, Kerouac found himself sick, breaking down, and dealing with the harsh reality of delirium tremens and episodic delirium caused by withdrawal from alcohol. His novel Big Sur, published in 1962, details events from this much darker period of his life. Focusing on August and September of 1960, Kerouac describes his time in San Francisco and in the woods of Big Sur, California in the cabin of good friend and fellow Beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Kerouac doesn't beat around the bush in this novel. Employing the same free-form style as On the Road, his descriptions of delirious episodes and alcohol-driven nightmares are visceral and intense. Much of the novel is devoted to recreating the experience for the reader. Though narrator and alter ego Jack Duluoz seems to end his story on a somewhat positive note, Kerouac was still consumed by alcoholism at the time of publication. He would die of cirrhosis – a chronic liver disease caused by excessive, long-term drinking – only seven years later, in 1969, at the age of 47.
It's 1948, and Jack Kerouac is in the midst of the cross-country travels that will soon be immortalized in his legendary novel On the Road. Everything in this novel is extreme, and we see the limits of experimentation first hand. There's alcohol, there's jazz, there's promiscuous sex, and there's drug abuse. Jack and his friends are in their mid-twenties, energetic, attractive, and seemingly invulnerable. They are the literary, sexual, and iconic heroes of their generation.
Fast forward to 1960. Kerouac is pushing 40 and looks about 58. If drinking used to be a part of wild Saturday nights in Chicago, it's now about getting through breakfast without unbearable alcohol withdrawal. Jack, once the handsome and vibrant king of the Beat generation, is a tortured alcoholic, aged beyond his years.
This is disconcerting. As a rule, we like our rebellious heroes young and invincible. We like them to exist James Dean -style, outside the boundaries of time. (Kerouac writes about the irony of kids showing up at his doorstep in the late 1950s expecting him to be the same person he was at age twenty-four.) Seeing iconic heroes through this idealized lens makes it easy for us to get carried away with the glamour of the lifestyle they lead. We can get swept away because we never have to see the consequences of it.
But Big Sur reminds us of a very painful fact: heroes get old. It's easy for us to forget this, and perhaps it's also easier for us to forget this. No one wants to think about what's going to happen to our own heroes down the road, especially if the outcomes are tragic.
Big Sur can be seen as the seamy underbelly of rebellion gone too far. Whether it's a lesson, a deterrent, or simply a record of the downfall of one of the greatest writers of our century, Big Sur is worth a read.