Jack Kerouac Birthday: 3 Ways Kerouac Changed American Literature


I didn't get Kerouac the first time I read him. His free-form writing made it hard for me to get into a rhythm while reading it. I could appreciate the jazz inspired stream of conscious with its improvisations and tangents, but I struggled to turn the pages and devour his work the way I could with someone like John Steinbeck.

What I didn't struggle to understand, however, was that what Kerouac was doing was different than anything I had ever read before. He changed the form, and made it okay to do things that would have at one point been deemed blasphemous.

Jack Kerouac would have turned 91 on March 12. Even though he died in 1969, Kerouac's influence on American literature is still felt today. He changed the way we look at stream-of-conscious writing, provided tips, and inspired a generation to "burn, burn, burn." Here are three ways we're still seeing Kerouac's lasting impression on American literature:

1. Changing The Form:

If Kerouac had his way, On The Road would have had no punctuation and been one long, rambling story that read along a scroll (as pictured above). While publishers put in punctuation and separated the work into pages, the story still had the free-form jazz feel to it that helped define Kerouac. His passion for the work burns on the page where conventional grammar couldn't contain his story. Today's writers aren't afraid to throw stream of conscious and long, unrelenting paragraphs of uninterrupted thought (see moments of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk). 

2. Writing Tips

It is rumored that Allen Ginsberg stared at a list of 30 Writing Tips from Kerouac while writing Howl. Writers today should be inclined to take hints from the list as well, with gems like: "Write in recollection and amazement for yourself," and "Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better." 

Even his list of tips is sometimes hard to decipher, but the lessons are applicable to life as well. 

3. "Burn, Burn, Burn" And Other Quotes:

"... but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"

Kerouac's work is full of quotes that, like his writing tips, apply to life and writing. 

"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple," he writes in The Dharma Bums.

Kerouac did find the words, and they may have been simple, but the effect they have had on American literature has been anything but.