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Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac (Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on March 12, 1922. His father, Leo Alcide Kerouac was a job printer. His mother, Gabrielle Ange Kerouac (nee Levesque) was a shoe-factory worker. Both parents were French-Canadian, and Jack Kerouac grew up in a predominantly Roman Catholic, French-Canadian community in Lowell. He was recognized as an outstanding athlete, and won a football scholarship to Columbia University. Prior to attending Columbia he spent a preparatory year at Horace Mann School for Boys, where he wrote for school publications. He became determined to be a major American writer during his high school years; the early materials in his Archive reflect this youthful determination.

Kerouac entered Columbia in 1940 but after breaking his leg during his first football season his academic interest declined, and he spent his time on independent reading, including the work of Thomas Wolfe, whose work exerted an influence on Kerouac's writing for many years afterwards. He left Columbia during the fall of his sophomore year in 1941, and spent the following years working at a variety of odd jobs. After nearly two years in the merchant marine he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1943 but was released from duty after six months for psychological reasons, honorably discharged as an "indifferent character." He spent the remainder of World War II in the merchant marine.

During this period, when in New York, he associated with a bohemian group of students around the Columbia campus. This group included Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Both appear, thinly-disguised, in several of Kerouac's novels, and he would later give each writer the title for their best-known works -- "Howl" and "Naked Lunch."

After marrying Edith Parker in 1944 he embarked upon a series of cross-country journeys, moving continuously between New York, Denver, San Francisco, Mexico City, and back to New York. These travels became the basis of his novel "On The Road." Kerouac traveled extensively with Neal Cassady, an inspiring, charismatic drifter from Denver with whom he shared a hunger for philosophy, theology, literature, sex, drugs, sensation and salvation. His marriage to Edith Parker was annulled in 1945.

His father's death, in 1946, spurred him to begin writing the novel published in 1950 as "The Town and the City," a minor critical but not financial success. With the advance for "The Town and the City" Kerouac was able to move himself, and his mother, to Colorado, where he began to formulate the narrative that would eventually become "On The Road."

After the advance money ran out he returned to New York and, between 1948 and 1949, enrolled at the New School for Social Research, where he attended Alfred Kazin's classes on the visionary poet William Blake. Kerouac married Joan Haverty in November 1950. The following year, inspired by reading a 23,000 word letter from Neal Cassady, he spent three-weeks typing the 175,000 word first draft of "On The Road" on a constructed paper scroll. The completion of this draft coincided with the demise of his second marriage.

"On The Road" was published in 1957; its publication was hailed by Gilbert Millstein, reviewing it for The New York Times, as "a historic occasion." Millstein was unequivocal in his praise of the novel, regarding it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat' and whose principal avatar he is."

Developing and refining his style, which he called "Spontaneous Prose," Kerouac produced eight more books over the next few years, as publishers capitalized on the attention generated by the publication of "On The Road." He wrote "The Subterraneans" in three Benzedrine-fuelled days of manic writing in 1957.

Kerouac was the first of the beat writers to look to Buddhism and the East for inspiration, calling himself "a religious wanderer" or "dharma bum." He became, however, increasingly alienated from his fans in the 1960s, bewildered by the radical politics of the new counter-cultural currents that he had played a large part in setting in motion. He continued to drink heavily, shunned literary society, and withdrew to St. Petersburg, Florida, or his home-town of Lowell, where he lived with his ailing mother and his third wife, Stella, whom he married in 1966.

He died on October 21, 1969, as a result of complications brought on by alcoholism.

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