Born Jean-Louis Kerouac to a French-Canadian family in Lowell, Massachusetts. At an early age, he was heartbroken when his elder brother Gerard died, later prompting him to write the book Visions of Gerard.
His athletic prowess led him to be a star on his local football team, and this achievement earned him a scholarship to Columbia University in New York. It was in New York that Kerouac met the people whom he was to journey around the world with, and return to write about: the so-called Beat Generation, which included people like Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs. After breaking his leg and arguing with his coach, the football scholarship did not pan out, so Kerouac left to join the Merchant Marine.
In between his sea voyages, Kerouac stayed in New York with his friends from Columbia. He started writing his first novel, called The Town and the City, which was published in 1950 and earned him some respect as a writer.
Kerouac wrote constantly, despite not publishing another novel until 1957 when On the Road, published by Viking Press, finally appeared in print. This book dealt with his roadtrip adventures across America and into Mexico with Neal Cassady by its main protagonist, Sal Paradise. The novel is often described as the defining work of the post-war jazz-, poetry-, and drug-affected Beat Generation. He wrote it in an extended session of "spontaneous prose", or stream of consciousness, which created a style of writing entirely of Kerouac's own making. He was hailed in some circles as a major American writer, and reluctantly as the spokesman for the Beat Generation. In 2001, the book would be listed as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the editorial board of the American Modern Library.
During his years of rejection by publishers, he wrote a number of (autobiographical) books, which he carried in his rucksack on reams of typing paper which he taped together so he did not have to pause to change the paper. These books include:
- On The Road (ISBN 0140042598)
- The Subterraneans (ISBN 0802131867)
- Tristessa (ISBN 0140168117)
- Visions of Gerard (ISBN 0140144528)
- Doctor Sax (ISBN 0802130496)
- Maggie Cassidy (ISBN 0140179062)
- Visions of Cody (ISBN 0140179070)
- The Dharma Bums (ISBN 0140042520)
- Desolation Angels (ISBN 1573225053)
- Big Sur (ISBN 0140168125)
- Satori in Paris (ISBN 0802130615)
- Vanity of Duluoz (ISBN 0140236392)
He died at the age of 47. His health had been destroyed by a life of heavy drinking.
A street is named after him in San Francisco.