Undergrad Research: On Jack Kerouac and Sports

Kerouac, Kerouac

I have a confession to make: I am addicted to Jack Kerouac, and I’m pretty damn happy about that fact.

Since my junior year of high school, when I first picked up a copy of On the Road (leant to me by one of my favorite teachers, Amelia Bligh), I have been obsessed with his life and works, and those of his associates—Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Cassady, Snyder, etc. I think my extensive collection of over seventy Beat-related books can attest to that fact, not to mention the posters, the albums, and the films.

What always amuses me is that I didn’t react to On the Road the same way that most people do. I’ve heard stories of people reading it and suddenly wanting to pick up a rucksack and hit the road. I respect anyone who can just get up and go like that, but that’s not really my style. I hate driving.

No, when I first read that book, I wanted to hit the road in a different way; I wanted to explore it mentally, psychologically. I was passionate for the movement of Kerouac’s prose as it hurtled down the page. There’s nothing like being on the road, but there’s also nothing like hearing people talk about it as sincerely, as hauntingly, and as mythically as he did. The road I wanted to experience was literary, not literal.

It’s been five years and I’m still on the road with Kerouac. I’ve read nearly all of his novels, most of his poetry, and chunks of his short stories, correspondence, and journals. I’ve also read several biographies, watched documentaries, and explored analytical studies and interpretations of his works. It hasn’t always been a pleasant ride: the more time you spend with a person, the more you discover their faults and weaknesses. Kerouac was a troubled man, not unlike the other writers and artists he encountered. There were times when I had to step back and reevaluate my appreciation of him, my adoration. Even now, reading and hearing about his dismissal of his only daughter, his hate-filled rants about his wives and his friends, and, of course, his alcoholism, I wonder if I should stop the car and find a bus station somewhere.

Nevertheless, I always keep going and keep reading. To love someone means to accept their faults, to acknowledge their mistakes, and to persevere. Good or bad, I accept him for who he was and what he did. This passion for Kerouac, this adoration, is not just a hobby. I want to become a professor and teach my own course on the Beats, though I would prefer to focus on Kerouac. I’m already in the midst of applying to graduate schools, and truthfully, I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it weren’t for this man.

Now, to get to the heart of the matter after that lengthy background, in my thesis I’m studying the interactions between Kerouac and sports, in his fiction and his life. A lot has been written on Kerouac, but I have never seen anyone extensively study the ways in which football, baseball, basketball, and a plethora of other activities shaped him physically, mentally, and artistically.

The story of Jack Kerouac usually begins with an anecdote about Kerouac’s football scholarship to Columbia University, which he attended on and off from 1940-43. His time on the field was brief: he broke his leg in the middle of his second game, taking him out for the rest of that season. It’s a nice little aside, but most Kerouac scholars use it as a jumping off point to discuss his literary affiliations with the school. It was the place where he met the other Beat figures, like Ginsberg and Burroughs, so it’s understandable.

However, Kerouac’s connection to sports is more than just an anecdote. It was one of the most important arenas in which the young Kerouac developed his understanding of the world, his father, his friends, and his imagination. From his earliest childhood experiences going to the racetracks with his father or experiencing the small town barroom scenes in Lowell to his adolescent years playing baseball, football, basketball, and running track on the fields behind the textile mills with his “gang” of friends, these sports were something that connected Kerouac to society.

My thesis—tentatively titled Making the Team: The Real and Fantastical Sporting Life of Jack Kerouac—will be split into two distinct sections: Kerouac’s “real” experiences with sports and his “fantastical” experiences, comprised of a study of his fantasy baseball and horseracing games played on and off throughout his life, from childhood up until his death. A little known fact about Kerouac is that he developed an elaborate and fairly complex system of constructing and tracking his fantasy baseball leagues. He developed scorecards for every player, kept track of team rankings, traded players, and wrote his own newspapers documenting new developments. It’s such a fascinating topic, and it surprises me how little has been written about it.

Since August, I have read—and re-read—Kerouac’s novels, poetry, short stories, journals, letters, critical analyses, and biographies trying to reconstruct this underlying history of the “King of the Beats.” It’s really made me think about how we chronicle the history of the Beat Generation and how we discuss it. This study will essentially put Kerouac’s Beat years aside and look at the man behind the myth. It does not negate the myth, as I intend to use his fiction and self-reflections prominently, but it does try to explore how myths are created, how authors work, and how reality and fantasy are more closely related than one imagines.

I never could have imagined that one book and one man would send me on this, hopefully, lifelong quest, and possible career. But, truth is stranger than fiction. And Jack, if you’re out there somewhere and you happen to read this, I hope I do you justice… and haven’t creeped you out at all.

3 comments on “Undergrad Research: On Jack Kerouac and Sports

  1. Amelia Bligh says:

    I’m so proud that the small gesture of lending you a book has led you to your true passion. It warms my heart as an English teacher and a librarian to see students take such an interest in literature. I wish you the best of luck in your research, and I hope to see the final results!

    Mrs. Bligh

  2. JHaeske says:

    Hey David, thanks for this interesting insight into your ‘relationship’ with Kerouac. I can sympathise when quite a few of the points raised, especially the more unpleasant sides to his character, which I find rather troubling as well.
    Hope you’ll find the time to check out my blog Retracing Jack Kerouac amidst all your hard work on your thesis some day – my best wishes for that too! Let us know how you get on.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating thesis; where can I read the final paper? I’m a English literature student at the University of Colorado Boulder working on an undergraduate thesis along similar lines: looking at how racing shapes On The Road.

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