Jack Kerouac Dropped Out of College. So What?

27 Jan

Is genius born or created?  By now everyone has read, or at least heard, about how Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College and went on to become the cofounder of Apple and one of the most important entrepreneurs of our time.  Perhaps less known is the fact that Jobs continued to audit classes at Reed.  He actually credited a calligraphy course he took as having a major impact on the Mac.  When I was taking a shuttle from the San Francisco airport to my hotel out in Walnut Creek, I had a midnight conversation with a businessman who had read the biography on Jobs and told me about how the computer genius’ interest in art was fundamental to his vision for building a successful brand.

Back in September, Flavorwire posted an article called “10 Famous Authors Who Dropped Out of School.”  This is what they wrote about Jack Kerouac:

In high school, Beat hero Jack Kerouac was no poet — he was a jock, star of the football team. His athletic skills won him a scholarship to Columbia University, but he and the coach didn’t get along. The two argued constantly and Kerouac was benched for most of his freshman year. Then, he cracked his tibia and, his already tenuous football career over, dropped out of school.

I love Flavorwire, and I understand that the writer was trying to keep the text short and irreverent, but I think it’s worth dissecting the often repeated line that Kerouac dropped out of Columbia University.  Implicit in remarks about his football scholarship and dropping out is the suggestion that Kerouac was neither intelligent nor studious—the same way that many critics like to point to how quickly he supposedly wrote his novels.  If he were a computer genius, like Steve Jobs, perhaps his craft would not be questioned, but because the arts are subjective, Kerouac’s dropping out of college is often reported more as a jab than as evidence toward his natural gifts.

To say that Kerouac was a jock and not a poet in high school undermines his academic achievements.  In reality, Kerouac, who didn’t even feel completely comfortable speaking English when he went off to school (he spoke his parents’ French Canadian dialect), did so well in school that he skipped a grade.  He spent a lot of time at the public library in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, voraciously reading the classics.  When he was not on the football field, Kerouac was part of a roundtable discussion group on philosophy and literature.  His father was a printer, and so even at a young age, Kerouac produced his own writing.  Like Jobs, Kerouac did not come from money, and the scholarship he earned helped him attend the university, where he studied English under the tuition of great professors.

Kerouac left Columbia, then he returned to resume his studies, and then dropped out for good.  However, like Steve Jobs, Kerouac continued his studies even after he dropped out of college.  He enrolled at The New School, where he studied literature.

 

After Kerouac moved to Ozone Park, Queens, and holed himself up writing, his friends jokingly referred to him as “The Wizard of Ozone Park.”  Do you know “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (New Jersey) was?  Thomas Edison, who after only three months of formal schooling, dropped out.

 

***

This post has been updated. I wrote “college” when I meant to write “school,” when referring to Kerouac’s ease with English.

 

 

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8 Responses to “Jack Kerouac Dropped Out of College. So What?”

  1. Kappa March 6, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Beat poetry has brought me here…from Twitter 🙂 and it is nice to see you have a lot of materials to read about the Beatniks. I know now how little I know about them from this piece on Jack Kerouac.

  2. therealguyfaux May 1, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    I am a bit puzzled by that statement about Kerouac not speaking English, but rather Joual, the Quebecois version of French. His parents were bilingual– they spoke French at home to Ti-Jean and his siblings, but English with the neighbors, who were mostly, like yourself, Sammy Sampas and Sam’s sister and future Mrs K, Stella, Greek-Americans. Doesn’t Kerouac at one point reflect on the supposed derivation of his name as being “the language of the house” and that it was French his parents spoke “in the house” but English outside? It seems a bit misleading to have Jack Kerouac portrayed as somehow barely speaking English till college– didn’t he also write about how, when he first attended Catholic school, the nuns asked him (in French) what language his parents spoke, and he said he didn’t know, all he knew was that HE didn’t speak English with them, and that HE couldn’t really speak English, though he had heard it spoken but didn’t understand much of it– and so the nuns set about to immerse him in English, as was the custom in those days? Have I got that wrong somehow? It’s been a while since I’ve read any Jack.

    • Stephanie Nikolopoulos May 1, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

      Thanks for pointing this out! In writing about Kerouac dropping out of college, I made the egregious typo of using the word “college” when I should have said “school” in referring to his language skills. Kerouac grew up in a French-American enclave in Lowell, so in fact he spoke joual both in and out of the house. Kerouac’s parents were bilingual. The parochial school (St. Joseph’s) he attended taught in English half of the day and French the other half. I visited the school two years ago and learned about the language instruction there. It wasn’t until he went to public school (Bartlett Junior High) that all his classes were taught in English. It was at this point that, despite the fact that English was his second language, that Kerouac skipped a grade (he went straight to seventh grade). It was also around this time that he was hanging out with Sammy Sampas, who brought him to the school writing club. Nevertheless, even when he went off to college (and here I should point out that he first went to a year of prep school at Horace Mann in New York, so this was perhaps when he was truly immersed as he was no longer living with his immediate family), he didn’t speak English with ease. (Gerald Nicosia uses the phrase “‘halting’ English” to describe Kerouac’s language skills at eighteen years old.) Of course, then, what Kerouac soon was to discover was that he didn’t quite speak French “right” either. The French-Canadian dialect he spoke was so different from France’s French that his French-speaking classmates in New York had a hard time understanding him. He just couldn’t win!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Friday Links: Commencement Addresses by Authors | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - June 28, 2013

    […] for those of you who dropped out of college: Jack Kerouac did too, but he kept on studying and you too can keep on learning and […]

  2. Before the Beats, Rimbaud Had a “Bohemian Life” | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - April 17, 2014

    […] writer John Clellon Holmes, before he went on the road and lived a bohemian life, he attended (and dropped out of) Columbia University. It was through his Columbia connections—which Paul and I explain in more […]

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