Footnotes: Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s On The Road may have made his name, but it is his 1962 novel about the ravages of fame versus the salvation of nature that marks his best work.

Tom Ward

What’s the story?

This week marks 98 years since the birth of American poet and novelist Jack Kerouac. Alongside William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg, Kerouac would become famous as part of California’s ‘Beat Generation’ who redifined the literary landscape post World War 2. Determined to shed the narrative conventions of the novel, they reflected society's emerging spiritual, sexual and psychedelic freedoms.

No work was more successful in doing so than Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road, which he famously typed out in one long scroll over the course of three weeks, powered by amphetamines. The book’s freewheeling account of Kerouac’s alter ego’s travels across the United States became an instant hit. But, for all of that novel’s success, it is the loose sequel Big Sur (1962) which arguably offers the more mature and compelling look into Kerouac’s troubled psyche.

What’s the book?

'The stars were icicles of misery,' Kerouac’s fictional alter ego Jack Duluoz says while camped out on a frosty Californian hillside somewhere in the hippy enclave of Big Sur. In the novel of the same name, the town serves as a retreat for Duluoz who, now a famous author, desperately seeks respite from the nightlife of San Francisco, to which he is inevitably drawn.

Over three separate trips Duluoz heads to an isolated cabin, owned by City Lights bookshop co-founder and Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Duluoz, like Kerouac, is one, giant frayed nerve by this point, trying to balance fame with his pursuit of something deeper and purer.

Yet despite the alcoholism and mental and physical deterioration the character displays, the scenes of forest isolation are pure beauty, and are a panacea for the soul, all of which makes Kerouac’s death from alcoholism seven years later even more poignant.

Venture to the real Big Sur today and you’ll find a forested hippie playground (and the Henry Miller library). But in Kerouac’s novel the woods, mountains and tranquil streams are untouched by modern tourist crowds, offering the reader a bucolic escape. In our anxiety-ridden modern lives, a sojourn to the country is something we all might benefit from, especially in the company of the inimitable and roguish Jack Duluoz. 


While many of Kerouac’s novels are loosely autobiographical, Big Sur is the first novel to confront Kerouac’s huge success as a popular published author. Due to copyright issues between different publishers, he has to use different names, referring to himself as Sal Paradise in On The Road, and Jack Duluoz here.

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