Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac

By Gerald Nicosia

835 ratings - 4.12* vote

In 1969 Jack Kerouac died a premature death. While his legendary lifestyle and unique creative talent made him a hero in his lifetime, his literary influence has grown steadily since. With Memory Babe (a childhood nickname honoring Kerouac's feats of memory), Gerald Nicosia gives us a complete biography of Jack Kerouac—an honest, discriminating and, above all, compassionat In 1969 Jack Kerouac died a premature death. While his legendary lifestyle and unique creative talent made him a

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Book details

Paperback, 767 pages
February 23rd 1994 by University of California Press

(first published 1983)

Original Title
Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac
0520085698 (ISBN13: 9780520085695)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Paul Bryant

He couldn’t drive. Never learned. That’s what I call a fun fact!


On the Road was the inspiring story of two bopcat blood-brother hipsters searching for the high mystic NOW of the thousand-petaled American holy night, armed only with vows of innocence, poverty, fast cars, benzedrine, booze and hookers, and not letting a gaggle of clingy females like wives and their babies or anybody’s mother stop them for a single second. Well, okay, sometimes the old ball and chain did put a chill on the proceedings with another outburst of possessiveness and just not getting IT and not understanding the wild holiness of the ROAD and the ultimate necessary need to drive two thousand miles NOW in order to have inane conversations with very similar people to the ones at the other end but without that drive how could you find Buddha on the road and how could you drive right over him and kill the fat old bastard while scatting a Charlie Parker solo and feeling up a fifteen year old hitchhiker? You couldn’t, is all. So drive, he said. Into the amoral forgiving violent American night. And when you’ve run out of gas, type. Type like a madman. Type like Satan is at the door.


His life had a peculiar shape : born 1922, high school football star, went to Columbia, dropped out, bummed around, wrote The Town and the City which took about 8 years to get published, he was 28. But then – nothing for another seven years, during which time he did all the hectic running around and typing and retyping and writing many unpublished novels and finally On the Road, 1957 when he was 35.

After which, the deluge : 15 more books published in the next seven years, sometimes three a year.
After that, the classic drunkard’s death at the age of 47.


God Loves a Drunk: by Richard Thompson

Will there be any bartenders up there in heaven?
Will the pubs never close? Will the glass never drain?
No more DTs and no shakes and no horrors
The very next morning, you feel right as rain

'Cause God loves a drunk, lowest of men
Like the dogs in the street and the pigs in the pen
But a drunk's only trying to get free of his body
And soar like an eagle high up there in heaven
His shouts and his curses they are just hymns and praises
To kick-start his mind now and then
O God loves a drunk, come raise up your glasses, amen

Does God really care for your life in the suburbs?
Your dull little life full of dull little things
And bring up the babies to be just like daddy
And maybe I'll be there when he gives out the wings

But God loves a drunk, although he's a fool
Oh he wets in his pants and he falls off his stool
And he can't hear the insults, and whispers go by him
As he leans in the doorway and he sings sally racket
He can't feel the cold rain beat down on his body
And soak through his clothes to the skin
O God loves a drunk, come raise up your glasses, amen

Will there be any pen-pushers up there in heaven?
Does crawling and wage-slaving win you God's love?
I pity you worms with your semis and pensions
If you think that'll get you to the kingdom above

Oh God loves a drunk, although he's a clown
Oh you can't help but laugh as he gags and falls down
But he don't give a curse for what people think of him
He screams at his demons alone in the darkness
He's staying alive for just one more pint bottle
Won't you throw him a few pennies, friend?
Ah God loves a drunk, for ever and ever, amen

This was Kerouac, 1965-1969


Our biographer has two overwhelming qualities. Firstly, a scrupulous non-judgemental non-editorialising attitude towards his hipster boys. This is probably a good thing. But sometimes, I – uh, well – er…. See what you think:

The letter told of the unimaginable series of misfortunes Neal had endured since early frebruary, when he had broken his thumb attempting to punch LuAnn. Permanently in love with her, he had been tortured watching her pass from man to man, and finally he had attempted to beat her into submission, but his fist missed her forehead and struck the wall instead. P286

A Mexican boy named Gregorio rolled them huge “bombers” of potent marijuana and led them to a whorehouse full of twelve-year old girls. All afternoon Jack, Neal and Frank danced the mambo and took turns with the girls. P323

Although Carolyn was pregnant with their third child, Neal assured Jack that this time she would welcome him and might even – after giving birth – participate in a few orgies. P354

He gave up his pretensions to asceticism as he returned gaily to his fifteen-year-old prostitutes p 533

Irritated that Neal owed him $10, Jack chased him down in San Francisco but retrieved only $2, though Neal offered one of his spare women for the night. P553

Finding a beautiful girl in a bikini on the beach reading On the Road he asked “Is the book any good?”. But she wouldn’t believe he’d written it, and when he kept bothering her she called for the police who arrested him p654

Secondly, an inability to tell the wood from the trees - but JK may have said the wood IS the trees and discrimination is the lower western disassembled self speaking - so that most of this book is an avalanche of crabbed and sclerotic and interminable detail of conversations and what he thought about him her and it and what him her and it thought back or rather what he thought they thought and who went where and who didn’t and who shagged who and who couldn’t get it up and who got married to who and who left who two weeks later all this being done in a haze of marijuana and a blaze of bennies so not all that coherent but if it’s coherence you’re after Jack Kerouac is really really not your guy. Never was, never would be. For the holy mystic bopping NOW of the wild American hobo night, he’s your guy. For anything else, could be he was a stoner with a typewriter.


Here’s an incomprehensible zinger from page 28:

He himself often spoke about his ideal of male beauty, which was embodied in Lucien Carr. Moreover, Jack’s bitterness towards women was something with which homosexuals could sympathise.

You like that one? How about this:

Although the complexity of his behaviour in later years defies simple solutions, at least part of his reversion to his parents’ prejudice against blacks may have been due to his obsession with the idea that black men have larger penises. P589


Kerouac almost always got bad reviews. The critics hated him. Kenneth Rexroth, for instance, reviewing The Subterraneans, said “it is not a bad book.. but it has all the essential ingredients of a bad book. The story is all about jazz and negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about – jazz and negroes.”

(Note - when they filmed it the black woman the white guy is having a romance with mysteriously or not so mysteriously changed into Leslie Caron, who may be many things but she was never black.)


I guess Gerald Nicosia had access to all of Kerouac’s journals in which he must have recorded every inane conversation, plus a zillion interviews with all his surviving cronies and exes, all of whom had perfect recall, and he then made a principled decision to believe everything and include everything because it was all true. This produces a bone-wearying sameness to all of Jack’s years from 1957 onwards. There’s a painful base of pure melancholia and depression from which Jack tries to escape by booze and fleeting relationships and a lot of pointless peregrination. Exhaustive and exhausting, gruelling and debilitating, after Memory Babe you will never want to read another word about Jack Kerouac.

He was a hillbilly scholar and a hokey saint… he was determined to blast out from his very heart all the garbage of the age, the processed shit with which fifties America was stuffed like a Christmas turkey – even if much of the time he was flipping or weeping, really weeping – to give his tortured andd grappling nation a voice, even though the job would kill him – he had taken it on anyway, and there was no reforming him now.


For those who think Kerouac had some cool Beat life -- forget it. The poor man was a disaster. This great bio doesn't stint on the details, which eventually add up to a brutal portrait of a writer who just couldn't keep it together. Keep what together, you ask? Everything... Including his writing, which contains flashes of brilliance, but also a fair share of drivel.

The last part of Nicosia's book is grueling. It is Kerouac now totally off the rails, out of touch with any reality. Family and friends all suffered not only from the heartbreak of seeing JK in such a state, but also from being treated so poorly by him.

Of course JK never wanted to be King of the Beats -- that was something Ginsberg steered him towards; though even Ginsberg has said there was no such thing as the Beat Movement -- "It was just a bunch of guys trying to get published." That may be a bit ingenuous, but he was right about the "guys" part. Women in Kerouac's life sphere were there for the pleasure of their men. And if they weren't, the Beats saw them as making their lives hell by asking them to follow the simplest, most basic rules of society -- which they were incapable of doing.

While On the Road was hyped as a search for America, even a surface reading of it will show that it was Kerouac searching for Neal Cassady, spiritually and sometimes geographically. NC wends his way in and out of this bio ultimately causing JK sadness and soul sickness. Is On the Road a lie, as JK put lowlife Cassady on a pedestal as "Dean Moriarty," managing to get generations to worship at the shrine of a supposed "free spirit?" Just asking...

Romanticized to death, today it is hard to realize how reviled the Beat writers were by the literary establishment of their day. And none more than their figurehead, Kerouac. Ginsberg (who got hit with plenty of slings and arrows too) was instrumental in putting him up there, a fact that wasn't lost on Kerouac.

Interestingly, a YouTube video features Kerouac on the William Buckley show Firing Line, not long before JK's death. He alternately comes off as a petulant child and a bellowing oaf, barely connecting to the conversation going on around him. When Ginsberg's name comes up (he was in the audience) Kerouac gives "thumbs down." It's like Frankenstein's monster, blaming his creator for the misery that befell him in a life he never asked for. The difference in the story is that the monster never destroyed his creator. Though one might argue that the opposite occurred.


This is an absolutely fantastic biography. It just amazes me how Nicosia was able to uncover so much information on Jack Kerouac. I guess the huge amount of correspondence he left behind would have been his first treasure trove plus the large number of his friends and acquaintances that the author was able to interview.
I have heard some reviewers on amazon and elsewhere complain that this biographer is too 'blinded' by his adulation of Kerouac. Although the author's respect for Kerouac is indeed evident throughout the book, I disagree. Nicosia exposes all the drug and sex debauchery, scandals and many low points in this man's very, very troubled life while at the same time giving us an intelligent analysis of the value of his art immortalized in his books. I was particularly impressed with his deep analysis of Mexico City Blues, Town and the City and Visions of Cody - three of my favourites. Through this book, I also came to discover lots of other 'minor' works by Kerouac such as Old Angel Midnight (originally called Lucien Midnight) and various articles he wrote for magazines like Esquire.
To my mind, this is 98% a perfect biography - that is, provided that all of the information in the book is accurate and true. It's well written without being verbose or pretentiously academic, it is nicely paced, it contains plenty of information for diehard Kerouackians and is well referenced for people like me who want to check out his sources even further.
I was only disappointed by one thing - the last chapter of the book. While I am grateful to Nicosia for having spared us some of the more unpleasant details of Kerouac's final months and years, I was left wanting to know a little more about what exactly happened to him between 1965 and 1969. I always wanted to know why he died so young. Also, I was really moved by his final novelette, Pic, and wanted to know more than the half a page or so that Nicosia wrote on this largely overlooked piece. For anyone who has not read it, do yourself a favour and pick it up. It is a small book and reads fast but was intensely visual. It was a like a movie playing in my head when I read it.
There are other mysteries I still want to solve such as why Ginsberg never introduced him to Bob Dylan. Especially, after reading how Kerouac composed a spontaneous talking blues song which he recorded on a friend's tape recorder sometime during the 60s and also how Bob mentions Kerouac as one of his early influences. I'm sure they would have dug each other.
My second and only other 'gripe' with this book is that it needs to be updated yet again (especially the bibliography section). LOADS more publications by Kerouac have seen the light of day in recent years - including the original scroll of On the Road, the release of his journals (Windblown World), Atop an Underwood (which showcases his fascinating early writings 'brimming with promise'), Orpheus Emerged (one of his early but rather poor attempts at writing a novel but which historically shows just how much his writing grew thereafter), the Doctor Sax screenplay (brilliantly narrated by Robert Creeley and others and released by the Sampas family as 'Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake') and most importantly, The Sea is My Brother (his very first novel) which was just released publicly in its entirety (Atop contained excerpts) for the first time last month.
After learning from Nicosia's book that several audio recordings of Jack exists (including one kept at Northport Public Library), I was left both wanting more and amazed at the amount of material out there on this man. Rest assured more material will be released in future by the Kerouac estate.
All in all, Nicosia has written a brilliant book and really done this artist justice. I think Kerouac would have been mighty proud and impressed by how he captured the full scope and panaroma of his 47 years on this mortal coil. As I have not read any other biographies on Mr. K., I can't say how good/bad this is compared to the others but I have heard many people say that the biography by Ann Charters and the one by Paul Maher are both really good.
If you want to dive in and REALLY learn how this guy lived, almost down to a day-by-day description, then this book is for you. Many of the 'hangups' that harrowed and chased Jack all his life reminded me of a lot of the same troubles I went through about 5-10 years ago and so I felt strong sympathy for the man, despite his outrageous and increasingly more offensive behaviour.
Many people branded him as 'childish' and although he would pout and throw child-like tantrums, I dislike how adults in the modern world dismissively look down on any behaviour by grown-ups which could be called child-like. Kerouac believed that the children would inherit the Kingdom so I think his 'childishness' (although I dislike the term) was actually something he embraced consciously, rather than unconsciously because the disciplined dedication to his art also shows how mature and grown-up he was at the same time.
A lot of people took his behaviour at face value but we have to remember that he was best friends with Cassady - a man whose very life was his art (according to Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead). Kerouac behaved in certain ways to get a rise out of people - either to make them bring out their true emotions or make them expose their hypocrisy and bigotry, of which Kerouac himself was no exception. Although this behaviour might be annoying and frustrating to those on the receiving end, it is truly unique when you think about it and rather devious and clever.
The main thing I got out of this book was that Kerouac was a man of strong values, first Catholic-based, later Buddhist, even later on he sort of fused the two together. He believed in compassion, kindness, piety and being honest and frank both to friends/others but more importantly to oneself and one's dreams and visions. He was uncompromising in this respect, frustratingly so many of his friends in this book do testify. It his refreshing honesty, so evidently absent in the 21st century which I admire the most.
I also realized that he was an extremely sensitive man which both allowed him to record what he witnessed during his life in this world in excruciatingly beautiful detail but it came at a cost. By publishing his work, he was exposed to attack from all sides. The frequent caustic comments from the press and sometimes even friends really pierced him deeply. I came away feeling that Kerouac must have felt really misunderstood during his lifetime and may have even realized that he was truly ahead of his time.
And all those people who said his writing was just 'typing' (Truman Capote etc.) just 'didn't get it'. There are certain people in this world who fly in the face of convention and think outside the box to create something ingenuous and new and sadly, very sadly, it is often these people who are misunderstood and in the case of Kerouac even ridiculed. But people are starting to get it I feel. Every year seems to bring out a new Kerouac publication.
Kerouac was a genius, although I know some of you may disagree. Check out the video 'What happened to Kerouac?' for a nice overview of the man's life. Fellow beat poet and friend, Gregory Corso, I think summed it up well: 'you have three levels: talent, genius and divine'. When the interviewer asked whether Kerouac was a genius or not, Corso did not even hesitate when he said, 'oh yeah, yeah. Easy. But not divine'.
Maybe he wasn't divine, but yet again who is? He was human and he loved humanity and was crushed by what he saw around him - Man destroying fellow Man. He also loved animals as his brother Gerard told him not long before he died to promise not to harm any living thing.
I wish Kerouac had lived a little longer to finish one of his final works which he told an Italian journalist in 1966 he was working on called 'La Familia Humana' (The Human Family).
40 years after his death and people are still talking about him. We are all part of the human family. Sometimes I think Jack was sent to remind us of this simple fact. Thank you Jack. In this Faustian age of insincerity and immorality spiralling out of control, you are sorely missed.

Joe Mossa

before i read this bio, i liked jack. now, i don t like him. we was a horrible person who wouldn t help support his daughter. he and the bio writer thought he was a great writer but im not even sure of that. i have only read one of his books ON THE ROAD. i read it two times years ago and i think i liked it. i don t like of consciousness,symbolic non linear writing..ala joyce and others. at times i feel like capote who said..jack doesn t write,he types.. it is ironic that i seem to like bios of writers better than their writing. i may read his daughter s book BABY DRIVER. some readers here claim she could write better than he could. it s hard to believe that someone who drank,drugged,and sexed as much as jack did could be a great writer. i am,i think,proud to say that i read almost every word in this bio,except jack s poems which i couldn t bare. write to me if you have read every word in this bio. gerald analyzed ad nausem all 22 of jack s books..too much kerouac for me.


I read this book back between community college and university when I was enamored with Kerouac. Shortly after I was able to visit Lowell, MA where Kerouac was from. I was proud of myself for reading this book when I had no real reading habit at the time. I felt it was very academic of me to seek it out. I wanted to know more about Kerouac, and this book delivers.

Jay C

Finally finished. It took me 2.5 months to get through this behemoth. Pretty depressing read, especially as Kerouac's life deteriorates. I knew what was coming, of course, but that still didn't make it any less unpleasant. Now I can get on with my life. :-)


The BEST biography/critical study of Kerouac, in my opinion (apologies to Anne Charters).

Andy Bryant

I've had this book almost 20 years since buying it at City Lights, and for a while I feared it would take me that long again to read it. At nearly 700 pages it's an incredibly detailed account of Kerouac's life, and while Nicosia is clearly of the view Kerouac is a literary genius, he's also well aware that he was a flawed, troubled genius who often made his friends and family pay a heavy price for their association with him.

It's called a critical biography, and what I really loved was the way Nicosia weaves his analysis of each book into the biography - at the point in Kerouac's story where the book was written, not when it was published. Nicosia clearly favours Kerouac's earlier works - devoting a lot of room for On The Road, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassady and Visions of Cody, but far less in-depth analysis of Kerouac's later books - unfortunate for me as these are the books I've most enjoyed (Big Sur, Vanity if Duluoz).

If I have one complaint it's that the book ends too abruptly - literally at the point of Kerouac's death. He died when - despite his renown as the 'king of the beats' - the literary establishment saw little real value in his work, and I would love to know more about how those attitudes changed over the years.

But as a biography of a great, but flawed an deeply troubled man, it has no equal. I now need to go and read some trash fiction though, it's all a bit too intense - especially the final chapters...


As a reader - couldn't put this down, and when I finished it I cried. Good result for a biography when you already know how its going to end.
As a reviewer I would thoroughly reccommend this to all Kerouac groupies. The writing style is quick and alive and though it is quite thick I did not find it a chore to either read or finish - I had just finished On the Road and sought an autobio or bio out because I wanted to check the trip journey against his life, since it read as if was describing a trip that really happened rather than as a piece of fiction and I wanted to see if it was. The personal detail is to drown in, highly absorbing and covering a wide range of facets of this enigmatic and complex man - the sections describing the music scene at time would also, I think, make for happy reading for a muso.


Comprehensive to say the least, this 700 page beast covers just about everything you might (not) want to know about the self-loathing King of the Beats. If you've got a romanticised image of Kerouac in your head and want to keep it that way, avoid this book like the plague. Extremely readable and doesn't feel the length it is while you're in it, although some of the analysis of his writing is a bit heavy-going at times. Unless you're a literature teacher/student, in which case this is pure word smut.