Today’s post is by Miriam Kleiman, public relations specialist at the National Archives.
Jack Kerouac—American counterculture hero, king of the Beats, and author of On the Road—was a Navy military recruit who failed boot camp.
Navy doctors found Kerouac delusional, grandiose, and promiscuous, and questioned his strange writing obsession.
I learned this in 2005, right before the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis announced the opening of more than 3,000 military personnel files—including those of some famous folks.
Working in public affairs at the National Archives is a challenge. We’re always trying to make what’s old seem new. Just yesterday someone asked, “What’s new at the National Archives?” I responded “Absolutely nothing, but I can tell you some neat new things about what’s old.”
The St. Louis records release gave us a chance to share some unknown gems about some very well-known people including Elvis, Clark Cable, and Jackie Robinson. Our colleagues in St. Louis sent us files to see what might interest the media, but most of the material didn’t qualify as newsworthy. It’s vision and dental records, physical exam notes, letters of recommendation, or names and addresses of next of kin.
Then, I found Jack Kerouac’s file. Thicker than the rest, it details his 10 days in basic training—and 67 under psychiatric evaluation. This, I thought, is NEWS! This is EXCITING! I started making calls, convinced this was a story no reporter could refuse! I contacted reporters at People, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. Not a single bite. But I kept the file at my desk. And periodically, I would mention it to reporters covering other Archives-related stories: “Have I got a file for you!” Still no interest.
I guess it’s not so shocking that the military and Kerouac were a colossal mismatch. What is surprising is how the government detailed this incongruity in over 150 pages. Kerouac hated being “disciplined to death” and forbidden to smoke at breakfast. He despised the work details “where they get you to wash their own garbage pans, as if they couldn’t hire shits to do that.” Or, as Kerouac later summarized in a semi-autobiographic novel: “I was just about the least military guy you ever saw and shoulda been shot against a Cuban wall.”
Six years passed before I decided that I would write about Kerouac’s military debacle. For a news “hook,” I used the 60th anniversary of the writing of On the Road. Although it was published in 1957, Kerouac created his legendary 120-foot scroll in April 1951.
I wasn’t sure if our highly respected historical quarterly Prologue would accept a story on a file full of profanity, insanity, and sexuality. To my surprise, it was accepted. The article is featured in the current issue that celebrates the opening of the new National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
Finally, I got to tell the story. Read “Hit the Road, Jack!” for all the details:
- Find out why he was “wasting my money and my health” at Columbia University and why he viewed it as “one huge debauchery”;
- Read his letters of recommendation and find out which teacher praised his “good breeding”;
- Learn about his first sexual experience and his official psychological diagnosis; and
- Learn his IQ and the career goal that was squashed due to his scoring just 23% on the mechanical aptitude test.
All this and more—from a 69-year-old military file housed in an acid-free box in a humidity-controlled storage area at a records facility in the Midwest.