MacDougal Street: A Foundation for Jack Kerouac and his Work

Many forms of media and important media figures from the Beat Movement emanated and originated from MacDougal Street and the surrounding area.  Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac all read poetry at the Gaslight Café.  Bob Dylan found musical inspiration in the poetry readings at the Gaslight.  Café Wha? Was the first place Dylan played at upon arriving in New York.  MacDougal Street provided inspiration and a space to write a lot of the music and poems, and literature that emerged from the Beat Movement.

One such writer in particular, Jack Kerouac, one of the pioneers of the Beat Movement, stands out as a media figure that emerged from MacDougal Street.  Jack Kerouac spent many years in the village and many of his works surrounding the Beat life were constructed, in part, by the time that he spent in the area.  He frequented the San Remo Café, Kettle of Fish, and Minetta Tavern where he met and conversed with many other beats.  It is this street where he spent time with many of the beats who he wrote about in his novels under aliases such as William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg.  MacDougal Street was home to many of his experiences and conversations that inspired and are described in many of his works.

One of these works was the novel entitled The Subterraneans (1958), which he wrote in three days and three nights high on Benzedrine.  The novel is semi autobiographical and although took place in the village area, Kerouac sets the story in San Francisco as to not entirely give away the real story and those involved.  So not only did this media emanate from the area, but it is also about the area as well.  The title of the novel comes from a term that Allen Ginsberg coined when hanging out with Jack and many of the others at the San Remo cafe to describe “the bar’s existentialist, jazzy, drugged regulars” (Watson).  The book follows his brief romance with an African American woman.  The novel also follows a group of friends mostly composed of writers and artists and it is set in and around the beat scene (Kerouac).  It is as if the book really epitomizes Kerouac’s and his friends’ beat way of life in Greenwich Village.  In addition to Kerouac and much of his writing emanating from the MacDougal Street area, this particular book also seemed to be about the area, but under the guise of San Francisco.

Although much of his life and many of his novels seem defined, in part by New York and the Greenwich Village area, Kerouac was not a native New Yorker.  He was in fact born in Lowell Massachusetts and did not make it to New York until he graduated high school and went on to attend Columbia University on a football scholarship (  After dropping out of Columbia he began to hang out with the aforementioned men like Cassady, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.  In fact, it was Ginsberg who helped Kerouac publish his first book entitled The Town and City, which documented his struggles between life in the city and the values of his family (  His second novel was On The Road, which documented his travels basically between going back and fourth from New York to San Francisco.  In these books and many of his others (many of which were semi-autobiogrpahical), MacDougal Street and the surrounding area was the setting for many of his experiences with his friends whether it was reading poetry at the Gaslight Café, or hanging out at Minetta Tavern, San Remo Café, or Kettle of Fish.  It provided a space for Kerouac and the other beats to be open and live the way they wanted to, a space for them not to conform and for the beat movement to unfold and evolve.

Jack Kerouac is famous for his way of putting into words, the thoughts and experiences, and events that define the Beat Generation.  He is probably best know for his book entitled On the Road, which described his adventures with his friends across America.  This book, which enlightened readers about the beat lifestyle very early on, catapulted Kerouac to fame and definitely put him in a position to publish more novels.  The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Maggie Cassidy and Big Sur are just a few more novels out of many that followed.  Overall it seems as though MacDougal Street really provided a foundation for many of the experiences that Jack Kerouac would write about.

Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. New York: Grove Press, 1958. Print.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters 1944-1960. 1. II. Pantheon, 1995. Print.


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