Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Kerouac, a French-Canadian child on March 12, 1922 in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts. Ti Jean spoke a local dialect of French called joual before he learned English. The youngest of three children, he was heartbroken when his older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of nine.
Ti Jean was an intense and serious child, devoted to Memere (his mother) and constantly forming important friendships with other boys, as he would continue to do throughout his life. He was driven to create stories from a young age, inspired first by the mysterious radio show 'The Shadow,' and later by the fervid novels of Thomas Wolfe, the writer he would model himself after.
Lowell had once thrived as the center of New England's textile industry, but by the time of Kerouac's birth it had begun to sink into poverty. Kerouac's father, a printer and well-known local businessman, began to suffer financial difficulties, and started gambling in the hope of restoring prosperity to the household. Young Jack hoped to save the family himself by winning a football scholarship to college and entering the insurance business. He was a star back on his high school team and won some miraculous victories, securing himself a scholarship to Columbia University in New York. His parents followed him there, settling in Ozone Park, Queens.
Things went wrong at Columbia. Kerouac fought with the football coach, who refused to let him play. His father lost his business and sank rapidly into alcoholic helplessness, and young Jack, disillusioned and confused, dropped out of Columbia, bitterly disappointing the father who had so recently disappointed him. He tried and failed to fit in with the military (World War II had begun) and ended up sailing with the Merchant Marine. When he wasn't sailing, he was hanging around New York with a crowd his parents did not approve of: depraved young Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, a strange but brilliant older downtown friend named William S. Burroughs, and a joyful street cowboy from Denver named Neal Cassady.