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One of America's greatest writers once wished he had been born and raised in North Dakota

The "King of the Beatniks" himself Jack Kerouac was impressed by something that happened to him in Dickinson in 1949.

US-NEWS-ST.-PETES-KEROUAC-HOUSE-HAS-PT.jpg
A young Jack Kerouac.
Times (1969) / TNS
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FARGO — Jack Kerouac was an interesting guy. He was a respected writer and poet who coined the term “beat generation,” a literary movement which defined the nonconformist youth culture of New York City in the 1950s — ‘beatniks’ in post-war America who challenged everyone to see the world through new eyes.

But Kerouac is also the guy who, 73 years ago this month, wrote that he wished he had been born and raised in Dickinson, N.D.

Huh? Surely there weren’t many beatniks in the Badlands in ‘49. What gives?

Well, it turns out the famed writer was stuck in a blizzard in Dickinson that February and he was pretty flabbergasted by it all — not so much the weather, but the people.

The story still resonates all these years later. Earlier this month, Kevin Carvell, a one-time political reporter and top aide of former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan from North Dakota, shared Kerouac's journal entry. At the writing of this story, the post has been shared more than 120 times.

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Why was Kerouac in North Dakota?

Kerouac was born in Massachusetts, but from 1947 to 1950 he embarked on a cross-country trip that would later be the inspiration for his best-known novel, “On the Road.” Amazon describes the book as a "classic novel of freedom and the search for authenticity that defined a generation.”

During his travels, Kerouac journaled about his experiences. According to The New Yorker, the journals (written from 1947 to 1950) were only released following the death of Kerouac’s wife in 1990. Kerouac had died in 1969.

Here is the journal entry featuring Kerouac getting stuck in the Dickinson blizzard.

February 9, 1949 — North Dakota

The mad bus driver almost went off the road on a sudden low snowdrift. It didn’t faze him the least, till, a mile out of Dickinson, we came upon impassable drifts, and a traffic jam in the black Dakota midnight blasted by heath winds from the Saskatchewan Plain. There were lights, and many sheepskinned men toiling with shovels, and confusion—and (the) bitterest cold out there, 25° below, I judge conservatively. 

Another eastbound bus was stuck, and many cars. The cause of the congestion was a small panel truck carrying slot machines to Montana. Eager young men with shovels came from the little town of Dickinson, most of them wearing red baseball caps, led by the sheriff, a strong joyous boy of twenty-five or so. Some of the boys were fourteen, even twelve. I thought of their mothers and wives waiting at home with hot coffee, as though the traffic jam in the snow was an emergency touching Dickinson itself. Is this the “isolationist” Middle West? Where in the effete-thinking East would men work for others, for nothing, at midnight in howling, freezing gales?

Where in the effete-thinking East would men work for others, for nothing, at midnight in howling, freezing gales?
Jack Kerouac - Feb. 9, 1949 journal entry after being rescued by townspeople after getting stuck in a North Dakota blizzard

We, in the bus, watched. Once in a while a boy came in to warm up. Finally the bus driver, a maniacal and good man, decided to pile on through. He gunned the Diesel Motor and the big bus went sloughing through drifts. We swerved into the panel truck: I believe we may have hit a jackpot. Then we swerved into a brand-new 1949 Ford. Wham! Wham! Finally, after an hour of travails, we were back on dry ground. In Dickinson, the café was crowded and full of Friday-night excitement about the snow jam. I wish that I had been born and raised in Dickinson, North Dakota.”

Crew_Cut,_Jack_Kerouac,_1943.jpg
This is a photo of Jack Kerouac in 1943 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserves. After just 10 days in boot camp he was declared unfit for military service. According to the National Archives, "The qualities that made 'On the Road' a huge success and Kerouac a powerful storyteller, guide, and literary icon are the same ones that rendered him remarkably unsuitable for the military: independence, creativity, impulsivity, sensuality, and recklessness."
National Archives / Public Domain

His path led elsewhere

The success Kerouac had with the book about his cross-country travels brought him instant fame and has been called a defining work of post-World War II America. With the attention, Kerouac was heralded as “The King of the Beatniks.”

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He never liked that title, despite it helping lead to the publication of 12 more novels. None were as successful as "On the Road." The next few years were difficult for him. He died in 1969 at the age of 47 of alcohol-related causes.

However, his work lived on, impacting generations to follow, including artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Grateful Dead and Jim Morrison.

Readers can reach Forum reporter and columnist Tracy Briggs at tracy.briggs@forumcomm.com.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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