In one of the stranger annals of private school history, On the Road author and Beat icon Jack Kerouac spent a year at Horace Mann, a prestigious private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Kerouac had been asked to prep at Horace Mann for a year before going on to attend Columbia on a football scholarship.
Kerouac had an unlikely journey to Horace Mann. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922, he was the son of French-Canadian parents. His father was the son of potato farmers from a small village in French-speaking Canada, and his mother was a devout Catholic. Kerouac’s parents spoke French at home, and Ti Jean, or Little John, as Kerouac was called, did too. French was his only language until he was about 6, and his biographers believe that he did not speak English as a native until he was well into his teens. He attended Catholic schools and then Lowell High School, where he played football and was good enough to earn a scholarship to many colleges, including Columbia, though Columbia first required Kerouac to spend a year preparing at Horace Mann.
At Horace Mann, Kerouac cut a surprisingly preppy figure, given his later Beat style, and he continued to play football. His long-time friend Seymour Wyse remembered in a later interview, conducted in 1984, that he first met Kerouac in 1939, when Kerouac was new to Horace Mann and when Wyse had just come over to New York from England to escape the impending war. Wyse recalls that at Horace Mann, Kerouac began to become interested in jazz, and the two friends would go to Harlem to clubs such as the Apollo, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Golden Gate to hear musicians such as Count Basie.
Horace Mann also figured in some of Kerouac’s later works, such as Vanity of Duluoz, the author’s last book, published in 1969. In the novel, Kerouac wrote about Horace Mann through the lens of his main character, Jack Duluoz. Kerouac called Horace Mann “an academy of wits,” and here’s how, according to an article in the Riverdale Press, Kerouac characterized Horace Mann:
“The prep school was really an advanced high school called Horace Mann School for Boys, founded I s’pose by odd old Horace Mann, and a fine school it was, with ivy on granite walls, swards, running tracks, tennis courts, gyms, jolly old principals and teachers, all on a high hill overlooking Van Cortlandt Park in New York City upper Manhattan.”
In Visions of Duluoz, the main character has to wake up early and, dressed in his school shirt and tie, take the subway all the way from where he was living with a “stepgrandmother” in Brooklyn up to the Bronx while doing his math homework and while breathing “the sickening perfume of women; the well-known garlic breath of Old New York.” The trip took a good two-and-a-half hours in each direction.
Despite the long subway trips to and from the Bronx from where he was living in Brooklyn, Kerouac did well enough at Horace Mann to enroll in Columbia, where he played football and then fatefully broke his tibia during his freshman year. After that, he washed out of school entirely and went on to befriend many members of the Beat Generation, including the poet Allen Ginsberg. After a stint in the Merchant Marine, Kerouac eventually returned to Queens, a borough of New York City, to live with his parents, who had moved there from Lowell, Massachusetts. He would go on to write many works that are central to the Beats, including the 1957 stream-of-consciousness novel On the Road, an account of his own misadventures criss-crossing the nation with like-minded souls.