10 Facts About Karl Marx

Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) didn't invent communism, but he spent most of his life popularizing the socialist mantra, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Marx envisioned that the last phase of capitalism would be an inevitable workers’ revolt as the working class (or proletariat) would seize the means of production from the elites (or bourgeoisie) and share them in a new, classless society marked by economic equity. Here are 10 facts about Marx's life and work.

1. HIS BAPTISM AT AGE 6 WAS MOST LIKELY FOR POLITICAL REASONS.

Marx’s paternal ancestors had served as rabbis in Trier, Prussia (now in eastern Germany) since 1723, and his mother’s father was a rabbi. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the French administration left Prussia and the new government began enforcing a law barring Jews from serving in professions or public office. Marx’s father Heinrich, a successful lawyer, converted to Lutheranism in 1816, most likely in response to the law. Marx and his siblings were all baptized in 1824.

2. HIS HIGH SCHOOL WAS RAIDED BY AUTHORITIES.

Heinrich, who was deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, taught Marx at home until 1830. Marx then attended the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium. The headmaster, Johann Hugo Wyttenbach, frequently hired liberal teachers who advocated reason and the freedom of speech. The police suspected the school of protecting revolutionaries, and even went so far as to raid the school in 1832 during Marx's matriculation.

3. HIS "WEAK CHEST" HELPED HIM AVOID MILITARY SERVICE.

Marx evaded military conscription thanks to his "weak chest," a vague diagnosis which was certainly exacerbated by his late-night partying, bad diet, drinking, and chain-smoking. His father even told him how best to avoid the draft, writing to Marx, “If you can, arrange to be given good certificates by competent and well-known physicians there, and you can do it with good conscience … but to be consistent with your conscience, do not smoke too much.”

4. A DUEL AND JAIL TIME CHARACTERIZED HIS COLLEGE EXPERIENCE.

Marx attended the University of Bonn beginning in 1835, but most of his time seems to have been spent being drunk and disorderly. He joined a radical political group called the Poets’ Club and was co-president of the Trier Tavern Club, a drinking society that antagonized the more aristocratic organizations on campus. His involvement in the latter got him tossed in jail for 24 hours. He also ran afoul of the Borussia Korps, a militant group that forced college students to swear fealty to Prussian leadership. Marx carried a gun to defend himself (which got him into more trouble with the police) and once accepted a duel with a Borussia Korps member which resulted in Marx being cut over his left eye. After a year in Bonn, he transferred to the more rigorous atmosphere of the University of Berlin.

5. HE HAD A CONTROVERSIAL MARRIAGE TO A CHILDHOOD FRIEND.

A couple of years before Marx was born, his father had befriended Ludwig von Westphalen, a Prussian aristocrat with some liberal leanings. His daughter Jenny von Westphalen met Marx when she was 5 years old and he was 1. When she was 22, Jenny and Marx became engaged—she canceled a previous engagement to a young member of the aristocracy—even though they weren’t from the same social class, and men marrying older women was frowned upon at the time in Prussia.

6. MARX DIDN’T ATTEND HIS FATHER’S FUNERAL.

Marx’s wild college years drove a wedge between him and his family—an indication of his intellectual rebellion from their bourgeois complacency. Marx refused to visit them once he began attending the University of Berlin. His father was dismayed at his son’s recklessness and wrote, a year before he died, that Marx should try to establish his social respectability by writing an ode heaping praise upon Prussia and its rulers. It should "afford the opportunity of allotting a role to the genius of the monarchy ... If executed in a patriotic and German spirit with depth of feeling, such an ode would itself be sufficient to lay the foundation for a reputation." But Marx had no desire to capitulate. When Heinrich Marx died of tuberculosis in May 1838, Karl did not make the journey home from Berlin.

7. HE RELIED ON ENGELS FOR MONEY.

Marx lived in Paris—a hotbed of political thought in the mid-19th century—for only two years, but it was during that time that he met Friedrich Engels at the Café de la Régence and launched one of the most important philosophical friendships in modern times. Engels shaped Marx’s view on the proletariat with his real-world experience as an owner of his family's textile mill. They also collaborated on several essays (including The Communist Manifesto) and Engels fronted the money to publish Das Kapital. What’s more, Engels regularly gave the struggling Marx money for his family to live on (capitalism was not kind to the philosopher). The well-off industrialist reaped the rewards of his workers’ production while aiding Marx in championing a system that would overthrow his own power.

8. HE KEPT GETTING BANNED FROM COUNTRIES.

Orders that Marx should leave a country within 24 hours crop up regularly in his biography. He started the trend in Prussia in 1843 when Tsar Nicholas I asked the government to ban Marx’s newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, which caused Marx to become co-editor of a radical left newspaper in Paris and head to France. In 1845, the French government shut down his new periodical, Vorwarts!, and expelled Marx. He then went to Belgium, but authorities arrested him in 1848 on allegations that he’d spent a third of his inheritance on arming workers, and he fled back to France (then under a new government) before going back to Prussia to launch the doomed Neue Rheinische Zeitung. The government suppressed the paper and ordered Marx to leave Prussia in May 1849, but when he fled for France, the Parisian government also sent him packing, so he sought refuge in London with his wife, who was expecting their fourth child. He built a life in England, but died a stateless person.

9. HE WAS PLAGUED BY POOR HEALTH.

He referred to his health problems as “the wretchedness of existence.” According to biographer Werner Blumenberg, Marx suffered from headaches, eye inflammation, joint pain, insomnia, liver and gallbladder problems, and depressive symptoms. The pain was most likely exacerbated by Marx's bad habits: working late nights, eating liver-taxing food, and smoking and drinking excessively. Yet Marx kept up the pace of his work even after developing boils in 1863 that were so painful he couldn’t sit down. New research suggests some of Marx’s problems may have stemmed from a chronic, painful skin disease called hidradenitis suppurativa that can also cause depressed self-image and foul moods. And let's not forget the “weak chest” that kept him from serving in the military at 18, which may have been caused by pleurisy, an inflammatory condition of the lungs and thorax. It was that disease that ultimately killed him at age 64.

10. HIS LOVE POEMS AND NOVELS WERE UNPUBLISHED DURING HIS LIFETIME.

Beyond his political philosophy and economic projects, Marx also penned several love poems to Jenny, a play set in a mountain town in Italy, and a satirical novel called Scorpion and Felix. None of his fiction saw the light of day during his lifetime, and Scorpion and Felix has only survived in fragments, but all of his work was published posthumously in the 50-volume set of Marx and Engels's Collected Works.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac reading poetry.
Jack Kerouac reading poetry.
Phillip Harrington // Alamy Stock Photo

Around midnight one September evening in 1957, Jack Kerouac and his girlfriend, Joyce Glassman, went to the local newsstand. They were looking for the morning issue of The New York Times and its review of Kerouac’s new book, On the Road. There it was, on page 27: a rave review by critic Gilbert Millstein, who declared that “Its publication is a historical occasion.”

That one review changed Kerouac’s life, making him the most famous Beat Generation member and allowing him to publish numerous novels—many of which would draw from his own life.

1. Jack Kerouac’s childhood nickname was “Memory Babe.”

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father, Leo, was an insurance salesman and later owned a print shop; his mother, Gabrielle, was a homemaker. French, not English, was his first language, and throughout his life, he felt a cultural estrangement as a French-speaker in the United States.

As a child, Kerouac had an astounding memory: He could accurately remember scenes and conversations from the past, which caused his friends to call him “Memory Babe.” He would use this talent in his novel The Town and the City to describe the typical New England family life. According to biographer Ann Charters, since his boyhood life wasn’t as idyllic as the story required, he combined elements of his own childhood alongside memories of his friends’ lives.

2. A friend inspired Jack Kerouac to be a writer.

After skipping the sixth grade, Kerouac attended Bartlett Junior High School, where he met Sebastian Sampas. The two shared a love of theater and literature and formed a deep friendship. Thanks to Sampas’s influence, Kerouac joined the school’s Scribbler’s Club. In his Lonesome Traveler, published in 1960, Kerouac wrote, “Decided to become a writer at age 17 under influence of Sebastian Sampas, local young poet who later died at Anzio beach head” in World War II. Kerouac married Sampas’s sister, Stella, in 1966.

3. Jack Kerouac’s poems were influenced by a Japanese poet.

Seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō used Buddhist themes like nature, enlightenment, and the cycle of life, along with plain language, when writing haiku poems. Kerouac loved haiku, writing copious amounts of it and incorporating it into his novels—though he disregarded the syllable count many associate with the form, saying instead that “Pop———American (non-Japanese) Haikus” were “short 3-line poems, or ‘pomes,’ rhyming or non-rhyming, delineating ‘little Samadhis’ if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aiming towards enlightenment.” A sample of his Bashō-inspired work:

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age

—Kerouac

As the author’s friend, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, would say, “He’s the only one in the United States who knows how to write haiku… [he] talks that way, thinks that way.”

4. Jack Kerouac got married to escape jail.

In 1944, future Beat writer Lucien Carr murdered his friend David Kammerer. Carr claimed that Kammerer was gay and had been stalking him; Carr also said that Kammerer was continuously making advances at him, even though Carr turned him down. Carr claimed that, to protect himself, he had stabbed Kammerer to death with his Boy Scout knife. (This type of excuse for murder would later come to be known as the “gay panic defense.”) After filling Kammerer’s pockets with rocks, Carr dumped his body into the Hudson River. He then went to see his friends Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs; Carr said he and Kerouac went to a nearby park to dispose of the evidence. Later, Kerouac was arrested and jailed as a material witness to the crime.

Kerouac couldn’t post bail, so he asked his girlfriend, Edie Parker, to borrow the money from her parents. Edie, however, wouldn’t do it unless he promised to marry her, which he did. Kerouac also said they would move to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he’d get a job to repay the loan. On August 22, Kerouac married Edie Parker and was soon released. He made good on his promises, but their marriage would soon go downhill and was eventually annulled.

Kerouac later referenced Kammerer’s murder in his autobiographical novel Vanity of Duluoz, writing that he had told the character based on Kammerer where the character based on Carr was going on the night of the murder and had watched “him rush off to his death.”

5. Jack Kerouac didn’t take care of his daughter.

In late 1950, Kerouac married Joan Haverty, and in February 1952, Haverty gave birth to their daughter, Janet Michelle. But the couple separated before Janet was born, and Kerouac denied paternity, refusing to make child support payments.

6. Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal slept together.

Author Gore Vidal first met Kerouac in 1949 at the Metropolitan Opera, but beyond a little flirting, nothing happened. That would change in 1953, when Kerouac and Vidal met again at New York City's San Remo Cafe. Kerouac had intended to introduce Vidal to Burroughs, but Kerouac flirted relentlessly with Vidal, and Burroughs eventually left. After that, according to Vidal, he and Kerouac went to the nearby Chelsea Hotel, where they had sex. Later, Kerouac would write a fictionalized account of the encounter in The Subterraneans: “[He] is a well-known and perfectly obvious homosexual of the first water, my roaring brain---we go to his suite in some hotel--I wake up in the morning on the couch, filled with the horrible recognition, ‘I didn’t go back to Mardou’s at all.’”

7. Alan Watts wasn’t a fan of Jack Kerouac’s interpretation of Buddhism.

Kerouac published his novel The Dharma Bums, which portrayed his fictional alter ego learning Buddhism, in 1958. Kerouac’s portrayal of Buddhism was popular among the youth of the day, but famous Zen teacher Alan Watts wasn’t a fan.

“Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon,” Watts wrote. “It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful social criticism and ‘digging of the universe’ such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac. But, as I know it, it is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.”

Watts would publish his famous written work, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen to distinguish between formal Zen and the Beat’s style of Zen. To Watts, formal Zen was liberation from conventional thought, while the Beat’s style of Zen was simply a revolt against culture or social order.

8. Jack Kerouac has been accused of anti-Semitism.

When Kerouac sat down for an interview at New York’s Northport Public Library in 1964, he talked about a wide range of subjects, among them his friend Allen Ginsberg, religion, and race relations. He also discussed his views of Jewish people. According to Paul Maher in Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, the author had a theory “that the strife over civil rights for African Americans was initiated by an ‘invasion’ of Russian Jews into America.” Kerouac reportedly stated, “After they [Jewish people] had established themselves here, they then took the Negro out and flung him at America and hide behind his skirts so that we will forget about anti-Semitism because we’re worried about Negroes now.” These statements led to Kerouac being accused of anti-Semitism—which he vehemently denied.

9. Jack Kerouac liked to paint.

Writing wasn’t Kerouac’s only talent: The author was also an artist. He drew his first self-portrait when he was 9, and created vast amounts of artwork—working in everything from pencil to oils to watercolors—as an adult. Like the characters in his novels, Kerouac often based his artworks on people he met.

10. Jack Kerouac was an influence on Hunter S. Thompson.

As a 21-year-old, future Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson did not have kind words for Kerouac or his work, writing in a letter that “The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they're both withered appendages to On The Road—which isn't even a novel in the first place.” A few years later, Thompson called Kerouac’s Big Sur a “stupid, sh**ty book.” But his opinion seemed to have mellowed with age: In 1994, he reportedly said he “never would have become a writer were it not for On the Road,” and acknowledged four years later that Kerouac “was a great influence on me.”