In The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, Joyce Johnson explores the impact of Kerouac’s French-Canadian heritage on his writing and reveals the hardworking man behind the myth.
You knew Jack personally. What did you discover in your research for this book?
I realized how little Jack revealed to people who were close to him despite the fact that he seemed so open and told such wonderfully detailed stories. He made no secret of his French-Canadian heritage, but never showed what a constant preoccupation it was or admitted to his sense of being caught between two languages.
What impact did this have on his writing?
Jack had to find the courage to drop the all-American mask of his literary persona and to allow the French voice into his work. This took years. In March 1951, he wrote a wonderful French novella that has never been published, just a few weeks before he wrote On the Road. In the direct, intimate voice of its narrator, Michel Bretagne, I am convinced that he found the voice of Sal Paradise.
Your biography shows Jack constantly on the move. What accounted for this restlessness?
His road trips were conscious efforts to accumulate the varieties of experience he wanted to write about. These adventures usually took place in short, concentrated periods. He spent the greater part of his life, even in his early 20s, holed up in his room writing.
In what ways was his victory a lonely one?
As I see it, his real victory was not the success of On the Road, which contributed to his destruction, but the secret triumph of finding the “method” that matched his vision and enabled him to express his “interior music.”
You also demythologize how he composed On the Road.
By the beginning of 1957, when I first met him, Jack was a proponent of “spontaneous writing,” and even months before On the Road came out, there were the beginnings of its eventual creation myth—that it had been written nonstop in a three-week period on an enormous scroll with no revisions. It took nearly 50 years for people to learn that this seemingly effortless feat had come after five years of false starts and abandoned manuscripts that were a testament not only to Jack’s determination and extraordinary dedication, but to his capacity for brutal self-criticism. The creation myth would become a cornerstone of his legend—but it would prove detrimental to the full appreciation of his achievement.