Joyce Johnson reflects on 50 years of being around Kerouac and his work as she returns to the writer and relationship she wrote about in her award-winning memoir, Minor Characters, this time in The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.
Another Kerouac biography? I asked myself sternly, but the urge to finally write my own had seized me and wouldn’t go away. It was 2007, fifty years after the publication of On the Road and the love affair I’d written about in my 1983 memoir Minor Characters. At the time Jack took up with me, I’d been a publishing secretary by day and a black-stockinged bohemian by night with enough leftover energy to sit up at my Royal portable rewriting the sentences of my first novel long after I should have gone to sleep. Now I was 72, wondering how hard it would be to lug my PC back and forth to the New York Public Library, for after four decades of being inaccessible to Kerouac scholars, Jack’s huge archive had landed in the Berg Collection and scholars could now find out what was in his unpublished papers, despite severe restrictions on how much could be quoted.
In my youth, I’d expected to write only novels, but in my forties I’d found myself drawn to memoir and the challenge of carving out a coherent story from the strangeness, unpredictability and messiness of real life. What has kept me thinking and writing about Kerouac for the past thirty years, apart from my lasting affection for him (I forgave him long ago for being unable to sustain our relationship) and my increasing dismay that he and his work have long been understood so poorly, is the mystery of his character and a growing need to follow my own hunches about his development into a writer whose uniquely musical voice, with its elegiac sadness and joie de vivre, struck a chord in me even before I met him. As I sat in the Berg reading his familiar handwriting, I often felt drawn back to my 21-year-old self poring over the many letters he sent me, trying to decode his phrases, searching for the subtexts, the shifts in tone, that would reveal what he really felt about me. Perhaps it was good training for later becoming his biographer.
After Jack’s death in 1969, I kept up with the stream of biographies that began to appear, seldom finding in them the man I’d known myself. Jack’s life provides a writer with almost too much tempting sensational material. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to put it all in, which will often result in a book without a central thread—in other words, lots of stuff but no story. Less is more, I have often felt when I read biographies, yawning especially over the inevitable opening chapters of genealogy, the c.v.’s that are provided as new characters are introduced and the functional transitional writing that introduces long quotes in small type. But I think the approach to biography writing is changing. I am full of admiration for Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, with its strong narrative line, its wide-ranging scholarship and its clear focus on the writing of James’s Portrait of a Lady. I have tried to do something similar in The Voice Is All. I feel that writing a biography should be the process of discovering a life rather than trying to prove a thesis. Some previous Kerouac biographers have started out with theses, only to be puzzled or even angered by the contradictions they would inevitably encounter, especially whenever the Beat label failed to fit Jack and the conservative, insular Franco American side of him manifested itself.
During the two years of our relationship, I lived with Jack’s contradictions and shifting moods, learning quickly that while he appeared to be an open book, whole chapters would remain closed to me. I had no idea how preoccupied he was with his Franco American identity, which separated him, he always felt, from the American mainstream and even the close friends he’d made in New York after leaving his boyhood community in Lowell. What did it mean to be a American writer of extraordinary ambition for whom English was a second language? I asked myself a half-century later.
Because I have primarily been a writer of memoirs and fiction, I lived inside Jack’s story almost as if I were writing a novel, letting it unfold chronologically as I absorbed my latest research and writing about my findings while my initial responses to them were still fresh. When I first became a writer, my terror of failing caused me to rigidly adhere to a detailed plan for the first novel I was writing. Over the years, I have learned to abandon myself to the process of finding my story, preferring to be carried along to my intended end point, without knowing too much in advance about the adventures and byroads of the journey. In that sense, I suppose my approach to my work has grown more and more Kerouacian.
I was fascinated to discover that for a long time Jack struggled against the impulse to write in the first person, since I too had felt that strong pull of the I voice that seemed to come so naturally to me and resisted it until I could no longer do so. I was also quite surprised to find that apart from the recorded progress of his writing, Jack’s notes on his life-- his travels, his love affairs, his memorable conversations with friends like Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, the jazz sessions he went to, the weekend binges in Manhattan that punctuated his long periods of solitary work-- were actually minimal, contrary to popular belief. It was long assumed he must have been writing everything down in those little notebooks he carried along with him. But although Jack has been called the “father of new journalism” and has had a real influence on nonfiction writing, he always remained a novelist, swept along by the mysterious process by which imagination transforms memories into fiction in a realm ungoverned by a writer’s conscious decision making. I have often felt that this is something literary critics fail to understand.
In his journals, which can now finally be studied, and in an astonishingly long trail of ruthlessly discarded manuscripts, Jack left behind an immensely valuable and enlightening record of the way one greatly gifted bilingual American writer who had to master English developed over time, casting off different voices until he found his true one, which in Jack’s case turned out to be a voice whose restored French overtones enrich its sound in a particularly magical way.
Compared to the amount of the attention that has been paid to Kerouac’s well known Beat adventures and the details of the helpless decline into the alcoholism that cost him his life when he was only 47, the story of Kerouac the writer-- his sacrifices, his struggles, his solitary moments of revelatory discovery-- has been little known. I hope other writers will recognize their own struggles in it and that passionate lovers of literature will find it, as I did during my exciting days of work in the Berg, no less compelling and inspiring than the story of the Curies discovering radium.
Joyce Johnson is the author of Minor Characters, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 and of The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, which has just been released by Viking.