Tonight at BookCourt: Joyce Johnson launches ‘THE VOICE IS ALL: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac’

Photo by Mellon Tytell

Tonight, 9/19, head to BookCourt to celebrate the launch of Joyce Johnson’s new book, THE VOICE IS ALL.  Decades after chronicling her relationship with Kerouac through Minor Characters (1983), Johnson now offers an insightful profile of Kerouac’s background and development as a writer, elucidating to readers how Kerouac made literary history. Given her former relationship with Kerouac, Johnson’s account is uniquely candid and fascinating.

Johnson will appear at BookCourt at 7pm for the release party, which will include a reading, audience Q&A, and book-signing. BookCourt is located at 163 Court Street in Cobble Hill.

Read on for a Q&A with Johnson (originally published by Viking/Penguin).

Q. You’ve written two previous books about Kerouac. Why at this point in your life did you feel the need to write a biography?

A: Because I knew Jack intimately between 1957 and 1958 and because I was present as a firsthand witness at the very time that his writing and Allen Ginsberg’s ushered in an important turning point in American culture that has very often been misunderstood, I have always felt I had an obligation to try to set the record straight.

I also know much more about Jack than I did in the early 1980’s when I was writing Minor Characters.  At that time, his letters and diaries had not yet been published or any of his early writings.  All that material would come out gradually over the next four decades.

The Kerouac biographies that were written starting in the 1970’s were largely based on his novels and on oral history.  A tremendous amount of important interviewing was done by various biographers, but they unfortunately had no access to the vast archive of Kerouac’s papers that is now in the Berg   Collection of the New York Public Library, where it has become a magnet for scholars.  The interviews, which were extensive since so many of Jack’s friends and acquaintances were still alive, actually only tell a fraction of his story—the Jack that other people saw out in the world and thought they knew.  The private Jack, the man who spent the greater part of his life alone in a room writing, remained a mystery.

Q:  You felt this even though you knew him, actually lived with him on and off during a two year period

A:  Absolutely.  Well, for one thing, we all remain mysteries to each other.  In Jack’s case, although he seemed unusually open, there were great areas of his life and thinking that he never spoke about.

Q:  Can you think of an example?

A: He never revealed to me, or even some of his closest friends, how French Canadian to the bone he felt.  To us he seemed quintessentially American—maybe even more American than we were, when all the time he felt like an outsider in America—someone with a deep appreciation and understanding of what he called “American richness,” but who felt he did not participate in it.

Q: Do you know now after all your research how he felt about you? 

A:  That was an area I purposely didn’t look into, but I do have a far better understanding of Jack than I did when I was 21.  During the course of our love affair, his feelings kept shifting in ways I was totally unprepared for, but I now realize this was typical of all his relationships. I also realize that there was a big invisible cultural gap between us that I never thought about back then, and that this had an impact on his behavior and his decisions.

Q:  How closely does the finished biography adhere to the original plan you had in mind when you set out to write it?

A:  In some important ways, it’s quite different.  What I had in mind five years ago was a complete life of Jack.  What I ended up writing was the story of his first thirty years, ending in late 1951, when after finally completing On the Road, a book he had been unsuccessfully trying to write for the past five years, he wrote the first sections of Visions of Cody—the book in which he truly discovered his voice after a series of astonishing breakthroughs during a two month period.  For him this was the culmination of a long quest—a victory that came at the very moment that his life was crumbling all around him.  There was a stunning moment of self-knowledge in November of that year that he summed up in one sentence of his journal “I’m lost, but my work is found.”  When I came upon that heartbreaking but triumphant sentence in 2010, I knew the book had to end there—all my instincts as a writer told me that.  Besides, in all the preceding chapters, I had done the most important and meaningful thing I had set out to do, which was to reveal the slow, often painful development of a writer.  To go on from there, in my mind, would have been a tremendous anticlimax.  The ending of The Voice Is All completely took me by surprise but I knew it was the right one, and it sheds light upon what would happen to him in the future.

I saw no need to document the painful details of his decline, which have been exhaustively covered by previous writers, and I had already written about the impact upon Jack’s life of the publication of On the Road in Minor Characters, which can now be read as a kind of sequel to the biography.

Q:  Had there been other surprises along the way?

A:  Constantly.  I never knew what I was going to find when I opened a file.  Much of what I found confirmed some of my own hunches about Jack—his obsession with what he felt was his duality, which was manifested by the sudden radical mood shifts that often baffled his friends; my sense that up until the time he discovered what he later called “spontaneous  writing,” his work, which he did in a steady patient way during the years he was writing his first novel, for example, had given him a badly needed source of balance.  When writing became an ecstatic act, done in short concentrated bursts of time, he seemed to become unmoored—as if a different brain chemistry had become activated.  When Jack wrote “my life is lost,” I think he was aware of how dangerous and costly his new creative process, which allowed him to explore his “interior music,” was going to be.

Q: What new insights will Kerouac aficionados find in your book?

A:  In general, I set out to correct the various misconceptions created by the Kerouac legend and the public’s obsession with the Beat Generation—a movement that was never well understood.  Many of Jack’s fans and even some scholars have been as mistaken about him as his detractors.  They don’t give him credit for being a conscious, unusually dedicated artist.

People have been  fascinated by the idea that Jack sat down at his typewriter in the spring of 1951 and wrote On the Road nonstop during a 3-week period, without ever stopping to change a line.   “He just spewed his words on paper,” Patti Smith, one of his admirers, has said.  The truth is, that the idea of doing a road novel first came to him in 1946—a year before he met Neal Cassady.  From 1947-1951, he made innumerable attempts to write this book, putting one version after another aside after he had worked on it, unsatisfied and frustrated with what he had written.  This was indeed the most brutal kind of revision.  During 1950 and 1951, he even tried to write the book with a cast of French Canadian characters.  When I read  La Nuit Est Ma Femme, a handwritten novella composed in French the month before  Jack wrote  On the Road, I realized that in the direct first-person voice of his Franco American narrator, Jack had found the voice in which he would shortly write On the Road.  The book also contains material he had used over and over again in earlier versions—the famous scene where Sal Paradise wakes up in a strange hotel room and feels he doesn’t know who he is, for example.

I also feel that the influence of Neal Cassady has been overemphasized.  Jack would have  developed into an extraordinary writer even  if they had never met. They actually spent relatively little time together—brief visits punctuated by long periods of separation, when even their letter writing stopped.  In On  the Road, Dean Moriarty is in many ways a fictional, imaginative conceived character, used by Jack as a vehicle to express his own deep sense of duality; he expresses his own ideas and perception in Dean’s voice.  Perhaps the major literary influence upon On the Road,  as I discovered by reading Jack’s journals, was Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night,  which Jack first read in 1945—there the two road companions, Bardamu and Robinson, function as  alter egos, with Robinson as Bardamu’s Dean Moriarty.  There are numerous references to Robinson in Jack’s journals.

I also show in my book that as far as Jack was concerned, the idea of the Beat Generation, as he originally conceived it in 1947, very much had to do with the group of people he knew in the postwar period, people who had achieved their enlightenment through undergoing. extreme experiences. These were  American outsiders and even people on the wrong side of the law., whom Jack called “furtives.”   Jack  believed that if there were a Beat movement, black beboppers would be its vanguard, and that this movement would have the power to change the world.  A decade later, shortly before the publication of On the Road, Jack wrote in his journal that by 1950 there was no such thing as a Beat Generation, because the original members of it had scattered, disappearing either in domesticity or jails.  Ironically, he would shortly achieve fame as the avatar of a Beat Generation, which the public perceived as a sexually liberated, unmaterialistic, and essentially irresponsible life style available to any white middle class person for adoption—typified by a set of bongo drums and a black beret..

Many of Jack’s American readers, are completely unaware that English was his second language, and that using it to write in many ways involved a process of translation—“refashioning English words to fit French images,” as Jack put it. I hope that after reading my book, they will look at him in a new way as a hyphenated American writer, and  arrive at a deeper understanding of his achievement.  I have emphasized this aspect of his story far more than any of previous biographers.  I also show that he was a writer  created to an important degree by a wide-ranging reading and study of literature that began in his early teens and continued throughout his lifetime. He was by no means the primitive, uncultured person that academicians assumed him to be.

Many writers have been baffled and even angered by the contradictions in Jack’s personality, especially by the substantial evidence  of ideas, prejudices and life choices  that in no way seem to fall within the definition of Beat.  When I first met Jack in 1957, I  had been led to believe he was a wild character who spent his life on the road. In actuality, as I was soon stunned to discover, he was a man who spent much of his adult life living with his mother, holing up with her for long solitary periods in which he did much of his writing, then emerging for brief frantic immersions in the world. Tragically, he was never able to find a middle ground between ascetic solitude and binge– two diametrically opposed states of being.   When approaching his story, I feel that a biographer must not question Jack’s contradictions but accept his lack of consistency as the key to his character.


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