The myth is that the strangeness of On the Road comes from an off-the-cuff American style of “automatic writing.” But was it in fact written slowly and methodically? Lauren Du Graf talks to Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson.
Joyce Johnson is one of the few surviving writers of the Beat Generation, and perhaps one of the most underappreciated. A novelist in her own right (In the Night Café), she is nevertheless best known for her two-year romantic relationship with Jack Kerouac. Johnson, who’s now 77, had waited decades for someone to write a biography of Kerouac that did justice to him as a writer. Then she decided to write the book herself.
“I felt I had an obligation to set the record straight,” Johnson said in her Upper West Side apartment. In her kitchen hangs a sign that advertises pea soup, which she used to feed Kerouac. “I’m just sick of the way he’s been portrayed.”
The persona she’s sick of is the much-mythologized one of “King of the Beats,” a label that, according to Johnson, only half fitted him anyway. Instead, Johnson redirects our focus to his writing—an aspect that has been overshadowed by his legend. The resulting work, The Voice Is All, is a major new biography that traces the gradual emergence of the voice that came to define Kerouac’s distinctive style of autobiographical fiction. She shows how Kerouac’s confident, first-person approach came about through a disciplined and self-punishing journey to find an authentic linguistic and literary style that came into being somewhere between the margins of the working-class French-Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., where he grew up, and the elegant lyricism of the writers he admired.
The Voice Is All is actually Johnson’s third account of Kerouac. Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, approached Kerouac’s life and writing through the lens of their relationship, while Door Wide Open includes letters exchanged between the two lovers. The Voice Is All, on the other hand, only occasionally veers into first-person accounts. As Johnson states, her age and distance from her relationship with Kerouac have enabled her to evaluate him in a more objective—though still sensitive—light.
“I’ve retained a deep affection for him, and forgave him long ago for disappointing me when I was very young, which actually turned out just as well,” Johnson said. “And I retained my love for his work. Now I know much more than I did in 1957.”
Set up on a blind date by Allen Ginsberg in 1956, Kerouac and Johnson (née Glassman) were involved until 1958. While working as an editor at McGraw-Hill, she helped to publish the completed text of Visions of Cody, a book that Kerouac told her meant the most to him. It was an achievement that Kerouac never lived to enjoy, as he died three years before its release. Their relationship was one of Kerouac’s longest; he wrote about their time together in Desolation Angels, where she appears under the name Alyce Newman: "Old Alyce however said: 'I s’pose you’re going to be a big literary god and everybody’s going to eat you up, so you should let me protect you.'"
Sifting through the author’s personal archive in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Johnson found materials that document the gradual evolution of Kerouac’s autobiographical voice, first developing in his letters and journals, then seeping slowly into his fiction. This is the first biography to draw upon journals and abandoned manuscripts that were opened to scholars in 2002, after three decades of strict limitations put in place by the Kerouac estate. The Voice Is All is the story of the author that preceded Johnson’s first encounter with him, from his childhood to 1951, the year in which he completed the original manuscript of On the Road and began Visions of Cody.
Jean Louis Kerouac was born to a Franco-American family in Lowell, Mass. As in many mill towns in New England, the French-Canadians in Lowell stuck together in a tight-knit ethnic enclave. (“Petits Canadas,” as these areas were referred to.) Kerouac grew up speaking joual, “a wild and rich anarchic soup,” Johnson writes, of mostly Francophone influences that “neither Montrealers nor Parisians would consider correct.”
At St. Louis de France, a Franco-American parochial school, Kerouac learned to speak serviceable but halting English, leaving him with a lasting self-doubt about his accent and fluency in the language. “I cannot write my native language and have no native home any more,” Kerouac wrote in 1950. Johnson speculates that Jack’s way of thinking may have always first occurred in joual, before being turned into written English.
While Kerouac’s linguistic anxieties contributed to his rootlessness and a fear that the process of becoming American might never be completed, Johnson suggests his internal struggle to navigate his mixed ethnic identity gave his prose a hard-earned depth and directness.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his anxiety over language, Kerouac developed an insatiable appetite for books. As a senior in high school, he cut classes once a week to spend the day in the Lowell Public Library, where he immersed himself in classics like Goethe’s Faust.
Kerouac began emulating writers he admired. Reading Thomas Wolfe made him want to write about the “essential and everlasting America,” while reading Balzac made him want to write “about every stratum of society,” Johnson writes. Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz owed a great deal to Ulysses, while Proust’s In Search of Lost Time inspired him to create his own multivolume, autobiographical work.
It was the summer of 1945 when, still heavily under the influence of Wolfe, Jack read Louis Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, which Johnson suggests provided a key inspiration for the plot of On the Road. Like Céline’s novel, Kerouac’s would include two protagonists: “Two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back, hopeful of something else,” Kerouac said.
Kerouac’s long-standing obsession with finding the perfect literary voice runs contrary to the legend that has calcified around the author, positing him as a practitioner of a mythically unmediated and extemporaneous mode of automatic writing. Allen Ginsberg would call Kerouac’s approach ”spontaneous bop prosody”—a term that caught on quickly but is misleading.
The mythology surrounding On the Road is based on Kerouac famously typing the original, 125,000-word manuscript on rolls of tracing paper during a 20-day binge fueled by “innumerable cups of black coffee” in the spring of 1951. Truman Capote would provide a memorable dismissal: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
While it may have taken fewer than three weeks to type the manuscript, the composition of On the Road started long before. Kerouac began thinking of his road novel in 1946 and first described it in 1948, starting and abandoning many experiments and proto-On the Roads, and auditioning protagonist after protagonist.
Finally, after years of suppressing his French-Canadian lineage in his writing, Kerouac experimented with writing openly about his Franco-American heritage in the blunt, plainspoken joual of his youth. This experiment in his native language, which occurred shortly before he sat down to write On the Road, gave his writing a certain intimacy. “It was a very direct first-person voice,” said Johnson, “frank and open—not the self-conscious literary voice he was using before." It was a voice that would lure an ardent legion of Kerouac disciples for decades to come, with unremitting lines that build momentum like freight trains:
But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
When we read On the Road as Johnson suggests, we can see new currents of tension beneath the surface of Kerouac’s openness. Sal Paradise’s declaration that he is “mad to talk” becomes more complicated if we consider Kerouac’s struggle to overcome linguistic insecurity, while “desirous of everything at the same time” means something else if we consider Kerouac’s vexed struggle to find balance between two cultures, leaving him never fully satisfied with himself. Perhaps we can even see something French in Kerouac’s layers of dependent clauses.
By forcing us to reckon with Kerouac as a Franco-American author, Johnson has reminded us of the immense and often unseen burden of forging a life on the margins of two cultures—even for someone as emblematically American as Kerouac.
“Forget the infatuation,” Johnson said. “Give him some respect.”