ONE NIGHT IN 1957, Joyce Johnson was handed the phone in the kitchen of a friend’s Yorkville tenement.
“Hello. I’m Jack. Allen tells me you’re very nice. Would you like to come down to Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street? I’ll be sitting at the counter.”
With those words, the lives of Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson intertwined, an experience she describes in her award-winning memoir Minor Characters. After watching a number of subpar, occasionally specious biographies appear in the decades since Kerouac’s death, Johnson recently recorded a second entry in the annals of Beat history. The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac was published this September. Last month, Joyce and I discussed the book, which I review in today’s edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Ian Scheffler: You state in the introduction that you waited years for a definitive biography of Kerouac to appear. What made you decide that it was time to make your contribution?
Joyce Johnson: Mainly the fact that I knew that it was finally possible to look at Jack’s papers in the Berg Collection. For about 40 years, you know, no one could get access to those papers. Without those papers, there were all sorts of assumptions made about Jack, and all sorts of gaps — big gaps — in our knowledge of him. Suddenly, it was possible to look at this vast archive. I knew what I was interested in most, which was writing a book where the whole center of it would be Jack’s development as a writer, and I also knew that I wanted to explore the influence on Jack of his French-Canadian heritage, and I felt I would find material in the archive on both those interests of mine.
IS: What was it like to do research in the Berg Collection? Did you discover anything that surprised you? Can you describe the archive for our readers?
JJ: Oh, it was a wonderful experience, going there. It’s a room that probably looks very much the way it did when it was founded. There are long oak library tables and leather chairs, which, of course, were actually quite unsuitable to working with a computer. [Laughs] I’m sort of a short person, and I’m just sort of hunching over these tables. I noticed one — there was a little slant-top desk in the corner, you know, that was small and looked sort of right for me. And I asked one day, “Would I be allowed to use that desk?” And the librarian responded in horror, “No! That was Charles Dickens’s desk!” [Laughs] It was an artifact, you know, given to the library in the 1930s, and it came with a kind of cane seated chair, and evidently the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, who was a rather corpulent fellow, had sat down on the chair, I believe at the ceremony, and gone right through it. [Laughs] So, nobody sat in Charles Dickens’s desk. The collection contains the archives of an extraordinary number of literary figures, and not only contains paper, but stuff called “realia,” like locks of hair and the crutch Jack had after he broke his leg when he was playing football. It contains stuff like that.
IS: Do you have any idea how that crutch managed to survive so long?
JJ: I don’t know! It see...read more