ON NOVEMBER 16, 1959, Steve Allen began his eponymous show at the piano. Wearing a gunmetal suit and dark glasses, he played a zippy right-hand riff before turning to face the camera. Snapping to the beat of an off-stage snare, Allen told a story that’s been repeated so often it’s become something like a fact. “A novel titled On the Road became a bestseller,” he said, “and its author, Jack Kerouac, became a celebrity. Partly because he’d written a powerful and successful book. Partly” — he paused to unspool another cadence — “because he seemed to be the embodiment of this new generation.”
Kerouac emerged from a shadow. Under the klieg lights, his sculptured face collected light like water, distributing it across his cheekbones and around the inkwells of his eyes. Clad in a smart gray suit, he took a seat by the piano. The Kerouac Allen’s audience (and the 350 million or so who’ve played the clip on YouTube) met was mesmerizing. Backed by Allen’s keyboard, he read from On the Road and Visions of Cody, bringing out the bebop of the words so expertly that one of the aforementioned netizens listened to the reading every night before bed for three weeks. That Kerouac claimed to have written On the Road in less than a month only added to his charisma; he seemed to be not just a poet but also a prophet, channeling exotic energy into his ecstatic prose.
Yet as Joyce Johnson explains in The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, the most recent biography to treat the writer and by far the best, Allen’s guest that night was in many ways a myth. For one, he wasn’t nearly as American as his title “King of the Beats” implied. Born to French-Canadian parents in a Massachusetts mill town, Kerouac was an ethnic minority, a fact that’s been recognized in academia but infrequently reported to the public. And although Kerouac wrote the famous scroll of On the Road in three weeks, it took him years to arrive at the voice that animates the novel.
Tracing that voice’s development is the main project of Johnson’s book. Drawing on Kerouac’s early writing and unpublished material from the Kerouac archive at the New York Public Library, she follows his unexpectedly tortuous journey to unify the competing languages and cultures of his youth. In the season of Beat revival set off by today’s release of the film adaptation of On the Road, Johnson’s compassionate portrait of a deeply conflicted man has the potential to redefine Kerouac, a writer whom many of us think we know, but whose complexities have been mostly covered up by an alluring caricature.
Jack, Johnson explains, was really Jean-Louis. His parents, Leo and Gabrielle, migrated from Quebec to New England with their families in the 1890s, trading farms for factory towns. Kerouac and his two siblings, Gerard and Caroline, grew up saturated in la survivance, the peculiar Franco-American attachment to family, faith, and joual, the dialect of French that was their native tongue. When Kerouac entered middle school in Lowell, Massachusetts, he’d already begun to write — in third grade he created “Kuku and Koko at the Earth’s Core,” a comic strip modeled after those at the corner store — but he rarely spoke in class. Drawn mostly from movies and street conversations, his spoken English embarrassed him.
Johnson’s treatment of Kerouac’s origins is spectacular. Her account of Gerard’s death after a second bout with rheumatic fever nearly brought me to tears. Masterfully weaving together the moments in which Kerouac, when he lived with her in the late 1950s, hinted at the power of his brother’s illness on his psyche and the horrifying details of Gerard’s decline — stress caused Gabrielle’s teeth to fall out — Johnson paints a stunning picture of this signal moment in Kerouac’s childhood.
To those familiar with her work, Johnson’s skill should come as no surprise. Her memoir Minor Characters, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983, chronicled her traumatic entry into the mid-century demimonde of downtown Manhattan with startling clarity. In this book, as in that one, Johnson brings sensitivity and precision to the unraveling of a tempestuous journey. Typical is the following passage, in which she compares the Kerouac family’s frequent movements — Jack had lived in 11 different places by the time he was 17 — to the feeling of homesickness Nabokov recorded after being forced to leave Vyra, his family’s Russian estate:
[Nabokov] never saw Vyra again, but even after he was in exile it remained in his memory and was a source of strength — he called it his “unreal” estate. But Jack had no such “closed” psychic property. Instead there was a permanent sense of homesickness, all the more painful for not being attached to any one dwelling.
Reading Johnson’s assessment of Kerouac’s inner life, one feels a great deal of confidence in the accuracy of her analysis. Over and over she demonstrates how Kerouac’s adult behaviors — in this case, his propensity to remember details about his abodes that others would have easily forgotten — correlate closely with his youthful experiences. When the two of them lived together, for instance, Kerouac was irritatingly noncommittal: he kept Johnson at arm’s-length, treating her in letters more like a mentee than a lover. With the benefit of time (Johnson was then in her early 20s) and research, she is able to delineate a clear pattern of emotional detachment in Kerouac’s relationships with women, a trend she convincingly attributes to the close bond Gerard’s death forged between Kerouac and his mother.
That bond and Kerouac’s prodigious memory, along with many of the events Johnson describes, have been noted with varying degrees of panache by earlier biographers. Gerald Nicosia titled his 1983 doorstopper Memory Babe after one of Kerouac’s childhood nicknames. Jack’s Book, an oral biography from the late 1970s, includes the following account of meeting Kerouac’s mother, by Herbert Huncke, an erudite hustler whom William Burroughs introduced to the Beats: “I couldn’t even tell you what she looked like — she was so evasive, and so absorbed in Jack that it was almost impossible to get any kind of a picture of her at all. She might as well not have been there except for the effect she had on him.”
Biographies stitch together facts to tell a story. Rarely, in my experience, do those stories stir up as much excitement as the work of the people they portray. In Johnson’s hands, however, Kerouac’s life emerges as a gripping journey of struggle and self-discovery. His voice may be the Beat Generation’s most enduring legacy, but its origins have never, to the best of my knowledge, been so eloquently explained. The rip-roaring syntax of Neal Cassady, the Denver car thief who inspired Dean Moriarty; a powerful sense of wanderlust; Kerouac’s musical ear — I knew these had something to do with the development of Kerouac’s voice, but only in the way that I know the smell of my favorite candy comes from a chemical plant. The specific pathways that shaped his sound were utterly opaque to me.
Johnson diagrams these influences in large part by assiduously reading Kerouac’s voluminous body of writing. By the time he died in 1969, Kerouac had written more than a dozen novels, hundreds of letters, and a number of poems. He’d also filled journals with his thoughts on writing and jotted down many of his dreams. Surveying Kerouac’s oeuvre is no easy task, but Johnson has both the access and acumen to make repeating such a journey unnecessary. She drops readings of his early works, like The Town and the City, a debut novel that few people now remember, into more strictly biographical passages, revealing how Kerouac’s life affected his writing and the reverse. Holed up in the hospital in 1946 after an attack of phlebitis, for instance, the result of drinking and abusing Benzedrine, Kerouac found the time to read The Brothers Karamazov, which, according to a journal entry that Johnson cites, catalyzed his decision to divide his personality in The Town and the City among three brothers named the Martins.
Applying that tactic to On the Road yields similarly interesting results. That novel was (and probably sometimes still is) criticized for being artless: “It is not writing. It is only typing,” Truman Capote said. Such a critique, Johnson demonstrates, is pure baloney. In one of her examples, she points to Kerouac’s discovery of the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline during a restless summer at his mother’s home in Queens. After reading Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, Kerouac realized that he could do away with some of the constraints he’d imposed on himself in the name of fiction. As Johnson writes, “Céline communicated with the reader in a frontal, outrageously comic way that was seemingly artless,” and his narrator “leaped from one association to another with the speed of thought.” For Kerouac, whose own thoughts didn’t fall easily into conventional rhythms, Céline’s novel opened the door to a new style of writing.
Kerouac was also inspired, Johnson says, by an experiment with the language of his youth. In early 1951, while living in a Chelsea rooming house with his second wife, he tried to compose a novel in French. The result, Les Travaux de Michel Bretagne: La Nuit est ma femme, ran only to the length of a novella, but contained a world of new ideas. Abandoning the meticulously crafted sentences that had characterized The Town and the City, Kerouac employed a more direct style that anticipated the tone of On the Road. While Michel’s problems — clear analogues of Kerouac’s own — would find fuller expression in Visions of Cody, the novel Kerouac wrote following On the Road, this 57 page manuscript heralded how Kerouac would string together the trips he’d taken across the country: a pass-the-hot-potato plot cemented chiefly by the narrator’s emotional honesty. La Nuit est ma femme has never been published (Kerouac never transcribed it from his notebook), but Johnson makes clear that Capote’s criticism was unwarranted; Kerouac’s burst of writing was the result of years of work.
It’s tempting to read Kerouac’s fiction as a record of his life. That so many of his characters and plots began as real people and events has persuaded some critics to liken his work to journalism. While Johnson bristles at those who, like the critic Ann Charters, diagnose Kerouac’s books as “thinly disguised memoirs,” she nonetheless draws on his novels for evidence, particularly about his childhood. “I think it’s true to the way he felt about his experience,” she told me over the phone, a view Kerouac may have shared. The introduction to his copy of Melville’s Pierre, Johnson says, had the phrase “biography of his self-image” underlined. Still, it’s odd to see Vanity of Duluoz, a 1968 novel, listed as a source. Johnson told me that she fact-checked everything she could, but a longer discussion in the introduction about her use of Kerouac’s novels would have been a welcome guide.
But this is a small complaint. The Voice Is All deserves popular and critical acclaim, not least for an intriguing suggestion Johnson makes several times, that her subject’s middle-aged decline into depression and alcoholism could have been the result of head injuries sustained on the football field. From his youth in the sandlots of Lowell until a low tackle and fractured tibia virtually ended his career at Columbia, which he attended on a football scholarship, Kerouac racked up an undetermined but doubtless dizzying number of hits. Johnson notes that the maximum protection in those days amounted to a thin leather helmet — not much use for warding off the long-term effects of head trauma that scientists are only now beginning to understand. The techniques for diagnosing football-related brain damage postdate Kerouac’s death by half a century, so Johnson can only speculate, but the evidence she summons is intriguing. In addition to his years caroming around the gridiron, Kerouac received head injuries at least twice, in a car accident in 1939 and in a fight in 1958. “Could there have been any truth to what his mother later claimed,” Johnson writes, “that he had seemed to her a very different person after the accident?” There’s no pathology report that can confirm Johnson’s hunch, but her conjecture goes a long way to explaining how a young writer who spent whole nights discussing Spengler could end his life drinking 14 boilermakers an hour.
Shortly before Thanksgiving in 1951, Kerouac dropped into a party at the Yale Club wearing a worn leather jacket. After a while, he noticed that arriving in Beat regalia wasn’t as avant-garde as he’d thought: everyone had a leather jacket, and many of the guests were getting high. But alas, this never happened. It’s a dream Kerouac recorded not long before The Voice Is All leaves him, with six years to go until the tardy publication of On the Road would spread his name as widely as the leather jackets in his dream. Unfortunately, the blind admiration he accurately predicted has done him a disservice: it’s enfeebled our understanding of a writer whose influence is nearly omnipresent. Hopefully Johnson’s book will return a voice to the man who gave many of us ours.