Q&A: In Her New Book, Joyce Johnson Tries to ‘Set the Record Straight’ on Jack Kerouac
Joyce Johnson‘s long history with Jack Kerouac goes back to 1956, when the poet Allen Ginsberg brought them together for a blind date. She was in her early 20s at the time and already a writer herself. Their meeting sparked a two-year love affair. She was with him the night in 1957 when the New York Times’ review of his break-out novel “On the Road” hit the newsstands. They read it together by the light of a street lamp on the way back to her apartment. The next day, “he woke up famous,” she later wrote in her 1983 book “Minor Characters,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Johnson has published eight books, and her latest is titled “The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.” In it, Johnson, who has expressed frustration with biographers who rely exclusively on interviews with his family and friends, draws heavily from Kerouac’s own journals, letters and other source material, which are now archived at the New York Public Library. The result is a unique exploration of his childhood, youth and early adulthood, concluding with the publication of “On the Road,” the place many other studies begin.
Among Johnson’s revelations: Kerouac’s French-Canadian background and the fact that French was his first language played major roles in shaping the way he thought and expressed himself. In an interview with Art Beat, she described some of her research and writing process.
Why did you write this book? You covered your own relationship with Kerouac in your memoir “Minor Characters.” What keeps drawing you back to the subject?
JOYCE JOHNSON: Over the years I began to learn more and more about Jack as different books kept coming out, other biographies, also books of his letters, early writings. So I began to get a much deeper picture of him than I had when I wrote “Minor Characters,” which is all from the point of view I had of him when I was a 21-year-old kid. I also felt very dissatisfied with the way that he was being presented in most of the biographies. I didn’t find in those biographies the person that I knew or learn very much about the development of his writing. I also felt as time went on and I kept being dissatisfied by different books and the Kerouac legend seemed set in cement that I had been there at this very crucial moment in 1957. I had known Jack. I had seen the tremendous impact of the whole idea of the Beat Generation upon American culture, and I felt that as a kind of witness to this sort of extraordinary moment I had an obligation to somehow set the record straight.
What did you learn that was new to you? And where there surprises?
JOYCE JOHNSON: When I began the book, I finally had access to the big Kerouac archive, all his private papers that for years no one could even look at. In 2002, they were finally sold to the New York Public Library, the Berg Collection. I wasn’t sure at all what was in there, but I had a hunch that if I read those papers I would find a lot of material about what interested me most, which is [Kerouac's] Franco-American background and an account of his development as a writer. I had read some of his journals from the late ’40s in which he tracked his developments pretty closely. But I felt that there was more. There were also all his unpublished manuscripts. He was tremendously dedicated to his work. We all have this image of him as someone who sat down and wrote, you know, dashed off, “On the Road” in three weeks. But it was actually a book preceded by years of trial attempts at writing other novels with that theme, with some of the same characters. He would ruthlessly put these manuscripts aside. I mean it was the most ruthless and brutal form of revision, spending several months trying to write a novel, and then discarding it. He couldn’t find a voice that satisfied him, and that whole struggle is very much documented by all that material in the library.
So his reputation for never revising is false, the whole notion of his “bop prosody”?
JOYCE JOHNSON: Yes, yes. Well, he had learned a way of doing what he called “spontaneous writing.” But it wasn’t. It was not off the top of his head at all. It was something that took tremendous discipline to bring off. He writes a lot about the process, especially in his journals in 1951. He would get into these states of what he called “transfixations” upon the object, whether he was looking at a scene in a diner or even working from his imagination. After a while it was a sort of very, very deep form of concentration. He would think about the object and all the various associations that rushed into his mind. But it took years of hard work and dedication and self-criticism before he could get to the point where he could do that. If you want to do a high wire act you don’t just get out there on the high wire. It’s preceded by years of practice. And that was very much a high wire act for Jack, spontaneous writing. So it’s been sort of poorly interpreted, I think, by people. It wasn’t easy.
You see his Franco-American upbringing and the fact that English was his second language as having a huge influence on Kerouac’s thinking and his writing process. And yet the contradiction is, of course, that we consider him to be a definingly American literary voice and think of his work as being built around his quest to find an authentic America after WWII.
JOYCE JOHNSON: Well, I think that’s terribly American don’t you? Don’t you think that’s very much in the American grain, all these people from immigrant groups who’ve come here, who have their [own] languages and their cultures? I think a lot of people, not just Jack, wonder how American they really are. It’s a sort of anxiety about you not being completely American [or] part of the American experience?
What about the influence his writing had on American culture, particularly after the War? Did he incite through his writing some kind of a cultural shift in the country or was he simply reporting on it?
JOYCE JOHNSON: I think one thing you have to remember about “On the Road” is that it was published about seven years after Jack wrote it. And it was written in 1951. I think if it had been, say, published right after Jack wrote it, it would have been seen as very much a novel about the mood of the post-War period. But somehow when the book came out, people sort of forgot that. It seemed very now, you know what I mean? And people were waiting actually for something to latch onto, and I think there was so much frustration among young people with the repressive mores of the 1950s that the whole idea of the Beat Generation, not only as Jack interpreted, but as it was sort of interpreted by the media, was very attractive to people.
What was it that drew Kerouac and Neal Cassady to one another with such intensity?
JOYCE JOHNSON: Well, I think Jack sort of fell in love with Neal’s voice, with the way he talked, which was like riffs upon riffs. I think he was fascinated by that. He also had a whole idealization of the American West, and Neal seemed to him like the consummate Westerner. I also think he identified with Neal because Neal, like him, came from a working class background. And the scene Jack was in in New York at that time, you know, all his friends were were middle class or even upper-middle class young men. Very brilliant young men, but no one had come from a kind of working class, poor background. So he very much felt that he and Neal had had similar backgrounds.
And Cassady had this magnetic effect on many people.
JOYCE JOHNSON: On many people, he had a tremendous amount of charisma.
And yet he also had–and you write about this–this kind of low-life quality. Was that a conflict for Kerouac ever?
JOYCE JOHNSON: You have to remember that Kerouac was always split. Part of him remained conservative Franco-American, and the other part of him was the wild bohemian part, attracted to people like Neal. One would be dominant one day, and one would be dominant another day. He was constantly seesawing, I think, between those splits in his character. And he was aware of this duality. I think, for him, “On the Road” was really an exploration of his own duality. Neal was almost sort of a part of him, his other self, his more extroverted, wilder self. That was kind of a secret theme of “On the Road.”
Kerouac has this reputation, of course, as a traveler and free spirit. You’re saying a lot of that’s the Cassady side of him. But the other side was a homebody and a lifelong momma’s boy.
JOYCE JOHNSON: Yes, but his life with his mother enabled his writing. He would live actually very austerely. This began when he was quite a young guy, in his early 20s. He would just hole up for long periods. He was working on his first novel in a room in his mother’s apartment, just working, working, working, working. And then he would take time off and go into the city and see all his friends and drink a lot and try to cram all his living into a few days. Then he’d go back to his work. But the work was always central for him. And in a way he sacrificed everything else to it.
Why is his work not better regarded by the academy? Or is that changing?
JOYCE JOHNSON: I think it’s changing, but I think there is still a great deal of prejudice and misunderstanding of him. And I think even the whole legend of his writing “On the Road” in only three weeks really worked against him. I think it led somebody like Truman Capote to write, “That isn’t writing, it’s typing.” I still see people saying he typed up “On the Road” in only three weeks. But it was writing. And another thing that I think hasn’t been very well understood [is that] it was very much a novel. The Neal Cassady in there sounded like Neal. He really caught the way Neal spoke. But a lot of the things that Neal said were Jack’s thoughts put into Neal’s mouth. He created a much more mythic figure out of Neal than Neal actually was.
So what is Kerouac’s legacy to us today?
JOYCE JOHNSON: I think it’s a legacy of terrific, extraordinarily beautiful prose. I think that’s the part of him that’s going to last. His work is so alive on the page, it just quivers with life. It’s so full of music and mood changes. It’s like he’s in the room with you. He has an immediacy that a lot of other writing doesn’t have.