Beat generation chronicled in Kerouac bio

Jack Kerouac has come to epitomize the Beat generation, as both his life and writings have become canonized as examples of the 1940s and early 1950s countercultural movements. On the Road, his magnum opus, characterizes the restless energy of his generation. Few biographers of Kerouac have the benefit of knowing him personally, but Joyce Johnson, who was dating the author when On the Road hit the presses, draws an unusually intimate picture of both the man and literary genius in her biography The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.

Johnson illuminates that the most formative influence on Kerouac was his French-Canadian heritage. She begins to paint her picture of the author in his hometown of Lowell, Mass., living his early childhood in the shadow of his sickly older brother Gerard. Even after his brother passed away, Kerouac continued to feel inferior, never quite eclipsing the perfect memory of his deceased brother. His mother, Gabrielle Kerouac, was devastated by the passing of her eldest son and latched onto her younger son with overwhelming attentiveness. Indeed, his mother’s smothering affection became a load Kerouac carried with him his entire life.

Johnson describes Kerouac’s early linguistic exposure to French, or Joual, the variant spoken colloquially in Lowell, as extremely significant to the development of his writing style and narrative voice. With French as his first language, Kerouac struggled to reconcile his English voice with his refrains of Joual: According to Johnson, this struggle helped him create his distinct style of writing. But deeper still, Johnson shows how this struggle even contributed to his conflict of identity between French-Canadian and American. She recalls how “[i]n his darkest states of mind, he’d use the name Jean-Louis, as if he had retreated into a different, remote persona, sternly reminding outsiders like me that we did not know him at all.”

Johnson carries this theme of Kerouac’s muddled ethnicity in the evolution of his writing throughout the biography. She describes the efforts Kerouac took to master the English language, often writing lists of vocabulary words in his notebooks. She notes the strong Catholic and French-Canadian presence in much of his early work and even some of his first drafts of On the Road. She even identifies two of Kerouac’s large literary influences – Arthur Rimbaud and Thomas Wolfe – who can be interpreted as a manifestation of this duality between his French and American inspiration.

In her accounts of Kerouac with his friends and family, Johnson is unerringly precise. The recent availability of the Kerouac papers in the Berg collection of the New York Public Library helped Johnson delve deeper into the psyche of the author: Because his estate strictly controls the use of Kerouac’s unpublished papers, the fact that Johnson has the ability to create such a raw and authentic picture of the author is truly a feat. Her personal relationship with Kerouac, the subject of her 1983 memoir Minor Characters, seems to color her accounts with a tinge of sincerity and insight that comes from genuine interactions.

In the biography, Johnson gives new importance to Kerouac’s cultural roots, yet remains impressively objective in her treatment of the author. She balances her intimate knowledge of Kerouac by ending the biography in 1951, six years before the two met. At the same time, her relationship with Kerouac seems to give her a freedom in portraying both him and the cast of Beat characters around him. Johnson refers to Kerouac’s family and friends by their first names; Gabrielle Kerouac becomes shortened to her nickname Gabe, William S. Burroughs appears as Bill and Allen Ginsberg emerges as simply Allen. However, this use of first names does not feel disrespectful; in fact, Johnson is uniquely qualified to speak familiarly about these people, because she lived most of the history she describes.

Though Johnson’s objective descriptions of the Beat gang and Kerouac are impressive, she could not totally extract her fondness for the author from the biography. She refers to their “bond of friendship and affection – feelings that lasted on Jack’s side as well as mine even after we stopped seeing each other, judging by what he wrote about our time together in Desolation Angels.” However, these occasional lapses in objectivity do not compromise the biography’s integrity; because of Johnson’s relationship with Kerouac, her scattered allusions to her memories or experiences feel appropriate.

In The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, Johnson seems to capture the essence of Kerouac. In her portrait of the artist as a young man, she links his French-Canadian identity with his development as a writer. She draws energetic sketches of the Beat circle with whom Kerouac socialized; nonetheless, she also portrays Kerouac’s inner conflicts about his identity and what he felt were incompatible facets of his personality.  Kerouac searched for “a way to deal with his conflicting selves in fiction” writes Johnson. Whether he succeeded, we may never know.

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