Joyce Johnson’s role in Beat history is too often viewed simply as that of Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. There is surprise when one first learns that she was a novelist in her own right and at the disdain for her position as a scholar of the Beat Generation. She is derided as “milking” her brief relationship with Kerouac. The irony is that her book, Minor Characters, brought to light some of the experiences of the women of the Beat Generation, and the extent to which they have been marginalized.
But Johnson’s contribution to Beat studies have been tremendously important, and Minor Characters has become a classic. In her subsequent works, Doors Wide Open and Missing Men, Johnson continued to add to our understanding of the Beats and their literature through a decidedly personal approach, offering a rare insider’s guide to the Beat Generation and the life of Kerouac, whom she dated between 1957-58.
Thus there was the expectation that in her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, we would once again be treated to a subjective and personal account of the author, most likely focusing on the two years during which time they were romantically involved. But that was not the case. Johnson has taken advantage of the recent opening of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection in order to research a period of his life that ended six years prior to their meeting. She has chosen to study only a short period, and to examine it from an entirely different angle than that attempted by any of the countless previous biographers and critics.
Why focus on the period up until 1951?
I intended from the start to make the development of Jack’s writing – from his acquisition of English, which was a second language for him, through the discoveries that led him to his becoming exactly the writer he wanted to be – the central focus of my book. By the time I began writing about 1951, I felt that by following Jack through the series of breakthroughs after On the Road that resulted five months later in the writing of Visions of Cody, the book he considered his masterpiece, I had told not only a complete story, but the most important story about Jack, in a way that cast light upon the future years I did not cover.
What inspired you to examine the importance of his cultural and linguistic background, and to what extent did that inform his style of writing?
Curiously, although it is a well known fact that Jack was Franco-American, the implications of his cultural heritage were not explored in previous biographies. I first became aware of how important it might be in early 1980’s when I read Kerouac: A Chicken Essay by the French-Canadian poet, Victor Lévy-Beaulieu. That book captured something about Jack that I had felt intuitively when I knew him. When I decided to write the biography, this was another theme I wanted to explore, and I found a lot that related to it in Jack’s papers, since it was a constant preoccupation of his. There’s an extraordinary entry in a 1945 journal, for example, where he writes that although he can understand and appreciate “American richness,” it will never be his because he is only “half-American.” During the years when he was growing up, Franco-Americans were a despised minority (in New England they were called “white niggers”); in On the Road and in his journals, Jack refers to his “white ambitions” – language only someone who did not feel “white” would use.
Jack’s family spoke the French-Canadian dialect known as joual, and he did not learn his first words of English until he was six. Although he succeeded in mastering English, and in the process forgot some of his French, the joual seems to have been his interior language, and writing evidently involved a kind of process of translation. That process gave him an exceptional sensitivity to sound. After years of keeping the French out of his American voice, in 1951 he began to let it back in – first in On the Road, which was preceded in March of 1951 by a novella written in French, where I believe Jack found the voice he would use only a few weeks later for the narrator of the novel he had been unsuccessfully struggling to write for the past four years…It’s those French overtones that give Sal Paradise’s voice its special sound.
You’ve said you were less than satisfied with previous biographies of Jack. How does yours ‘set the record straight’?
It is only in the last few years that scholars have had access to the Kerouac Archive, which contains such a remarkable record of Jack’s life and creative development in journals, letters and manuscript. This is essential material for biography. Without it, past biographers had to rely largely on oral history, which was valuable but not necessarily reliable, and on what Jack wrote about his life in his novels, which could often be misleading, since his books are indeed works of fiction. Based largely on anecdotal material gathered from interviews, the books presented a picture of Kerouac in which the emphasis seemed to be upon his dysfunctionality and the extraordinarily dedicated artist that he actually was often got buried in a mass of sensational details.
The book is touted as a bit of an “insider’s guide” due to your relationship with Kerouac, but you first met him six years after the period your book examines. How did you go about researching the book?
My book is the product of fifty years of reflection on Jack, during which my understanding grew with everything new that I learned. Although the relationship I had with Jack when I was in my early twenties lasted less than a couple of years, it happens to be one of his longest relationships with a woman. During that period I saw him at his best and at his worst, and got to know the quiet, tender, extremely vulnerable person Jack was when he was sober; when I showed him portions of my first novel, I experienced personally his unfailing generosity to other writers. At seventy-seven, I am hardly sentimental about Jack, but I still feel deep sad affection for him, and my intimate knowledge of him definitely shaped my point of view when it came to writing The Voice Is All. But every biography is inescapably shaped by the writer’s point of view, which is why each biography of the same person will tell a different story.
I began working on The Voice Is All early in 2008 and for the next three years spent two days a week taking notes at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, where I kept running into other Kerouac scholars…I went through Jack’s papers chronologically while my writing kept pace with my research, and became rather fanatical about establishing an exact chronology for the events in his life, which I felt was very badly needed…I read up on Franco-American life in the United States, and also read some of the writers who were most important to Jack – especially Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis Ferdinand Céline.
Was it tough with the restrictions imposed by the Sampas family?
The restrictions upon how much I could quote seemed a challenge at first, but I have ended up feeling the book is all the better for them. I had to choose each quote very carefully and concentrate upon its meaning, which I think has given my book a certain clarity. The narrative, unbroken by long quotes, also has a unity of tone that I think is all to the good. I was very pleased when one reviewer compared my book to “a big Russian novel,” because that’s how it felt to me while I was living inside it and writing it.
This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12: