Kerouac still matters, though the perspective has shifted
Of all the Beat writers of the 1940s and 1950s — Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Gary Snyder, and others — it is Jack Kerouac who most fascinates post-millennial readers. His works remain in print; he has inspired several biographies and has served as a central character in different memoirs; his best-known novel, On The Road, was released in 2012 as a movie. Like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, he is one of those American writers whose life often seems larger than his work, a figure of romance, a legend.
In The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (ISBN 978-0-670-02510-7, 2012, $32.95), Joyce Johnson, novelist, chronicler of the Beats, and once Kerouac‘s lover, gives readers an in-depth psychological study of Kerouac’s early life: his birth and youth in Lowell, Mass.; his years as a student, culminating as a dropout from Columbia; his spotty service during the Second World War; his wanderings back and forth across the country with Neil Cassady and other restless drifters; his apprenticeship as a writer. Johnson ends her book with Kerouac’s breakthrough work that would soon win him fame: On the Road and parts of Visions of Cody.
The Voice Is All isn’t simply a rehashing of the facts of Kerouac’s life. (One flaw in the book, however, is the lack of dates; readers unacquainted with Kerouac’s life will often wonder what year certain events are taking place.) Perhaps more than any of its predecessors, including Johnson’s own Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, The Voice Is All intimately explores Kerouac’s conflicted allegiance to his French-Canadian roots and to his contemporaries, his various sexual relationships, his fears about the value of his own early literary efforts, his strange, tangled relationship with his mother. By describing in detail Kerouac’s moods, his swings from dharma bum to deep depression, his dabbling in literature, philosophy, and religion, Johnson, as other reviewers have noted, brings Kerouac to life on the page.
About midway through The Voice Is All, however, the frenetic Kerouac and his friends, particularly Neil Cassidy, jumping not just from place to place but from idea to idea, reminds us of his immaturity both as a writer and as a person . Some of us, even those who read and loved Kerouac’s novels and poetry in our youth, may even begin to grow annoyed with this young man, this fledgling writer who skims the surfaces of ideas, of Catholic and Eastern religion, who seems now to his older readers puerile in his fancies and attractions. Despite some of Kerouac’s attractive features — his fascination with America, his good looks, his excitement, his spontaneous prose — we find in Johnson’s biography a portrait which may well be unintended, a painting of a writer limited both by his intelligence and by his addictions. Kerouac and several of his associates, even the world-weary Burroughs, come across as men — they are all men — who are incapable of growing up, of maturity, of adulthood. Johnson’s lists of Kerouac’s bed partners, his often inane comments about everything from nature to God to the American soul, his drinking and the general disarray of his personal life, force us to see him as a perpetual teenager, a boy who never really grew into manhood. After reading The Voice Is All, and then perusing the pages of Kerouac’s work read when one was 20 or 25 years old, the adult fan of Kerouac may decide that he is a writer for teenagers and their fantasies, not for adults.
Kerouac himself tried for the last part of his life to shrug off his association both with the Beats and with their young followers. In 1957, at the age of 35, Kerouac, Johnson tells us, “would write in his diary that what he really thought was that the Beat Generation had ceased to exist … Soon to be crowned the King of the Beats by the media, he would find himself in the unhappy position of having to represent an old idea whose new meaning he didn’t believe in, which was ironically inspiring widespread imitation as a superficially available lifestyle.” In Big Sur, Kerouac would write that “all over America high school and college kids thinking ‘Jack Duluoz is 26-years-old and on the road all the time hitch hiking’ while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded in a roomette bunk.”
What is significant in this last quotation is that Kerouac, like so many of his admirers, confuses the real with the fictional. He seeks to criticize his fans for making this mistake, but he himself falls into the same trap by the wording of his critique. Because of his autobiographical methods, and perhaps because of his intense self-absorption, he himself cannot separate fact from myth and legend, the truth of what he was from fiction he had created.
Johnson gives us a fascinating portrait of her old friend and flame. To understand why Kerouac’s work still bears reading and scrutiny, readers may wish to turn to John LeLand’s Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On The Road (They‘re Not What You Think), previously reviewed in The Smoky Mountain News. Here Leland examines lessons we can draw from On The Road: the importance of fatherhood and family, the meaning of faith, mediations on time and relationships. In addition to documenting some surprises in Kerouac’s thinking — he was, for example, an admirer of Reverend Billy Graham — Leland finally concludes his short study realizing that Kerouac did have a message for us, that life is “ignorance and suffering and jazz and loss and occasional revelation.”
That’s why, despite all his failings and sad weaknesses, all his failures as a person and a writer, we still read Jack Kerouac.
The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson. Viking Adult, 2012. 512 pages.