“The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac ” by Joyce Johnson

November 17, 2012

Joyce Glassman was 22 when she met the 34-year-old Jack Kerouac in 1957, on a blind date that turned into a two-year affair. That was the year “On the Road” was published, and fame hit Kerouac like a sledgehammer. They were together for two years, or should I say they were apart, for Kerouac was constantly on the move, but they exchanged letters.

Glassman had gone to Barnard and rebelled against her bourgeois parents. When she met Kerouac, she was working on a novel about a girl in her last week of college who decides to lose her virginity. He stayed at her place on 68th Street when he was in New York. She was a safe harbor who became a port of call. He encouraged her writing. She finished her novel, “Come and Join the Dance,” and it was published in 1962. It seemed daring for its time. By then, they were no longer seeing each other.

She appears in Kerouac’s novel “Desolation Angels” as Alyce Newman: “Old Alyce said: ‘I s’pose you’re going to be a big literary god and everybody’s going to eat you up, so you should let me protect you.’ ” Glassman was one of the few women who would let Kerouac in when he was soused; she listened to his drunken monologues while she fixed him vegetable soup, and he’d pass out with his head in his plate, and in the morning he’d be off to Mexico.

After her first novel, she did not publish a book again until 1978. She married the abstract painter James Johnson, who was killed in a motorcycle accident, and then she married the painter Peter Pinchbeck, whom she later divorced. Her second novel, “Bad Connections,” was bylined Joyce Johnson. The main character, Molly, says, “I have always been too faithful to the illusions of others.”

In 1983, her first memoir, “Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming of Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac,”brought attention to the role that women played in the beat movement; it won a National Book Critics Circle award. This was followed by “Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958” in 2000, and “Missing Men: A Memoir” in 2005.


’The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac’ by Joyce Johnson (Viking)

The present volume, “The Voice Is All,” weighs in at 489 pages and ends rather abruptly in 1951, when Kerouac was 29. I wondered whether the author was planning a sequel, and then I thought, probably not, that’s not what she’s interested in — she doesn’t feel the need to recount his downward spiral for the umpteenth time. Johnson had access to a huge trove of Kerouac material deposited in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. She takes us through the familiar early life: the Canadian kid raised in Lowell, Mass., by a grotesque mother and a father of the vacillating go-getter type. The Catholic upbringing, in which the habit of confession may have led to a need for self-expression. Football gets him to New York, to Horace Mann and Columbia. And then the jitterbug era sets in, he can’t sit still, he ships out with the Merchant Marine, he takes off on the road, carrying a knapsack and a spiral notebook, discovering America, going through his starving-writer period.

This is well-worked-over material, but Johnson’s merit lies in dispelling the myth of automatic writing. She has taken Kerouac off the road and into the library, and shown us a scholarly and erudite man of letters, able to absorb the work of writers he admired. While still at Horace Mann, at the age of 17, Kerouac came under the influence of William Saroyan, an outsider Armenian just as he was an outsider Canadian, who wrote stories without plots, relying on the power of his voice. If Saroyan could write about his feelings, so could Kerouac.

At Columbia, he graduated to Thomas Wolfe, who, like Kerouac, had a prodigious memory to summon up his past. From Wolfe he got the feeling of the majestic immensity of America. Fluent in French, Kerouac read Balzac, who seemed to have an intimate knowledge of every corner of the French class system. Kerouac decided to uncover the mysteries of American society. While planning his trip, he sent away for road maps of every state. For him, there were two kinds of writers, “the leave-outers,” like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and “the putter-inners,” like Wolfe and Balzac.

As World War II came to a close, Kerouac was reading Celine, who derived his style from Paris street slang. The spoken voice, the voice of the disenfranchised and the damaged (Celine had been seriously wounded in World War I), appealed to Kerouac. He wrote in his journal that no writer moved him like Celine. It was with this deep knowledge of writers he admired that Kerouac went on the road and found characters such as Neal Cassady, transforming a con man into a heroic outsider. Johnson dispels the notion that “On the Road” was confessional writing based on real people. As she puts it, “The alchemy turned his memories into art, shaping, altering, and refining the raw material” to arrive at “what Wolfe called life ‘completely digested in my spirit.’ ”

In between trips, Kerouac took classes at the New School and was befriended by his teacher, the critic Alfred Kazin. He also had the backing of Malcolm Cowley, an influential editor at Viking. But it took years of revising and editing before Viking, worried that the book was about real people who would sue for libel, accepted it. The Berg Collection contains a great deal of the preparatory writing about two young men hitchhiking across America. Over the years, several versions emerged, evolving into Kerouac’s first-person style. Cassady, the pool-hall cocksman orphaned at 13, had a souped-up manner of speaking that Kerouac absorbed. When Kerouac said, “The voice is all,” some of that voice was Cassady’s.

The brave bit about having written the entire book on one roll of paper in a fit of frenzy made good copy but didn’t do Kerouac any good. He was dismissed by Truman Capote, who said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” and a Kerouac admirer, the singer Patti Smith, believes that he just spewed the work on paper. But as Johnson informs us, “On The Road” was a long, laborious process that took years and many rewrites, balancing despair and elation, before it was published.

Ted Morgan is the author of “Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs.”

THE VOICE IS ALL

The Lonely Victory

of Jack Kerouac

By Joyce Johnson

Viking. 489 pp. $32.95

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