In a 1958 letter sent from Florida, Jack Kerouac wrote, “That black sweater of mine I always sleep in . . . crackles and bristles in New York, here it doesn’t.” Several years earlier, the “electrical vibrations” of New York had driven Kerouac to manufacture a new kind of American storytelling, “concerned above all with the poetry of what he remembered.” There were jolts of energy in Kerouac’s famous novel, “On the Road,’’ but his method reached an apotheosis in groundbreaking works like “Visions of Cody’’ and “Dr. Sax,’’ nearly killing him in the process.
That New York period of heavy drinking, bursts of insight, and frequent mental anguish experienced by the Lowell native between 1946 and 1951, when he achieved the breakthroughs that secured his reputation, forms the crux of a new Kerouac biography by Joyce Johnson, an author of eight books, Kerouac’s girlfriend in the late 1950s, and the recipient of the letter quoted above. Undercutting the influence of Neal Cassady, the garrulous antihero of “On the Road,’’ Johnson shifts the emphasis to Kerouac’s French Canadian heritage and his painstaking movement away from conventional fiction, toward something “beyond the novel . . . into realms of revealed picture.” These revelations have allowed Kerouac, a self-described “sheepish imbecile,” to slip past some more celebrated peers into the literary canon.
Kerouac scholarship, however, is still a rough neighborhood, where the characters bicker and bellow, sometimes acting reasonably, sometimes not, behaving like the denizens of those Pawtucketville bars Kerouac wrote about. Johnson acknowledges that “permission to quote from Jack’s unpublished papers remains restricted to writers . . . sanctioned by the Kerouac Estate.” (A few years ago I witnessed Gerald Nicosia, whose 1983 “Memory Babe’’ still reigns over the Kerouac biographies, get shouted down by functionaries of the estate when Nicosia interrupted a Kerouac conference in Lowell to protest the inaccessibility of the writer’s archive.)
Johnson avoids this obstacle through her personal knowledge of Kerouac, her experience writing about him (a memoir and collected letters), and her exploration of the Kerouac papers in the Berg collection at the New York Public Library, only available since 2002. While examining several abandoned versions of what ultimately became “On the Road,’’ Johnson unearthed a 57-page manuscript written in French labeled “On the Road, ecrit en Francais.” Johnson notes that its “emotional openness gave it a particular immediacy and intimacy.” The narrator is a French Canadian writer who predicts, “in the future others would make money from his writings that should have come to him.” Now a powerful literary brand, Kerouac was a pariah and nearly broke when he died in 1969.
Johnson ends Kerouac’s chronicle in 1951, five years before they met. This seems odd, since Kerouac was only 29, with several milestones still ahead. But Johnson’s biggest mistake relates to her thesis: that Kerouac was shaped more by his ethnicity than previously asserted, and that his experience with French, which he learned before English and spoke at home and in Lowell’s Catholic schools, led to his writer’s voice. But she calls this French “joual,” a version of the language spoken in Quebec. Other commentators, including Paul Marion, a French-American writer from Lowell and editor of Kerouac’s “Atop an Underwood,’’ have rightly pointed out that Kerouac and his contemporaries never used the term “joual.” The street corner patois they spoke had an originality connected to their New England experience.
Ultimately, Johnson’s perceptiveness, her reckoning with the new material, and her love for Kerouac prevail: “The crucial element in his work would not be the invention of plot or the creation of composite characters but the alchemy that turned his memories into art, shaping, altering, and refining the raw material he worked from.”Jay Atkinson has published seven books, including “Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America.’’ He teaches a course titled “Jack Kerouac and the Beats” at Boston University and can be reached at email@example.com.