JOYCE JOHNSON, née Glassman, was raised on the Upper West Side by a mother whose commitment to high culture was absolute. Johnson’s mother had grown up in working-class Brooklyn, and she was determined for her daughter to inhabit a different sphere. “We were gentle people,” Johnson writes in her memoir Minor Characters, “genteel, Gentile almost.” Her mother shielded her from the unsavory influences of the early 1950s—Sinatra, “soda pop”—and would not have even dreamed of letting Joyce use “one of those disgusting little raincoat things” some boys were rumored to carry in their wallets. But at thirteen, inspired by the cool, Trotskyite girls at her high school, Johnson took a bus down to Washington Square and found folkies and poets, writers and Benzedrine addicts—Bohemian New York. She loved it. Her mother had no idea.
This adventure was suspended when Johnson entered Barnard College at fifteen, ready to be “collegiate.” Bohemianism was “childish.” She taught herself the Charleston (or tried to) and planned to wear tulle in pastels. But for all her dismissal of hipster pretentions and fears, she had no passion for the prim, tweedy professors and their equally “Prufrockian” students. “My theme is Growth,” said her college boyfriend as they were breaking up. “Your theme is Decadence and Decay.” The collective “scramble for polish” was too close to home—as was the school itself, right down the block from the apartment where she still lived.
She moved out. She met a man. She had a secret abortion in a tonsillectomy office, carried out by a doctor who said, as she left, “Don’t ever let me catch you back here again, young lady!” On her own, she wrote—that was her ambition, not her mother’s, who had pushed her only child to become a great female composer. A college drop-out, at odds with her parents, Johnson had nothing to insulate her from the “themes” of her emotional life (as her ex-boyfriend had put it): class anxiety, ethnic anxiety, literary ambition, love for someone who stifled her and for a culture that also did.
When she met Jack Kerouac in 1957, on a blind date set up by Allen Ginsberg, she had dropped some of her old disdain for Bohemia. Kerouac, penniless, ate the frankfurters she bought for him, and asked to go home with her. She said, “If you wish.” I wonder whether they used a raincoat.
If Johnson’s closeness to Kerouac is invaluable for Johnson the memoirist, it is limiting for Johnson the disinterested biographer, which she has become with her new book, The Voice is All, a study of Kerouac’s youth that ends in 1951 when he was twenty-nine, eighteen years before his early death.
The presumptive reason to chronicle a life is to get to know the person better, but the great irony of Johnson’s new biography is that her memoir shows and communicates a much richer knowledge of the man she loved. In short, her biography presumes the interest her memoir compels. The Voice is All expects that we already care about Kerouac; Minor Characters makes us care. Even readers skeptical of Kerouac’s literary significance can feel through Johnson’s memoir why Kerouac was a precipitating force, greatly affecting a culture ready to be nudged toward the lifestyle revolutions of the 1960s. What he meant to her—a way of life without the bourgeois constraints of Johnson’s time and place—was what he meant to many, especially once On the Road was published, in 1957.
The biography is pitched uneasily between analysis and story. It has too little context to paint a cultural and intellectual history and too much detail to make its narrative a compelling plot. (Do we need to know the details of Kerouac’s fourteenth love affair with a pretty young thing?) Johnson cares so much about her subject that she wants to know everything that meant something to him, but this intimacy prevents her from digressing to explain why we should care about him. Her sentences are sharp and her anecdotes well-told, but her personal focus and straightforward chronology make her book less of a portrait than an x-ray—good for future reference but hardly humanizing.
Johnson’s most artfully told story in The Voice is All is also her most ambitious argument: Kerouac’s French Canadian childhood, she thinks, can explain his literary achievement. Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Kerouac in 1922, in a French Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, to working-class immigrant parents whose lives seem to have been defined by the death of their first-born son. In her grief, Mrs. Kerouac lost all her teeth. She grew devoutly Catholic while her husband lost his faith, drank heavily, and made a series of reckless business decisions. This financial instability uprooted the Kerouacs again and again—itself a trauma for young Jack, whose capacity to remember the minutiae of spaces he cared about earned him the nickname “Memory Babe.”
Here are the roots, Johnson says, of his rootlessness: Kerouac would spend his adulthood not just moving but moving his mother with him, with vague hopes, it seems, that the next move would solve the problems that always followed them. These are also the roots of his guilt and spiritual chaos. How could a kind and loving God take away the little saint his mother made his little brother out to be? Why did he remember his brother as sad and even violent? How could he have let this tragedy befall his mother, whom he felt an obligation to protect and who depended on him so much?
Given how well Johnson stages this family drama, it is somewhat surprising that she explains Kerouac’s aesthetics in ethnic terms rather than personal ones. She argues that Kerouac realized his genius only when he fully realized his French Canadian heritage, and that his greatest aesthetic success occurred when he achieved a style of English prose infused with the joual he grew up speaking.
Kerouac certainly considered his ethnicity central to his writing. In 1950, he wrote in his journal that as a “Canuck” he had “undergone the same feelings any Jew, Greek, Negro, or Italian feels in America.” Those were all still immigrant or at least marginalized cultures, and Johnson shows that Kerouac felt kinship with them—when his football coaches would not play him, when his father told him that French, not joual, was a language for literature. Such instruction made him eager to master American English, to be All-American, first conventionally and then in the countercultural archetype he made of Neal Cassady in On the Road. Contrary to myth, Kerouac struggled for years to complete On the Road, finishing a draft only after he wrote a long, spontaneous novella-like piece in French.
But it is one thing to say that these conflicts drove Kerouac to write, and quite another to say that his resolving them gives his work merit and that this resolution was the foundational factor of his work—which is the implicit argument of The Voice is All. This emphasis feels myopic and without much to back it up: Johnson spends roughly two pages on the French Canadianness of Kerouac’s prose, with just one example of its French qualities: “Describing the ‘grands formes’ of American literature, the word unsoundable came to him as a more forceful equivalent of insondable than unfathomable, which had more syllables and would have been weaker rhythmically.” “Unsoundable” has been used that way in English for centuries; Kerouac did not invent a new use for the word.
Lacking evidence for her central thesis, Johnson slides between an explanation of his French-language roots and other stylistic impulses that were not distinctly French Canadian: “Plainness and concreteness was what he was after. … the way thoughts came to him before he changed them by turning them into English or tried to make them literary in ways that embellished them too much.” This is really a veiled defense of Kerouac’s spontaneous-seeming prose: it cannot be careless and self-indulgent if it effortlessly expresses the speech of a marginal culture.
Perhaps the reason why Johnson grasps for another element of literary merit and yet fails to explain persuasively his literary merit is that she never really entertains the possibility that it needs defending. He is a “genius,” an “unlikely miracle,” a “great artist”—all that from her introduction alone. She is so invested in the “victory of Jack Kerouac” that she hardly criticizes his mature work, and is so invested in him as a person that she misses the shallowness of the way he often wrote. After all, he also wrote that way to her. A letter that described a spiritual revelation in a storm was followed by a typically self-indulgent celebration: “Rarin to go in Tangiers … the city of vice! whee!” The lack of reflection makes you wonder whether he had a real revelation or just wanted just to show that he was the sort of person to whom deep and mystical things happened. Superficial spiritualism stayed with him. At a panel discussion in 1958, arguing for the personal compassion of God, he described sitting under a tangerine tree and translating the Diamond Sutra. When a fruit falls in his lap, he thinks, “Right, boing; I said, okay, personal god.” Not exactly rigorous metaphysical thinking.
But Johnson believes in his writing as she once believed in him. Perhaps the reason she does not criticize the excited mysticism of his prose is that it reminds her so strongly of the exciting and mysterious life Kerouac once offered her. But if her faith was understandable and beautiful to read about in her memoir, its persistence turns her biography into hagiography. You cannot write a biography of a god.
Adam Plunkett is the Assistant Literary Editor at The New Republic. Follow @adamfplunkett.