Tag Archives: Joyce Johnson

In January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline

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In January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline

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Road Ready

‘The Voice Is All,’ by Joyce Johnson

By  JAMES CAMPBELL
Published: January 18, 2013    

In January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline. He had told Allen Ginsberg he planned to marry her — “the finest woman I’ll ever know” — once she had unshackled herself from her truck-driver husband, who, according to Joyce Johnson, was accustomed to “slapping her around to keep her in line.” In the meantime, Kerouac began an affair with Adele Morales (later to become the second Mrs. Norman Mailer). His failure to keep the rendezvous with Pauline, however, had nothing to do with affection for Adele; rather, he had overslept after a night of sex games with Luanne Henderson, whom Jack’s muse Neal Cassady had married when she was 15, and who, according to their friend Hal Chase, was “quite easy to get . . . into bed.” The tryst had been engineered by Cassady, who was hoping to watch, Johnson says, to show Luanne, by then 18, “how little she meant to him.” Two days later, Kerouac called on Ginsberg and found Luanne “covered with bruises from a beating Neal had given her.” Johnson describes Kerouac as “shocked” by the sight; nevertheless, “they all went out to hear bebop,” partly financed by money stolen by Cassady. In response to being jilted, Pauline confessed her affair to her husband, who tried to burn her on the stove. Kerouac described her in his journal as a “whore.” All the while, Ginsberg can be heard in the background: “How did we get here, angels?”

Collection of Allen Ginsberg, via Sotheby’s

Jack Kerouac in his Columbia University football uniform, 1940s.

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THE VOICE IS ALL

The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

By Joyce Johnson

489 pp. Viking. $32.95.

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This is an everyday story of the Beat Generation in late-1940s New York, a tale of crazy mixed-up kids who took a lot of drugs, dabbled in criminality — with two homicides among the statistics — lapsed into madness, were fond of identifying one another as “saints, saints,” but often had the barest notion of what it means to respect the individuality of other human beings. Yet three members of the inner circle, Kerouac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs, created experimental literary works of remarkable originality — in particular, “On the Road,” “Kaddish” and “Naked Lunch” — which read as freshly today as they did 50 years ago; perhaps, in an instance of that trick that the best art sometimes plays on us, more so.

Kerouac certainly makes a good subject, but there already exist about a dozen biographies (by Ann Charters, Barry Miles, Gerald Nicosia, among others), not to mention memoirs, an oral history — the excellent “Jack’s Book” (1978) — and wider surveys of the Beat Generation. In “Minor Characters” (1983), Johnson wrote about her affair with Kerouac at the time of publication of “On the Road.” She now steps back to a period of Kerouac’s life with which she has no direct acquaintance, tracing the story from his origins in a French Canadian family in Lowell, Mass., to New York in 1951, where the book ends with a rare citation from ­Kerouac’s journals: “I’m lost, but my work is found.”

Johnson justifies the retelling of what is in outline a familiar tale by the fact of having gained access to the vast Kerouac archive, “deposited in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library in 2002.” So far, so good. No large-scale Kerouac biography, so far as I am aware (“The Voice Is All” lacks a bibliography), has appeared since that date. Unfortunately, Johnson was apparently refused permission to quote at length from the journals and working drafts among Kerouac’s papers. The result is a life in paraphrase.

The method gives rise to frustration. In 1945, for example, Kerouac began writing a novel called “I Wish I Were You,” a reworking of the story of the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr in 1944. Together, Kerouac and Burroughs had previously written “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” a collaboration on the same subject that eventually saw the light of day in 2008. According to Johnson, “I Wish I Were You” is a different beast: “In two successive drafts of the first 100 pages, Jack put in all the textural detail that had been left out of ‘Hippos’ and even returned with renewed confidence to the lyricism he had abandoned just the year before. It was really quite brilliant, the best prose he had written so far

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“TRANCED FIXATIONS” KEROUAC’S BREAKTHROUGH

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“Tranced Fixations” — Kerouac’s Breakthrough

Voice_is_Allbig.jpgThe following is excerpted from The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouacpublished by Viking, 2012.

On October 7, 1951, after a gloomy Sunday when he seemed to be making no progress on the chapters about Neal Cassady he was adding to On the Road,  Jack went to Birdland to hear the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who recently had come into his own as a leading innovator of cool jazz.  During Konitz’s solo in “I Remember April,” which he played as if it were “the room he lived in,” his music sounded “so profoundly interior” to Jack that he was sure very few people would understand it. In fact, he compared Konitz’s extended phrases to the sentences he was writing lately, sentences whose direction seemed mysterious until the “solution” was suddenly unveiled in a way that shed light backward on everything that had preceded it. Admiring Konitz for refusing to make the concessions that would gain him a wider audience, Jack saw that both he and the musician were essentially doing the same thing — attempting to communicate “the unspeakable visions of the individual.” Grabbing a pencil, he scribbled a reminder to himself: “BLOW AS DEEP AS YOU WANT TO BLOW.” It was a rule he would start to follow in his work, despite his continued brooding about his tormenting inability to finish his second novel.

When Jack wasn’t writing in his cell-like basement room, he often roamed the surrounding streets of Richmond Hill, where one day he saw a crowd gathered in an empty lot.  A bloody fetus had been found there, dumped into the weeds in a paper bag. Shaken, he returned home, his reeling thoughts terrifying him, for it seemed he could hold on to none of them, making him wonder about the effect alcohol was having on his brain. If his mind was going, how could he ever finish On the Road?  Unable to calm himself, he broke down into a prayer for forgiveness.  The dead baby apparently reminded him of his guilty role in the conception of the one his ex-wife was carrying. Even the look Jack had been unable to prevent himself from taking at the red flesh of the fetus seemed to contribute to his guilt. He spent the next couple of days convinced he was being punished for his sins by losing the ability to write.

On October 15, Jack was still in a state of panic when he met Ed White in a Chinese restaurant near Columbia. Although Ed assured him his block was only temporary, this did nothing to improve Jack’s mood.  Changing the subject to his own work, Ed showed Jack the pocket sketchbook in which he had been making drawings of  architectural details. This led him to an idea he thought Jack should try out — a way for him to ease back into writing: “Why don’t you sketch in the street like a painter, but with words?”

As an experiment in which nothing was really at stake, “sketching” immediately gave Jack what he most needed — the freedom to write his “interior music” just as it came to him, removing the inhibiting presence in his mind of the imaginary reader.  He was about to discover what he had been looking for — a way to write passages in which he would seize the peak moment of initial inspiration and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.  Sketching would finally dissolve the barrier between poetry and prose.

The day after seeing Ed, Jack took a notebook and walked to Sutphin Boulevard, a skidrow-like area in working-class Jamaica, where he sketched two places that had a time-stopped feeling about them.  The first was an old railroad-car diner permeated by a brown “FOODY” smell that reminded him in a Proustian way of the aroma of countless American diners, of parochial school and hospital kitchens, of greasy hamburger pans soaking in sinks. The next scene he colored in shades of gray, a dilapidated B-movie theater, adjoined by a filthy hotdog stand with its surrounding pavement littered with cigarette butts and chewing gum.  No sign of entropy escaped Jack’s eye — he searched out the broken bulbs behind the holes in the glass facing of the Capricio Theater’s marquee, saw how the diner’s scarred wooden counter resembled “the bottoms of old courtroom  benches.” Without knowing it, he had just written the opening of Visions of Cody. Somehow he’d been able to induce in himself an exceptional state of awareness that gave his portrayals of these scenes a heightened immediacy that went beyond realism.

The act of writing requires entry into a meditative state in which the tension between what the writers knows or feels and the peculiar need to put it into words upon a page can be resolved.  But sketching demanded something more from Jack — abandonment to a “tranced fixation” on the object, a deeper way of dreaming upon what he saw.  “Everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion,” he would explain to Allen Ginsberg, revealing that “sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.” But there seemed to be an inherent danger in becoming what Yeats once called, “a man helpless before the contents of his own mind.” There began to be a palpable tension between the deepening melancholy that made Jack crave alcohol and the addictive exhilaration the intensification of his creative energy was giving him.

Meanwhile, not even alcohol could hold back the discoveries that were transforming his writing.  On October 25th, he went to sketch the old Forty-seventh Street El station.  In the men’s room, the way the yellow-painted walls contrasted with the dark brown woodwork and stamped tin ceiling summoned up a picture in Jack’s mind of the imitation wainscoting he’d noticed in flophouses out west.  When he returned to Richmond Hill, after taking a long walk down the Bowery to Chinatown, he was able to resume his sketching, evoking images of what he’d seen during his walk with no loss of intensity. By the following night he was sure that the sketches in his notebook were far superior to all the “oil” painting he’d been doing for On the Road and that he’d just had the “greatest” of all his Octobers.

 

“TRANCED FIXATIONS” KEROUAC’S BREAKTHROUGH

Standard

“Tranced Fixations” — Kerouac’s Breakthrough

Voice_is_Allbig.jpgThe following is excerpted from The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouacpublished by Viking, 2012.

On October 7, 1951, after a gloomy Sunday when he seemed to be making no progress on the chapters about Neal Cassady he was adding to On the Road,  Jack went to Birdland to hear the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who recently had come into his own as a leading innovator of cool jazz.  During Konitz’s solo in “I Remember April,” which he played as if it were “the room he lived in,” his music sounded “so profoundly interior” to Jack that he was sure very few people would understand it. In fact, he compared Konitz’s extended phrases to the sentences he was writing lately, sentences whose direction seemed mysterious until the “solution” was suddenly unveiled in a way that shed light backward on everything that had preceded it. Admiring Konitz for refusing to make the concessions that would gain him a wider audience, Jack saw that both he and the musician were essentially doing the same thing — attempting to communicate “the unspeakable visions of the individual.” Grabbing a pencil, he scribbled a reminder to himself: “BLOW AS DEEP AS YOU WANT TO BLOW.” It was a rule he would start to follow in his work, despite his continued brooding about his tormenting inability to finish his second novel.

When Jack wasn’t writing in his cell-like basement room, he often roamed the surrounding streets of Richmond Hill, where one day he saw a crowd gathered in an empty lot.  A bloody fetus had been found there, dumped into the weeds in a paper bag. Shaken, he returned home, his reeling thoughts terrifying him, for it seemed he could hold on to none of them, making him wonder about the effect alcohol was having on his brain. If his mind was going, how could he ever finish On the Road?  Unable to calm himself, he broke down into a prayer for forgiveness.  The dead baby apparently reminded him of his guilty role in the conception of the one his ex-wife was carrying. Even the look Jack had been unable to prevent himself from taking at the red flesh of the fetus seemed to contribute to his guilt. He spent the next couple of days convinced he was being punished for his sins by losing the ability to write.

On October 15, Jack was still in a state of panic when he met Ed White in a Chinese restaurant near Columbia. Although Ed assured him his block was only temporary, this did nothing to improve Jack’s mood.  Changing the subject to his own work, Ed showed Jack the pocket sketchbook in which he had been making drawings of  architectural details. This led him to an idea he thought Jack should try out — a way for him to ease back into writing: “Why don’t you sketch in the street like a painter, but with words?”

As an experiment in which nothing was really at stake, “sketching” immediately gave Jack what he most needed — the freedom to write his “interior music” just as it came to him, removing the inhibiting presence in his mind of the imaginary reader.  He was about to discover what he had been looking for — a way to write passages in which he would seize the peak moment of initial inspiration and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.  Sketching would finally dissolve the barrier between poetry and prose.

The day after seeing Ed, Jack took a notebook and walked to Sutphin Boulevard, a skidrow-like area in working-class Jamaica, where he sketched two places that had a time-stopped feeling about them.  The first was an old railroad-car diner permeated by a brown “FOODY” smell that reminded him in a Proustian way of the aroma of countless American diners, of parochial school and hospital kitchens, of greasy hamburger pans soaking in sinks. The next scene he colored in shades of gray, a dilapidated B-movie theater, adjoined by a filthy hotdog stand with its surrounding pavement littered with cigarette butts and chewing gum.  No sign of entropy escaped Jack’s eye — he searched out the broken bulbs behind the holes in the glass facing of the Capricio Theater’s marquee, saw how the diner’s scarred wooden counter resembled “the bottoms of old courtroom  benches.” Without knowing it, he had just written the opening of Visions of Cody. Somehow he’d been able to induce in himself an exceptional state of awareness that gave his portrayals of these scenes a heightened immediacy that went beyond realism.

The act of writing requires entry into a meditative state in which the tension between what the writers knows or feels and the peculiar need to put it into words upon a page can be resolved.  But sketching demanded something more from Jack — abandonment to a “tranced fixation” on the object, a deeper way of dreaming upon what he saw.  “Everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion,” he would explain to Allen Ginsberg, revealing that “sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.” But there seemed to be an inherent danger in becoming what Yeats once called, “a man helpless before the contents of his own mind.” There began to be a palpable tension between the deepening melancholy that made Jack crave alcohol and the addictive exhilaration the intensification of his creative energy was giving him.

Meanwhile, not even alcohol could hold back the discoveries that were transforming his writing.  On October 25th, he went to sketch the old Forty-seventh Street El station.  In the men’s room, the way the yellow-painted walls contrasted with the dark brown woodwork and stamped tin ceiling summoned up a picture in Jack’s mind of the imitation wainscoting he’d noticed in flophouses out west.  When he returned to Richmond Hill, after taking a long walk down the Bowery to Chinatown, he was able to resume his sketching, evoking images of what he’d seen during his walk with no loss of intensity. By the following night he was sure that the sketches in his notebook were far superior to all the “oil” painting he’d been doing for On the Road and that he’d just had the “greatest” of all his Octobers.

Joyce Johnson is widely known for Minor Characters, her memoir about growing up in the 50’s and her personal relationship with Kerouac, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983.  The excerpt is from the latest of her eight books, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, which has just been published by Viking.  The first biography to be based on the material in the Kerouac Archive, it  looks at him as a Franco-American and as a bilingual American writer and tells his story with a focus upon the development of his work through 1951, the year he wrote On the Roadand began Visions of Cody.