When the new Sinclair Lewis biography was published in 2002, John Updike wondered what had the long-passed author done to deserve a new five-hundred-and-fifty-four page dedication? Readers must ask a similar question about Joyce Johnson’s latest work about Jack Kerouac, The Voice is All. Not only did the poster child for the Beat Movement write primarily autobiographical works, but it is not the first book Johnson has written on the iconic author – see Minor Characters and Door Wide Open.
In the Introduction, Johnson admits most of Kerouac’s work is little known outside of On the Road. As a change of pace, the area of life emphasized in the biography sheds lights on the origins and life preceeding the publication of the celebrated novel. Though Ms. Johnson is not without the benefit of hindsight. Fellow biographers and writers read with envy at the unbelievably attained and enormous amount of anecdotes contained between the binding. Thanks to this more than admirable amount of research, an omnipresent structure emerges that enlarges the knowledge of long time Kerouac fans and first time readers:
“Miss Mansfield ran an after-school Scribblers’ Club that Jack had heard about from a sixth grader named Sebastian Sampas, whom he had once protected from some school bullies. Like Jack, Sebastian was beginning to write poetry. He was small, precocious, acutely sensitive, and a great reader, unlike any other boy Jack had run into. With the newfound confidence Miss Dineen had given him, he went with Sebastian to the Scribblers’ Club. When he showed Miss Mansfield a story he had written about an Irish copy, at first she couldn’t believe he had written it himself, but quickly she took him under her wing and sometimes borrowed his stories to read to the English class she taught Miss Mansfield introduced Jack to ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and the ‘Iliad’. That year he joined the Lowell Public Library, where he headed every Saturday, coming home each time with an armload of books.”
Johnson’s past works, on one-time lover and friend Kerouac, have an inherent personal tone, expressing opinion on the writer’s actions and words. The Voice is All once again takes a different stride from former prose to establish distance, a voluntary absence. Johnson proves powerful in this alternative approach by separating bias, yet still writing with emotion:
“Jack had told her a baby was out of the question, but by the time she returned to New York to pack her things, he may have been starting to change his mind. He asked her to meet him on the rooftop of Lucien’s building. She has assumed they would be talking about a divorce, but instead Jack surprised her by demanding, ‘What if I said you could have the baby? What then?’ When she told him she didn’t need or want his permission, he turned away as if he had been slapped and went downstairs, and she heard him yelling to Lucien that he was not responsible for her kid and never wanted to hear about it again. Joan was so sure of Jack’s indifference that she didn’t realize or care that she’d given him a devastating blow. He was a man who’d had a dream of family, whose own child would be a stranger to him. Although Jack had never had the kind of feelings for JOan that he’d had for Sarah Yokely, their relationship had given him something he needed badly. For a brief time during their months on Twentieth Street he had almost found a way to live with a degree of normalcy between the stark polarities of solitude and binge. The utter failure of this marriage would end his attempts to find that balance in his daily life.”
It is the synthesis of these two elements – the omnipresent structure and balanced tone – that complete such a biography as The Voice is All. Kerouac’s life unfolds like an engaging narrative in these carefully chosen vignettes and anecdotes. The book proves much more than simply a document of the iconic author and the Beat movement, but rather a framework, personality and soul from a period in history:
“The Violent talk that shocked Temko arose from the conscious effort of those who lived in Apartment 51 to bring about a communion of souls in which what Jack called ‘Ultimate Reality’ could be explored. IN their urgent revelatory exchanges with one another, everything was out on the table – or rather out on the Oriental cover of Joan’s big bed in the living room., where they had taken to sprawling in an incestuous tangle of bodies, creating a zone where anything unmentionable could be mentioned without shame. As Allen listened to his friends’ stories – as they spoke of ‘their faggishness, or their campiness, or their neurasthenia, or their solitude, or their goofiness, or even…their masculinity,” he realized what he was hearing was everything left out of the literature and discoursed sanctioned by the official culture. There was a profound difference between the way they were talking to one another on Joan’s bed, ‘heart to heart,’ and the pronouncements of university professors or public figures for whom consciousness was only theoretical. Were they living in a real America, Allen wondered, or ‘in the midst of a vast American hallucination” where a sensitive human being like Huncke was hounded by the police and considered a criminal?”
Joyce Johnson met Kerouac through a “blind date” set up by Allen Ginsberg in 1956. While only involved with the autor for two years, ending in 1958, Johnson would posthumously publish – while working as an editor at McGraw-Hill – Visions of Cody (“which is the novel that meant most to him”); as well as become characterized as Alyce Newman in Jack’s Desolation Angels. If my opinion isn’t obvious, The Voice is All is an amazing read, by far my new favorite biography. Johnson wonderfully illustrates that even though it is her third account of Kerouac and The Beat movement – there is always room for more.