Jack Kerouac’s ‘mishmash’ life
and his biographers
None of Kerouac’s biographers are as concise as he was, none of them as poetical as he, and none of them as unapologetic about his seemingly chaotic life as he.
By Jonah Raskin | The Rag Blog | September 27, 2012
More biographies have been written about Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) than about any other American writer who lived in the second half of the twentieth century, but no biographer has written anything as alive and as punchy as Kerouac’s own three-page profile of himself modestly entitled “Author’s Introduction” that can be found at the front of Lonesome Traveler, a collection of his essays about America, Mexico, and Europe.
Of course, he was a genius. (Ann Charters includes it in The Portable Jack Kerouac, a volume of his writings that she edited and that was published by Viking in 1995.) Kerouac’s biographers, even the best of them, have been adept researchers, faithful scribes, dogged investigators, and attentive oral historians but they haven’t had his flair for language or his gift for story telling.
Word-for-word Kerouac outclassed nearly everyone who has tried to capture his furtive life in print and aimed to satisfy the seemingly endless appetite for information about his sex life, his drug consumption, and his hi-jinks on the road with Neal Cassady and others.
Kerouac’s friend and mentor, William Burroughs, the author of the surrealistic novel, Naked Lunch, once said that Kerouac persuaded a generation of Americans to drink espressos and to buy and wear Levis. Forty-three years after his death in 1969, Kerouac’s life style is still contagious and readers are still gobbling up books about him and about his work as though he were the golden boy and the patron saint of post-modern American literature.
Joyce Johnson’s The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012) is the most recent Kerouac biography, and though it weighs in at nearly 500 pages, the author wisely doesn’t call it the definitive biography. She’s much better equipped to write about Kerouac today than anyone else in or out of academia. A scholar who has studied his manuscripts, she’s also an ex-lover who knew him personally in the late 1950s.
Johnson stops her story in 1951 when Kerouac was 29 years old and still had 18 more years to go. Most of Kerouac’s other biographers try to cram his whole life into one volume; readers often feel like they’re swimming in a sea of details and can’t recognize the shore or the main currents. Johnson always provides signs and signals that provide a sense of direction. She frequently says, “for the first time…” — and that’s helpful.
The publication of Johnson’s not definitive biography offers the opportunity to reconsider Kerouac’s previous biographies, including Paul Mayer’s Kerouac that he unwisely calls “definitive.” It’s definitely not definitive.
It’s also a good time to reflect on the larger subject of Kerouac and the art of biography itself. It feels like it’s now or never especially with three Jack Kerouac movies due to hit movie screens including Walter Salles’s cinematic version of On the Road, which will probably blur the already blurry distinctions between biography and fiction that Kerouac himself created by writing what he called “true-story novels.”
He made that statement in the three-page self-portrait at the front of Lonesome Traveler in which he also noted that he wrote On The Road in three weeks, a statement that Johnson argues persuasively is patently false. Speed mattered to Kerouac: writing fast and driving fast. Spontaneity mattered, too, though his speedy, spontaneous life style and his rapid consumption of alcoholism contributed to his death at 47.
But his early death is also part of his continuing appeal; he didn’t live long enough to betray his own youthful dreams and sense of innocence.
According to Beat scholar Ronna Johnson, who keeps count, there are 21 Kerouac biographies. They include: Tom Clark’s Jack Kerouac: A Biography, Gerald Nicosia’s Memory Babe, Ann Charters’s Kerouac: A Biography, Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac, Victor-Levy Beaulieu’s, Jack Kerouac: A Chicken Essay, Robert Hipkiss’s Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism, Dennis McNally’s Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America, Barry Miles’s Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, Warren French’s Jack Kerouac, Steve Turner’s Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster, and Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s, Jack Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac.
They all add to the Kerouac legend, and sometimes they shed light on Kerouac, too, though they’re often hagiography, not biography.
In some ways, Gifford’s and Lee’s 1978 book, which is still in print, is the most user friendly because it offers the voices of Kerouac’s friends, lovers, and editors — Lucien Carr, Carolyn Cassady, and Malcolm Cowley to name just a few — and leaves it to readers to sit in the biographer’s chair and put all the pieces together.
Everyone can have his or her own version of Kerouac. Steve Turner’s biography Angelhead Hipster — the title comes from Ginsberg’s poem Howl — has lots of photos of Kerouac, including one that shows him looking happy on a Montreal TV station in 1967, but for the most part Turner repeats the same old stories.
But that’s what nearly all of Kerouac’s biographers do. Many of the stories — such as Kerouac’s first meeting with Neal Cassady, who inspired the Dean Moriarity character in On the Road — are lifted entirely or in part from Kerouac’s novels, which means they aren’t the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They’re somewhere between fact and fiction, legend and history.
All of Kerouac’s biographers see aspects of him, whether it’s his spirituality, sexuality, or his duality, but none of them see as many different aspects as he saw of himself. No one has ever combined as creatively as he managed to combine, and in three pages no less, all the many congruent and incongruent aspects of his life into a kind of cubist self-portrait.
Kerouac saw himself as a man of nearly a dozen identities: an adventurer, lonesome traveler, hobo, exile, verse poet, mystic, drug taker, and solipsist. He was never just one thing. He didn’t even allow that he was an American pure and simple. He was a “Franco-American,” he insisted.
In the three-page self-portrait that he entitled “Author’s Introduction” he kept adding more adjectives to describe himself, finishing with an image of himself as “independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.” It was characteristic of him not to use commas. He never did care for conventional punctuation. Indeed, one could probably write a biography of Kerouac focusing on his grammar, his use of colons, semi-colons, and periods. They say a lot about his feeling for language, his sense of rhythm, and the spoken word.
The first rule for biographers, of course, is not to allow the subject of the biography to dictate the theme, the tone, or the meaning of the life. One wouldn’t want to be bound by Kerouac’s own outline of his brief, frenetic life. There are essentials he didn’t include, like the fact that he never learned to drive a car. Gerald Nicosia provides that nugget in Memory Babe. But Kerouac’s resume is a gift that no biographer would want to neglect, either.
None of Kerouac’s biographers are as concise as he was, none of them as poetical as he, and none of them as unapologetic about his seemingly chaotic life as he. He wasn’t embarrassed to say that his life was rudderless, directionless, and that he would go “anywhere.” His biographers have been intent on finding direction, goals, and meaning.
While Kerouac claimed in his three-page self-portrait that he had a “beautiful childhood,” most of his biographers have detected tragedy and deep troubles: the poverty of his exiled French-Canadian family, the death of his older brother, Gerard, and his father’s alcoholism. Biographers might go back to his childhood, see it through his eyes and through the eyes of his parents, too, as much as possible.
In his “Author’s Introduction,” Kerouac gave many of the essential biographical details about himself: birth on March 12, 1922; student at Columbia College from 1940 to 1942; his first novel, The Town and the City written from 1946 to 1948 and published in 1950. But he gave more than the bare facts. He gave background and he provided interpretations and insights.
Thus, he describes his father as a printer who was “soured in last years over Roosevelt and World War II.” Of his mother, he wrote that she “enabled me to write as much as I did.” Indeed, he depended on her. Kerouac mentions the death of his brother Gerard at age nine, and he acknowledges the influence on his writing of American and French authors such as Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Thomas Wolfe.
London’s impact on Kerouac is often downplayed, though his compact, lyrical 1984 biography, Tom Clark offers a pithy quotation from Kerouac about London. Kerouac called him “the greatest man that ever lived” and “the greatest union of the adventurer and the writer.” Clark also ends his unconventional though refreshing biography with a poem entitled “Jazz for Jack” in which he describes the author hitting the city, listening to jazz, and writing in his notebook.
What’s perhaps most striking about Kerouac’s three-page creative resume is the long list of occupations and jobs that he held and that no biographer has used to paint a comprehensive portrait of Kerouac as a worker. He toiled, he noted, as a scullion and deckhand on ships, gas station attendant, railroad yard clerk, cotton-picker, forest service fire lookout, construction laborer, “script synopsizer” for 20th-Century Fox’ and newspaper sports writer.
About all of his jobs and occupations he was proud. None were too lowly to mention. All of them together — with the exception of his job for 20th-century Fox — suggest his affinities with the proletarian writers of the 1930s, and his sense of solidarity with the hobos, tramps, and migrant laborers of the Depression.
Of course, Kerouac didn’t include everything and everyone in his three-page account of his own life. There was no way he could in that short a space. His exploration and embrace of Buddhism in the 1950s doesn’t elicit a single word. Then, too, he did not, for example, say anything about his Beat friends from New York and Columbia in the 1940s. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs do not appear, nor his wives and girlfriends, nor his daughter Jan.
Next to “Married” he wrote “Nah” and next to “Children” he wrote “No.” He was clearly in denial, though he made his brief resume with its many facts and ample details look honest and candid. Under “Special” he wrote “Girls.” He didn’t deny that he had an interest in the opposite sex or in sex itself, but he didn’t want to name names. There were too many women to name.
In 1960, when he wrote his “Author’s Introduction,” he was also eager to cut the ties he once had to Ginsberg and Burroughs, and to the Beat Generation itself. He didn’t like being called “The King of the Beats.” Beat pauper was more his style, since he identified with the down-and-outers.
So, he wrote that he was “actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.” It’s as useful a label as any other. Moreover, he pointed out that he had a basic complaint about the “contemporary world.” What irked him most of all was “the facetiousness of ‘respectable’ people” who were “destroying old human feelings older than Time Magazine.”
Despite all his jobs and occupations that brought him into the work-a-day-world, he had a profound sense of himself as a solitary being and disgruntled, too. Kerouac’s solitariness is in large measure what draws readers to him, but it’s not the only factor.
Readers are also moved by his profound longing for the “old human feelings older than Time Magazine,” by which he means love, friendship, comradeship, and loyalty which he saw quickly eroding in the “sinister new kind of efficiency” that began, he thought, during the Korean War and that were in some ways, “the result of the universalization of Television.” (He didn’t write those words in the “Author’s Introduction, but in his 1957 essay “About the Beat Generation.”)
Like Burroughs and Ginsberg, he could sound conspiratorial. Ideologies and “isms” repelled him, but he was innately political and keenly aware of inequalities of wealth, power, and the force of cultural conformity.
Kerouac’s many biographers have tended to make it seem as though they discovered all on their own the hidden, secret, and subterranean life of their subject. But Kerouac revealed himself as a mystic, Catholic, “lascivious” rake, hobo, football player, worker, and more. He didn’t say “erotic” or “sexual.” He said “lascivious.” It seems as apt as any word to describe his frenetic sexual activity.
He also offered valuable clues about himself, many of which have never been pursued. His main writing teacher, he claimed, was his mother Gabrielle; “learned all about natural story-telling from her long stories about Montreal and New Hampshire,” he wrote. No biographer seems to have taken that claim seriously or to have investigated it and described it, perhaps because it’s too simple and obvious and because his mother wasn’t a published writer.
No one has been willing to say that Kerouac had a “mishmash” of a life, as he himself insisted, or that he was an abject failure as a father, a husband, and perhaps as a son, too, though he was profoundly loyal to his mother and father. Kerouac’s biographers have wanted Kerouac to be an angel — sometimes fallen, sometimes not — and a saint, too. They have dressed him up in a heroic suit of clothes that doesn’t really fit him.
Of course, biographers don’t get paid and they aren’t published for writing about mishmashes, but rather for creating a sense of order, for imposing pattern, finding links, and offering psychological interpretations that put all the pieces together.
Joyce Johnson puts the pieces together with the help of Sigmund Freud. Kerouac, she wrote, had an “Oedipal complex” with his mother that affected his relationship with other women. But what American writer worth his very soul didn’t have a real or an imaginary Oedipal relationship with his mother, and what difference did it or didn’t it make to the writing itself? Probably none. Oedipus complexes don’t seem to help writers write or be published.
Johnson does a better job as a biographer when she discusses Kerouac’s life as a writer typing his endless sentences than when she plays amateur psychologist and shows him tied to his mother’s apron strings. She’s not the only biographer in that regard. For 40 years, biographers have enjoyed psychoanalyzing the author of On the Road.
To a large extent, they have missed the essential Kerouac: Franco-American disreputable mishmash literary genius no commas. Perhaps one day a biographer will use Kerouac’s snapshots of himself as portals into his life and work. Meanwhile, there’s the “Author’s Introduction” to Lonesome Traveler that sums up poetically the literary travels of a novelist who expressed the angst and ecstasy of the Beat Generation and nearly every generation since.
[Jonah Raskin, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, and the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]