An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer.
With unprecedented access to the New York Public Library’s extensive Berg Collection of Kerouac artifacts, Johnson (Missing Men, 2005, etc.) tells the familiar story of the rise of the reluctant “king of the Beats” through the unfamiliar lens of his notebooks, manuscripts and correspondence with family, friends, lovers, editors and writers. The collection was unavailable to scholars for three decades, and access to it is still tightly controlled by the Kerouac estate. Johnson uses her opportunity as a pioneer in this new era of Kerouac scholarship to turn a laser-sharp focus on Kerouac’s evolving ideas about language, fiction vs. truth and the role of the writer in his time. She ends her chronology in late 1951, as Kerouac found the voice and method he’d employ for the rest of his brief career while seeking a publisher for On the Road and working on the novel he considered his masterpiece, Visions of Cody. While still detailing the chaotic and occasionally tragic events of the writer’s life—from mill-town football hero to multiply divorced dipsomaniac mama’s boy/cult idol—Johnson’s focus allows her to trace a trajectory of success rather than follow his painfully familiar decline into alcoholism and premature death. “[T]o me,” she writes, “what is important is Jack’s triumph in arriving at the voice that matched his vision.” Of perhaps most interest was her discovery of just how important his French-Canadian heritage was to Kerouac’s sense of identity. He considered its earthy patois his native language and seems to have translated his thoughts from it into the muscular English with which he’s associated. There’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer.
A triumph of scholarship.