One Point Three

<i> Joyce Johnson is the author of the Beat memoir "Minor Characters," which won a 1983 National Book Critics Circle award. Her other books include "In the Night Cafe" and "What Lisa Knew."</i>

Some truths about Jack Kerouac have been known for quite some time. He never found the absolute freedom he set out in search of in “On the Road” or the Word brought by the prophet who had walked across the land or the one perfect girl at the end of the journey. He was a compulsive wanderer or, less romantically, a homeless person--and remained homeless in his soul, even when he could finally afford to buy houses to live in. He was a passionate friend but was afraid of love. He was a grown man who could neither separate from his mother nor deal with the fame he finally achieved after bitter years of obscurity. He refused to become the leader of the Beat Generation, leaving that role to Allen Ginsberg. He was a genius who could write amazing bebop sentences that danced on the page--and who drank himself to death at the age of 47. (“Anyone,” Kerouac’s friend the novelist John Clellon Holmes once astutely observed, “who remembered everything would have to drink.”)

If you want to get a sense of what Kerouac was really like, no extant biography will tell you. Even his closest friends found him elusive, contradictory, always in flux. Jack could be wonderful and awful; at times he behaved unforgivably, yet you would ultimately have to forgive him. Read Holmes, Ginsberg, William Burroughs on Kerouac--they all speak of his innate gentleness and compassion, his extreme vulnerability. For the biographer, Kerouac is as difficult a subject as Henry James or Virginia Woolf, but unfortunately no one with the stature of a Leon Edel or a Hermione Lee has as yet examined his life.

Over the years, I have come to read Kerouac biographies in an admittedly idiosyncratic way. I turn first to the index and look for references to my younger self, Joyce Glassman, that 21-year-old Jewish blond who became involved with Kerouac in 1957, nine months before the publication of “On the Road.” Since I wrote down everything I could remember about this relationship in my 1983 memoir “Minor Characters,” I also search for references to that book. If the biographers have interviewed me, of course I am always curious about how they used the material. This approach may sound narcissistic, but actually it has proven quite informative. Books have chronic failings. If there is sloppiness or distortion in one area, chances are the same problems will crop up in other places.


Recently I was sent the galleys of two forthcoming works, “Subterranean Kerouac” by Ellis Amburn, 436 pages of steamy innuendo, and the suspiciously slender “Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats” by Barry Miles. Each purported to reveal the dark hidden truth about the legendary, iconic figure who weirdly enough became part of my own history. I opened the skinny biography first. Miles seemed terribly sorry for me for ever having gotten entangled with a man of such hopelessly bad character, not to mention homoerotic tendencies--much sorrier than I’ve ever felt for myself. In fact, I have always felt the richer for having loved Jack Kerouac, although I am glad I did not marry him.

I noticed immediately that Miles had done very little firsthand research and was relying too heavily on previous biographies, for there was an error in the text that has annoyed me ever since I first came across it in 1979 in Dennis McNally’s “Desolate Angel” and found it repeated almost word for word in Gerald Nicosia’s “Memory Babe” (1983). According to all three of these gallant biographers, Jack insensitively used the backs of pages from the manuscript of my first novel to write letters to his pals. In actuality, the pages he used were ones I had tossed into the wastebasket; Jack always gave me great encouragement about my writing but teased me about my endless rewrites; I used to tease him about his thrifty reluctance to use fresh paper. But now this original error of McNally’s has evidently achieved the status of a fact; after all, it has been printed in three books.

“Our power of documentation,” Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote in an essay on a questionable biography of Katherine Anne Porter, “has a monstrous life of its own, a greater vivacity than any lived existence. It makes form out of particles and finds attitude in a remembered drunken remark as easily as in a long contemplation of experience.”

I found “remembered drunken remarks” all through my reading of Amburn’s “Subterranean Kerouac.” This book by Kerouac’s last editor gives lip service to the idea that Jack was bisexual, which I suppose he was, but what Amburn would really like to prove is that Kerouac was gay and used women only as a substitute for intercourse with men. Set upon outing Kerouac, Amburn recklessly presents tidbits of gossip and hearsay relating to Kerouac’s sexuality as if they are to be taken as truth. “Kerouac’s father was a pansy,” he quotes Gore Vidal as saying. But Vidal never met Kerouac’s father. Kerouac was “hung like a cigarette butt,” Amburn reveals, according to a gay painter named John Button. Sorry Ellis, it’s just not true.

Then there are all the confidences we are told Kerouac vouchsafed to Amburn during the editing of “Desolation Angels” and “Vanity of Duluoz” (these were the days when Amburn got “cold chills” each time Jack called him at Coward McCann). He opens the biography with a quote from a letter Kerouac wrote to him in 1967: “I was torn between Carolyn and Neal [Cassady] and I married Stella [Sampas] because she’s Sammy’s sister. Figure that out and you’ve got the secret to my life and work.” In another letter, shown to me by the Kerouac estate but not included in this biography, Kerouac found it necessary to remind his intrusive editor that “I never was or wanted to be a homosexual.”

Many alleged Kerouac quotes, conveniently supporting Amburn’s thesis, come from conversations Amburn has seemingly been able to recall word for word. Whenever I see too much verbatim dialogue in a nonfiction work, I get suspicious. People don’t remember what others said years ago in that manner. Was Amburn illegally taping Kerouac’s phone calls or writing down every word he said, already preparing for his future expose? Or was much of this “remembered” dialogue made up? “ANEC[dote] DA [Desolation Angels]” or “ANEC [dote] VD [Vanity of Duluoz]” was all the footnotes indicated.

When I read Amburn’s account of my affair with Jack, I found myself caught in a postmodern nightmare watching my reality dissolve into fiction. I found evidence that Amburn had consulted my memoir because many details had been taken from it. But he had not found my version of the story useful to him because it depicted a Kerouac who could sustain a heterosexual relationship and was even capable of tenderness toward a woman despite his pain and confusion. So Amburn configured the material to suggest that at the tender age of 21, I had somehow managed to trap the 34-year-old Kerouac into staying with me against his will. Amburn leads off his treatment of this relationship by putting into print a mistaken assertion by John Sampas, the literary executor of the Kerouac estate, that Kerouac was seeing me and two other women simultaneously, although the chronology of the three affairs is made clear not only in several previous Kerouac biographies but in both “Minor Characters” and “Desolation Angels.” Kerouac’s novel also happens to contain an expression of deep retrospective affection for my fictional counterpart, Alyce Newman. Although Amburn informs his readers that he has relied upon Kerouac’s “fictional nonfiction sources” and even claims that he has attempted “to cross-check everything,” he apparently preferred not to give credence to this particular passage from the novel he edited or even to find it worthy of further inquiry.

“Subterranean Kerouac” left me with the distinct impression that Amburn was projecting his own sexual obsessions upon Kerouac. He even sexualizes the major trauma of Jack’s life, the death of his 9-year-old brother, Gerard, when Jack was 4. On the basis of no factual information, Amburn describes Gerard as “a rather nasty brat who slapped Ti-Jean [Jack’s nickname] around without mercy.” One paragraph later, in the same sentence, Amburn sees Gerard as “frail and neurotic” and then as “an earthy, lusty boy, obsessed with the little ‘dingdong.’ ” Next we learn that Gerard doted upon his younger brother but “turned him into a helpless emotional hostage,” and finally Amburn speculates that the dying Gerard sexually assaulted Jack in the middle of the night.

In the following chapter, Amburn doubts that Jack could have actually fallen in love with his adolescent sweetheart, Mary Carney, because Carney does not appear upon a list of women Kerouac slept with. (Never mind that nice Catholic girls did not go to bed with their boyfriends in the early 1940s.) He therefore asserts that “Maggie Cassidy,” the novel Kerouac wrote about this teenage romance, was really about his sexual desire for his best friend, Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas.

Amburn even seems reluctant to believe that Jack could have possibly fathered a child, implying that the blood test, the court records and the late Jan Kerouac’s startling resemblance to Jack are insufficient evidence.

As I read on in “Subterranean Kerouac,” I began to reflect upon the ways in which biographical fabrication can stop just short of sheer fiction. A responsible biographer would make every effort to ensure that he had an accurate account of his subject’s life. In Kerouac’s case, an opportunistic writer confronted with a wealth of anecdotal material--much of it unverifiable or from unreliable sources--can select, edit, arrange or delete according to his own agenda and still have enough to cram the pages of a book. All the little distortions, all the lines from unpublished archival material quoted out of context with strategic ellipses, can be manipulated to add up to a big lie, substantiated by authentic-looking footnotes that lead to nothing any reader would actually find accessible. Responsible Kerouac scholars, such as Ann Charters, have always warned that it would be unwise to take Kerouac’s autobiographical novels as the absolute truth. But within this area of doubt, a less scrupulous biographer can flourish with great freedom, presenting all the material that suits his purposes as true, suppressing whatever seems contradictory or “exposing” it as a mere fiction or cover-up.

After all, why bother with accuracy or balance when you’re dealing with someone like Kerouac? Unlike Robert Lowell or John Berryman or Dylan Thomas or even Truman Capote--all of whom were also notorious for outrageous alcoholic behavior--Kerouac has yet to rise above the status of a literary outlaw. He is still excluded from the literary canon, despite the worldwide popularity of his books.

Fortunately for Amburn and Miles, Kerouac is dead and so is his faithful defender Ginsberg, who among other things never believed that Kerouac was truly gay and compassionately understood that Jack’s expressions of virulent prejudice in his last years came out of his despair and his descent into alcoholic rage and madness. In my own two years with Kerouac, I never heard him make an anti-Semitic, racist or homophobic comment, nor did the Jewish composer and jazz musician David Amram, who remained Jack’s friend until the end of his life.

But the printed word, as Hardwick also observed, has “a heavy, obdurate permanency.” Perhaps that is one reason why the shoddy efforts of Miles and Amburn have already been taken seriously. Writing for the New York Times, Dinitia Smith found them image-changing works. She seemed snowed by the pious political correctness of the two writers, although if she had read Amburn more carefully, she might have been as offended as I was by his blatant contempt for the women in Kerouac’s life.

Unlike Miles, Amburn did make efforts to dredge up some new material but actually found relatively little of any real consequence or authority. He claims he conducted 500 interviews. Apparently, he spoke chiefly to Kerouac’s boyhood friends in Lowell, Mass., to numerous barroom acquaintances from the last years of Jack’s life, to Jack’s Florida neighbors and to various publishing people. But these is no indication that he actually interviewed most of those who knew Kerouac intimately during the crucial ‘40s and ‘50s, including Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg and Burroughs, who were alive when he began his research. He avoided contacting most of the women who had been involved with Jack; I certainly did not get a call from him, although during the ‘80s we worked at the same publishing conglomerate.

Amburn and his publisher try to create the impression that he had unprecedented access to the unpublished letters and journals in the Kerouac archives in Lowell, but according to John Sampas, the archives were off-limits to Amburn just as they have been to most of his predecessors over the last 30 years. “I did show him nine Xeroxed pages,” Sampas volunteered when I called him. Among these pages was a list Kerouac had kept, recording his sexual contacts with women and the number of times he had slept with each of them. “You’re right up there,” Sampas assured me cheerily. Kerouac’s aide-memoire became Amburn’s most frequently consulted primary source, allowing him to rate the success of Kerouac’s heterosexual relationships according to the number of copulations, as if there was no other valid indicator of their nature or quality. According to Amburn’s ludicrous mathematical calculations, one of Kerouac’s all-time best relationships was with the Mexican prostitute who inspired the novel “Tristessa”; he had sex with her 1.3 times a day. For some reason, Amburn refrained from revealing what they did during the .3.

One day, let us hope, there will be a truly definitive, standard-setting biography of Jack Kerouac, drawing upon all the material in the archive he meticulously maintained even when there was chaos in every other area of his life. As death-haunted as Jack was, he never stopped believing in the immortality of the Word.

Perhaps Douglas Brinkley, author of the recent biography of Jimmy Carter, “The Unfinished Presidency,” will be the one to give us this now desperately needed book, since he recently reached an agreement with the estate allowing him complete, uncensored access to Kerouac’s papers. In the 1970s, the journalist Aaron Latham had a similar exclusive arrangement but after five years failed to produce a manuscript. All subsequent biographers, starting with Ann Charters, have had to proceed without being allowed to quote from any of the crucial unpublished material--a restriction even extended to memoirists, as I found in 1983 when I was denied permission to use in “Minor Characters” any of the two dozen Kerouac letters that are part of my own story. If some of them had been in print, Amburn would have had less leeway 15 years later to play with the facts.

The vacuum that has been created has left far too much room for sensationalistic books that now threaten to erode Kerouac’s reputation at the very moment that important critics such as Ann Douglas are at last beginning to establish Kerouac’s rightful place in American letters. I am impatiently waiting for Douglas to finish her book on the cultural developments of the 1950s, for the second volume of Kerouac’s “Selected Letters” edited by Ann Charters, which will be available in 1999, and for the publication of the Kerouac journals in 2001, which Brinkley has been assigned to edit.

Meanwhile there is lots of Kerouac to read. Whenever I return to his “true life” novels, I forgive him all over again for whatever pain he caused me and I don’t give a damn about how literally accurate any of his books are, although maybe his journals will shed some interesting light upon that question. It’s the sweetness in his voice that always gets me, and the melancholy and the eagerness he had when he was young to show everyone how “excited about life” he felt.


Titles Mentioned in This Essay

ON THE ROAD. By Jack Kerouc (Penguin: 320 pp., $5.95 paper)

MAGGIE CASSIDY. By Jack Kerouc (Penguin: 202 pp., $12.95 paper)

TRISTESSA. By Jack Kerouc (Penguin: 96 pp., $10.95 paper)

DESOLATION ANGELS. By Jack Kerouc (Riverhead: 432 pp., $12 paper)

VANITY OF DULOUZ. By Jack Kerouc (Penguin: 272 pp., $12.95 paper)

VISIONS OF CODY. By Jack Kerouc (Penguin: 414 pp., $13.95 paper)

JACK KEROUC: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 (Viking: 656 pp., $15.95 paper)

SUBTERRANEAN KEROUC: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouc. By Ellis Amburn (St. Martin’s: 436 pp., $27.95)

JACK KEROUC: King of the Beats. By Barry Miles (Henry Holt: forthcoming)

DESOLATE ANGEL: A Biography Jack Kerouc, the Beat Generation & America. By Dennis McNally (Doubleday: 416 pp., $12.95)

MEMORY BABE: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouc. By Gerald Nicosia (Penguin: 768 pp., $9.95 paper)

KEROUC: A Biography. By Ann Charters (St. Martin’s: 432 pp., $15.95 paper)

MINOR CHARACTERS: A Young Woman’s Coming of Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouc. By Joyce Johnson (Anchor Books: 288 pp., $12)