And the Beats Go On...
Joyce Johnson drums up new interest in Kerouac with a fresh volume of “Dear Jack” letters
One critic sourced his writings to “a slob running a temperature.” Another suggested his spontaneous prose was nothing more than “typewriting.” But detractors never managed to kill literary interest in Jack Kerouac, who ranks right up there — almost — with American icons James Dean and Elvis. The “King of the Beats” is just as relevant today as he was when he wrote about bumming across the country under the influence of bad boys and Benzedrine. Forty-three years after its revolutionary publication, On the Road still speaks to the young and the restless — to the tune of 125,000 copies a year.
You could say Joyce Johnson, née Galssman, came along for the ride. But in fact she did very little traveling during her 22-month relationship with Kerouac. It was extraordinary enough in 1957 that she lived alone in New York City, held a job in publishing, and, at the ripe old age of 21, shacked up with a homeless writer based on a single blind date arranged by poet Allen Ginsberg. While Kerouac hurtled from Morocco to San Francisco to Mexico to Florida, in a state of artistic agitation, Johnson’s “beat” was Manhattan. Whenever they were apart — which was most of the time — the couple exchanged letters, by turns funny, sweet, philosophical, eloquent, intimate and crazed.
Johnson, now a part-time Vermonter, made regular reference to those missives in her 1983 book Minor Characters. The excellent coming-of-age memoir is about the women who loved, waited on and, in some cases, died for the brainy boy gang that included Kerouac, Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr and Neal Cassady. But she wasn’t able to quote directly from them. The Kerouac estate forbade it. Referencing U.S. copyright law, Kerouac’s widow, Stella, “said ‘no’ to everyone,” Johnson recalls. Ironically, the absence of primary source material made Minor Characters a stronger book. Its rare, uniquely female point of view makes it required reading for Beat buffs.
Johnson has since written plenty of articles, introductions and essays about her famous boyfriend who in Desolation Angels describes her as “a Jewess, elegant middle-class sad and looking for something — she looked Polish as hell.” But she had no intention of writing another book about him. That is, until the letters she wrote to him materialized — missing missives that Stella had never mentioned. It turns out that Kerouac was not so spontaneous about archiving as he was about writing, travel and digging girls. He kept files of letters from his friends as well as pre-Xerox-era copies of many of the ones he sent to other people.
When Stella Kerouac died in the early ’90s, control of her husband’s literary legacy went to her younger brother. Two years ago, John Sampas called to inform Johnson her letters to Kerouac had been found. At the same time, Johnson recalls, “He said, ‘Your letters are very interesting. Maybe if you put them together with Jack’s you’d have a book.’”
For that advice, and access to his brother-in-law’s letters, the Kerouac estate will get a significant percentage of the royalties from Johnson’s latest work. Door Wide Open, A Beat Love Affair in Letters 1957-1958, is a reconstruction of the epistolary exchange between literary lovers.
Unlike so many collections of correspondence, which are tedious and dry, Door Wide Open captures all the dangerous exuberance of the bicoastal Beat movement. The letters are revelatory not just as cultural references — Johnson might write about hearing John Coltrane, for example, or stopping down at the Cedar Tavern to see Franz Kline or Willem de Kooing — but as evidence of a rare dynamic between two emerging writers. Smart, sane and practical, the young Johnson writes like a bohemian-in-training, mixing practice information and musings in letters clearly designed not to scare off her pen pal. His wild, run-on replies, from all over the world, offer intimate insights into the troubled, egocentric mind of a self-destructing American artist.
Linking the letters, which are arranged chronologically, Johnson provides narrative that tells it like it was. The San Francisco censorship of Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl.” The crush of celebrity that followed publication of On The Road. The Oedipal draw of Kerouac’s smothering mother. Told from the distance of four decades — with the benefit of wisdom, hindsight and a lot more information about her bygone boyfriend — Johnson’s is an honest account, with no bitterness or self-pity. Twice she packed her bags to join Kerouac elsewhere, only to get word at the last minute that he had decided to move on. But Johnson writes generously, “I still regret that I couldn’t move faster than Jack Kerouac could change his mind.”
At the time, that was a tall order. And Johnson has been through a lot since she cooked eggs sunny-side-up for a hung-over honey who was recently featured in Gap commercials: two painter husbands, one of whom died in a motorcycle accident; the birth of a son, now a 34-year-old writer in Greenwich Village; eight years as executive editor at Dial Press; three novels and a controversial book about a high-profile child-abuse case, for which she was pitted against Gloria Steinem on “Larry King Live.” But Johnson’s Kerouac connection refuses to die — and there is some poetic justice in that. Next up is a dramatic version of Door Wide Open, which will be staged in New York this fall by the theater company run by actor Rip Torn.
Fifteen years ago, Johnson, now 64, bought a shack in the central Vermont woods, just the kind of refuge Kerouac fantasized about in his wanderings. The purchase necessitated a big step: As a middle-aged adult, the native New Yorker had to learn to drive. Commuting between Cabot and Manhattan has put plenty of miles on her car. But she is on the road, at last. Johnson talked about her new book from New York, two days before her next scheduled trip to Vermont … this time, in the driver’s seat.
Seven Days: If you had access to all the letters at the time, is this the book you would have written in 1983?
Joyce Johnson: I certainly would have used some of this material, and it would have refreshed my memory on certain points. But Minor Characters takes a much broader view. It’s really a memoir of my growing up as well as my time with the Beat generation. This book specifically focuses on my love affair with Jack.
SD: So what’s here that wasn’t in Minor Characters?
JJ: A lot of detail, small detail, and the texture about the relationship. The sense of the back and forth between us. So much of the relationship was actually in these letters because Jack would come and go. He’d be in New York for a couple of weeks and then we’d be writing to each other. And I think they are very revealing as far as Kerouac is concerned, to see him in the middle of a relationship with a woman — how he goes forward and pulls back. His geographical confusion, his inability to hold to any plan, the bad shape he was in before the publication of On The Road. His doubts, feeling like at times he couldn’t write.
He’d be in his “Starry Night Ecstasies,” as he called them, and then crash again. It was a real pattern for him. All the changes of mind about where he wanted to be had nothing to do with me. It was about his inability to be comfortable anywhere on Earth, at that time. He was in no shape to handle the celebrity that would come to him. A lot of the attention was hostile and humiliating. It ruined him. It came between him and his writing.
SD: An epistolary memoir? That sure sounds like a hard sell…
JJ: In most books of letters you get the story from one side. I edited a book of letters between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren, but there were hardly any letters from him. You couldn’t see what she was reacting to. I had to read a biography to figure out what was going on. I think it’s much better to do the back and forth. It comes to life.
SD: You have a lot more to go on here.
JJ: I think I have a better understanding of Kerouac than I did when I wrote Minor Characters, because there has been so much new material coming out about him. I have read his Selected Letters very, very carefully. I know things now I didn’t know when I wrote Minor Characters.
SD: That must be weird.
JJ: It’s a strange position to be in — not only knowing all about Jack’s relationship with me but his relationship to other people, learning what was really going on. Some of what I discovered wasn’t very pleasant.
SD: Do you feel a sense of betrayal, 40 years later?
JJ: It doesn’t hurt me now. Certain things I discovered were painful and made me very angry. But something happens when you write about this stuff. And I always knew in the back of my mind that it wasn’t going to work out with Jack, that we would only be together for a while. I tried to pretend to myself that I didn’t know it. I guess if he asked me to marry him, I would have done it. But it certainly wouldn’t have lasted very long. It would have been an impossible marriage.
SD: What was it like seeing your letters after all this time?
JJ: Here I was face-to-face with this real 21-year-old, not just someone I remembered, but the person who had written those words. I realized how much bravado was in those letters: the determination to be cool, not to lean on Jack. I remember what a hard time it was, but also an exciting and exhilarating time.
SD: That must have been pretty emotional?
JJ: It was. I suddenly felt very close to that 21-year-old. I felt like her mother. I wanted to say, “Be careful. This isn’t going to work out.” But I never regretted having the relationship with Jack. It was an extraordinary experience — a real education.
SD: I was amazed by how articulate you were, how grown-up, considering your age and the times.
JJ: One thing you have to remember about my part of the story is how little interest there was in what young women were producing at the time. Even through I sold this book to Random House at such a young age, hardly anybody was interested — with the exception of Jack. He was always truly encouraging. He took me seriously as a writer, and that was a very important thing to me. That is definitely reflected in the letters.
SD: I noticed you started emulating his style, too, toward the end.
JJ: Over the course of the relationship, the sound of his voice got into my head. It definitely had an influence on my style, writing to him. It loosened me up in a way.
SD: Are there any letters you didn’t use?
JJ: No. They’re all there.
SD: Was there anything in there that really embarrassed you?
JJ: No, not really. I was 21 and the year was 1957. You couldn’t help being infected by all the conservative expectations woman had of relationships in those days. The thing to do was get married. But for a women like me, the thing to do was get married not to a square, but to someone exciting and bohemian. That was what I was always attracted to. When I met more conventional men, I always found them oppressive. Misogyny was so widespread at that time, it was like the air you breathed. You didn’t question it. It was a question of which kind of misogynist you wanted to be with — someone like Jack or a square who would whisk you up to Scarsdale and put you in the kitchen.
SD: So comparatively, he was enlightened.
JJ: Jack never tried to rob me of my independence, which is something I fought for and wanted to hang onto. It was scary at the time, but it was what I wanted. You can’t look at this time and judge them in terms of what the values are now, or even what the values were in 1968. It was pre-rock ‘n’ roll, it was pre-sexual revolution. It was a big deal in those days to leave the parental roof, have your own apartment, to support yourself in a job and have a free sex life. Those were huge things.
SD: I guess, along with your independence, you also earned the chance to lend him money.
JJ: He always paid me back, to the dollar.
SD: Even so, he still sounds like a terrible boyfriend.
JJ: Aren’t there terrible boyfriends today? Do you think relationships have changed so totally? I don’t think so. You can’t legislate human relationships.
SD: What do you want to say to people who want to paint you as a victim here?
JJ: I say what I just said to you. But it sounds like you want to paint me that way, too.
SD: Well, it’s clear from the letters that you wanted very different things from each other…
JJ: Jack had that sort of male thing, of wanting to see the whole world, not wanting to commit himself, wanting to have all kinds of sexual experiences with lots of people.
SD: Why do you think his words still ring true today?
JJ: We are in a period that isn’t totally unlike the ’50s, with this return to family values. Also, young people don’t feel they have many options. They have to go to school, learn computers, get a good job, immediately — or else. There is no space in there to move around, explore, find out who you are, be open to all kinds of experiences. Your course is very prescribed. The message in On the Road, open yourself and be free, is still very a powerful message to young people — all young people. And this is another thing feminist critics forget, at the time the book came out, that message spoke just as powerfully to young women as it did to young men. Both Kerouac and Ginsberg were powerful messengers, expressing all the frustration and bottled up longings that a lot of people felt.
SD: These days, of course, the couple would be emailing.
JJ: Maybe. Email would have been nice in certain cases, when I didn’t know where Jack was for weeks. It might have helped me as I was about to pack to meet him in San Francisco or Mexico.
SD: To keep track of his moods?
JJ: His moods changed constantly, even within paragraphs. You can see that very clearly in the letters.
SD: Do you think he might have been bipolar or something?
JJ: Might have been. Kerouac was a mad kind of genius, but when you get into ascribing cases, it becomes very reductive. I think you have to respect the mysteries of human nature. Certainly if you are a novelist, you do.
SD: Has anyone ever suggested you are simply cashing in on this fortuitous association?
JJ: Oh, yeah. There was one recent review of this book suggesting that. I am trying to share this whole experience by writing something that reflects my increased understanding of it.
SD: Do you think you’ve written you last books about Kerouac?
JJ: I will certainly never write another book about Kerouac. After all, this is just a little piece of my life. It’s not the only thing that ever happened to me.