• Email
  • Print

Beat Women’: An Exchange

In response to:

Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line from the March 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

What is the Scottish definition of biography? I ask this because Andrew O’Hagan [“Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line,” NYR, March 21] is the second Scottish reviewer in recent months to call my book The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac a memoir. I suppose it would be futile to point out that I end the book in 1951, six years before Kerouac entered my life, and that my research was not conducted in the bedroom but in the unsexy archives of the Berg Collection, where I tracked Jack’s most important relationship—the one he had with his work. I do understand, however, that I may have disconcerted Andrew O’Hagan by stepping out of my ordained role as the limp Beat-chick object of his scrutiny and producing a sizable Kerouac biography. Previously he’d bracketed me with the triste crowd of Jack’s memoir-writing exes, whose books (five in all) “line the shelves,” as he charmingly puts it, “like wallflowers at a 1950s prom.”

My own contribution was Minor Characters, which in 1983 won a National Book Critics Circle Award and opened up the subject of Beat Women by putting our rebellious and challenging lives during the misogynist Fifties right in the spotlight. Minor Characters’s readers have always understood the irony of its title—but not O’Hagan, who points to it as a prime example of my lack of respect for my sisters, the theme he has chosen to harp upon in his effort to put me in my place. Deploring the “male chauvinism” of Kerouac’s era, he masquerades as a great defender of women, then blows his whole insidious act.

Unable to contain his resentment that I’ve been paid for my work on Kerouac, he shamelessly writes this: “She waited for years and did well writing books about him and her, and now she teaches writing at his old university.” What a fabulous display of twenty-first-century chauvinism! Obviously, a man, who would deny me the right to disagree with another female Kerouac scholar as well as the right to have my woman’s work taken seriously, will never understand that I’ve always had enough respect for women to regard them as the agents of their own lives, choices, and even their mistakes.

Among the many things O’Hagan doesn’t say about my latest book is that it breaks new ground in its portrayal of Kerouac as a Franco-American writer, split between two languages and two cultures. Nor is he interested in all the ruthlessly abandoned novels that preceded On the Road or the breakthroughs that led to the prose music of Visions of Cody or Jack’s haunting recognition in the fall of 1951: “I’m lost, but my work is found.” But The Voice Is All wasn’t written as a further contribution to Beat gossip and hagiography. I wrote it to change the conversation about Jack Kerouac that has so often been even more shoddy, disrespectful, and unilluminating than Andrew O’Hagan’s remarks about me.

Joyce Johnson
New York City

To the Editors:

My impression of The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, the new biography by Joyce Johnson, is so different from the “memoir” view of it in The New York Review that I’d like to offer it, especially for women readers who might not welcome an image of memoirs by women as a pathetic row of so many “wallflowers at a 1950s prom.”

Joyce Johnson’s memoir, Minor Characters (1983, not “1987”), about her rebellion against the feminine mystique of the Fifties, is a work of literature, an American classic. Her next memoir, Missing Men, is if anything even better, a wonderful read and not about Kerouac. The reviewer suggests that The Voice Is All is yet another Kerouac “memoir” by this “fan.” It must be said that this book is a properly researched and thoughtful biography, taking the reader through the “chaos” around Kerouac’s creative core. To do so, the biographer has to clarify past misjudgments to show how much of Kerouac’s writing was done when he wasn’t on the road, and how much revision and discipline went into it.

This is indeed accompanied by a few flashes of Johnson’s firsthand knowledge of Kerouac, one of which details his support of the first novel she was writing at the time she was his girlfriend in 1956–1957—a time when “the deplorable misogyny” of the Fifties was pervasive. A relevant fact of this kind does not constitute “memoir,” any more than Mrs. Gaskell’s firsthand observations of Charlotte Brontë turn her classic Life of Charlotte Brontë into memoir.

What struck me as impressive is Johnson’s capacity to peel back a vulnerable life without injuring it—that requires a professional act of attentiveness. Johnson observes the best practice of literary biography in putting the work at the center of the life. Her links between fragments, novels, and life are so apt that I can’t believe this biography could be bettered.

Lyndall Gordon
St. Hilda’s College
Oxford, England

Andrew O’Hagan replies:

Literary vanity must do its thing and I applaud the ease with which Joyce Johnson adopts the victim’s posture. Yet perhaps she should also take a deeper measure of herself and consider her book’s bad temper. She has written well in the past and has won a prize, as she tells us. She believes very much in the virtues of this new book, and she tells us about that, too. But what she doesn’t do is help us understand why she wrote those nasty things about women that I quoted in my essay.

When she is undervaluing the scholarship of Ann Charters, or pointing to the neediness of Carolyn Cassady, to the wrongness of Patti Smith, or at Joan Haverty’s lack of empathy, upbraiding these women whilst canonizing Kerouac in his “lonely victory,” we are expected to nod in agreement and approve her skill. She must be allowed to criticize these women freely and harshly but if you criticize her then you are a twenty-first-century chauvinist. I wish her luck in her effort “to change the conversation about Jack Kerouac” while this is her level of good faith.

I’m glad Lyndall Gordon can see things in the book that I cannot see. I’m also glad I’m not the only Scot to assert that the book is less a biography than a memoir. Modern biography, we might argue, was invented by a Scot, James Boswell, who—it might entertain Joyce Johnson to know—had the same tendency she does to turn a biography of another person into a book about oneself. (But at least he conducted interviews.) I called her book a memoir because, no matter how many hours she spent with the Berg Collection, it reads to me like a work saturated with memories and driven not by fresh material but by Johnson’s lifelong interview with herself.

Despite her assertion above that the book ends in 1951, it doesn’t: it moves back and forth to the period when she knew Kerouac, the period when he published On the Road to such acclaim in The New York Times, and includes episodes like those alluded to by Lyndall Gordon. So Johnson’s decision to exclude from her “biography” the period after her time with Kerouac until his death—a full twelve years—seems stained also with the memoirist’s peculiar ink. Johnson might not know it, or want to know it, but her book has some interesting implications for the meaning of life-writing. Her simply wanting it to be a pure biography doesn’t make it so—a situation that might have been of interest to Lyndall Gordon’s old friend Henry James.

  • Email
  • Print