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Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line

Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City; © 1963, 2012 Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved.
Neal Cassady and his then girlfriend Anne Murphy, circa 1963; photograph by Allen Ginsberg from ‘Beat Memories’

Readers of On the Road tend to soak up the spontaneity and the lovely sensibility. And it is lovely. Be free. Be open. Be naked in your responses to the world and its peoples. It’s rather like a rolling self-help manual for kids who believe their parents are too invested in private schools and insurance policies. But the new film won’t sell that soft resistance to young people. Instead, it tries to sell, and not very heartily, a story that the modern young are much more used to. A story of relationships going wrong. Dean likes Marylou but Marylou is kinda kooky so he also likes Camille, but Camille likes to be at home with the kids and she also kinda likes Sal. Meanwhile, Sal has a weird thing with his mother but he sleeps with Marylou who is kinda over Dean anyway, but not really. Give or take a few puffs of marijuana, the odd shot of tequila, and a blast of Dizzy Gillespie, this is the kind of deep spiritual involvement you get nowadays on The Real Housewives of Orange County.

At one point in Salles’s film, a rotund, stoned little man called Ed Dunkel (played by Danny Morgan) dumps his wife Galatea (played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) at the house of heroin addict Old Bull Lee and his mad wife. The guys are having a whale of a time but it’s all pretty out of whack, and, suddenly, Galatea has a speech that would make the writings of Betty Friedan appear like the mouthings of Jayne Mansfield. “You know what these bastards did to me?” she screams at our erstwhile narrator, the not entirely focused Sal Paradise. “Dean leaves his wife and baby penniless cause he wants to visit you. And Ed being a sheep wants to tag along. Only they have no money and Ed asks me for the money and I say, ‘I’m not giving you any unless we are married’ and Dean says, ‘Hey, Ed, stupid ass, marry the broad….’ So he marries me for gas fare and we get in the car and Dean drives like Satan smoking marijuana the whole way and they won’t even stop to let me use the ladies’ room and when I say something about it they dump me in Tucson.” Duly ashamed, the men then repair to a room to discuss Céline while the women scrub the kitchen.

Everything—including Jack Kerouac’s life—seems destined to undermine the magic of On the Road. Maybe that’s just the way it has to be with iconic books. His direct contemporary J.D. Salinger seemed to know as much. With Kerouac, it can seem as if his whole life after 1957 (including his fifty-five-year afterlife) is mired in an attempt to challenge the spirit of what he wrote. Every biography has fresh blunders and renewed shocks, and many of them come from people who slept with him. Some of them even loved him in real life and their books now line the shelves like wallflowers at a 1950s prom.

We might put the male chauvinism down to the times, but what of the Women Beware Women aspect, which seems as strong today as it was in the decade that began with All About Eve? There was no room in the Beat Generation for women writers (the only exception being the poet Diane Di Prima),4 and, even worse, the women who do write seem interested only in writing memoirs glorifying the men, books in which other women come off badly. Carolyn Cassady’s book Off the Road (1990) is a heartening exception to all this: she tried to write honestly and with love, and the picture emerging is of a set of very selfish and often tender men who defined these women’s lives almost to the point of ruin. You would think the women might want to stick together, but that’s not how it works. Here’s Joyce Johnson in her new beat memoir, The Voice Is All:

Although Carolyn was spellbound by Neal’s genius…, she was relieved that he didn’t try to pressure her into having sex with him, since she had soon found out about Luanne. She [Carolyn] was a woman with a great craving for attention—a word that crops up frequently in her memoir Off the Road, and no-one could be more attentive than Neal, once he put his mind to it.

This is snide and competitive, but it gets worse:

On a panel of Beat women fifty years later, Carolyn bluntly described Neal’s approach to making love as “rape.” Nonetheless, she had become hooked on Neal permanently. Once they were married she would accommodate his excesses and transgressions, until the evidence became too much to bear, by remaining in a state of denial as much as she could, and after his death, she would find a kind of queenly, self-justifying pride in the religion she had made of her acceptance.

Johnson’s attitude toward her own sex, I have to say, is questionable, a fact one might have gleaned just by observing the title of the book where she first described her involvement with the Beats: Minor Characters (1987). It is perhaps incumbent upon history’s bit-part players to fight most ferociously over the reputations of the leading men, but Johnson takes it to the limit. After abusing Neal Cassady’s widow—whose chief crime, one presumes, was to be a wife and mother rather than just another of the “Beat women”—Johnson goes on to splat the loyal Kerouac scholar Ann Charters:

Academicians and critics of Charters’s generation, as well as Jack’s, tended to have rigid conceptions of what constituted a novel and what did not and to feel a distinct prejudice against autobiographically-based fiction.

This is an odd thing to say about a woman who had devoted her working life to Kerouac’s writing. A little later on, the rock singer and poet Patti Smith, a “misinformed Kerouac admirer,” gets her butt kicked for suggesting, as the novelist himself very often did, that the work rushed onto the page. And finally, just as you’re beginning to wonder what has made Joyce Johnson so angry with other women who touched or were touched by the Beats, we have her incredible attack on Kerouac’s second wife, Joan Haverty:

Joan had discovered she was going to have a child and was refusing to consider having an abortion…. She had not felt the least grain of sympathy when Jack told her there was no way he could stop writing to support a wife and child. (Her memoir would make it clear that she regarded Jack’s single-minded dedication to his work as a kind of egotistical self-indulgence.)

Wow. Exactly what flame is Joyce Johnson the keeper of? Certainly not the flame of sisterhood. Just to be straight, and I say this as an admirer of On the Road as a literary work: Jack Kerouac changed addresses, jobs, and sometimes even names to avoid paying Joan Haverty child support. The daughter they had, Jan, was appallingly treated by her father (he only ever saw her twice) and they received nothing from his estate. Jan Kerouac became a drug addict who hit the road at fifteen. She later wrote a novel, Baby Driver, had kidney failure, and died at forty-four. Might I suggest that Joyce Johnson could turn one or two of these facts over in her mind before writing about grains of sympathy?

The Voice Is All, reads her title: “The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.” And on these literary scores she has some important points to make: we don’t judge writers, even very holy, freewheeling ones, on how they treat their wives and children, or how they cheat on their girlfriends. We look at the work and we accept what miracles we can, on their own account mainly, but also in lieu of moral perfection. Joyce Johnson went out with Kerouac when she was twenty-two years old and she is now seventy-eight. No matter what else: he was one of her missing men. It is Jack’s struggle that moves her, Jack’s victory, and her decades of empathy might prove now that she was right for him all along. Sexual confusion aside, other women aside, all that Kerouac ever really needed was a loving fan. And he got Johnson. Only she understood him. She waited for years and did well writing books about him and her, and now she teaches writing at his old university.

Life is elsewhere, though. Those kids around Washington Square all learned that from Rimbaud, and Kerouac knew it and so do many of those who found, over time, that they lived both in the novels and out in the world. Whether they were characters, or minor characters, first and last: Who can tell? They were people who survived the icons, the myths, the lawsuits and bad films, and went on with life as best they could.

The other day I got in my car and drove out on the M4 toward Bracknell, one of those leafy suburban spaces outside London. Driving through the countryside I thought of one of Kerouac’s small poems now collected for the first time by the Library of America.5 It is called “Woman” and I thought of it when I saw a washing line flapping in the breeze:

A woman is beautiful
         you have to swing
         and swing and swing
         and swing like
         a handkerchief in the

I came to a housing park that was uniform and sprawling with similar gardens and fences from Homebase. There were barking dogs and parked cars, and, eventually, Carolyn Cassady, waiting for me at the door of a prefab surrounded by conifer trees. “Go West, young man,” she had said. England was cold that day and the birds were perched on the telegraph poles. We sat down and Mrs. Cassady played me a homemade recording of her late husband and Jack Kerouac reading from Proust at their house in San Jose in 1952. I sat and listened. The wine was on the table and the sandwiches were out and everything was fine. Mrs. Cassady is now ninety years old. “I drove here by satellite navigation,” I said. “Your life might’ve been quite different with that.”

The voice of Jack Kerouac filled the room. He was singing “A Foggy Day in London Town,” but he didn’t know the words, and he scatted over it and laughed. It was odd to hear him humming down the decades with the English afternoon outside.

“Well, we had maps,” said Mrs. Cassady. “But they didn’t use them.” She lifted her glass. She smiled. “The boys didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t. Not really. They just knew that they wanted to go.”


Beat Women’: An Exchange June 6, 2013

  1. 4

    Bill Morgan forcefully takes up the point in his new book The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation (Free Press, 2010): “Although many Beat writers treated women badly, Burroughs was arguably the worst…. He was quoted as saying that he regarded women as an alien virus that needed to be segragated from men. Ginsberg never hated women in the way that Burroughs did, but he often overlooked or ignored them without realizing it.” 

  2. 5

    Jack Kerouac, Collected Poems, edited by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (Library of America, 2012). 

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