From THE VOICE IS ALL
Precariously balanced between conflicting selves, between two cultures and two different languages,
between ambition and self-immolation, Jack Kerouac rose suddenly to fame in 1957 with a label that
only half fitted him: “King of the Beats.” With a novel set at the end of the postwar period about two
rootless young men engaged in a quest for connection, ecstacy, and enlightenment, Kerouac found
himself elected the outlaw voice of the generation sociologists too confidently called “Silent” and at
the center of a ferocious culture war that is being fought bitterly to this day. On the Road would
eloquently define for young Americans that nagging secret itch they felt for a fuller, more meaningful,
much freer life and send many of them out in search of that elusive “It” right in their own country, while
the author of the book that had inspired them, and stripped him of his anonymity, retreated into alcoholic
seclusion in the suburban house he’d bought for his mother. The label “Beat” will probably always be
affixed to Kerouac, yet it obscures another important side of him that has so far been poorly understood —
the deeply traditional Jean-Louis Kerouac, who had been raised in a French-speaking, Catholic, Franco-
American family in Lowell, Massachusetts. The hidden Jean-Louis side of Kerouac was always there and
always felt and it would become dominant again in the last sad decade of his life.
No one was more aware of Kerouac’s dualities and contradictions than he was, and it was his genius
to find a voice that would contain them when he was only twenty-nine. In fact, it is partly the constant
flux of shading and mood which makes the music of that voice so vibrantly alive. According to the legend
that congealed around Jack — to which he contributed himself— he writing of On the Road was a com-
pletely spontaneous act, a flood of words so unstoppable that it had to be typed on a scroll during the
twenty days it took to get it all down in the spring of 1951. But this too obscures the real story as well as
the full appreciation of Kerouac’s achievement. His mastery did not come suddenly or effortlessly.
Choosing English as the language he would use to express himself in his writing, he set himself the
task of acquiring it when he was only a boy, coming home from the Lowell Public Library with armloads
of books. By the time he was nineteen he had dedicated his life to his work— a choice beyond the compre-
hension of his family. He would spend the next ten years writing stories, poems, entire novels, working
toward the point when he would find the courage to cast off the artifices of conventional plot-driven fiction
and, finally, the American mask that concealed his ethnic identity. The process of discovering a way to capture
the movements of his mind without self-censorship or second thoughts began with On the Road, but would
find its fullest expression in the much more radical novel he began shortly afterward. With Visions of Cody,
Jack would make his own singular contribution to the great stream-of-consciousness experiments of twentieth-
On the Road came out too late for Jack. He had barely survived the despair and near destitution of the six
grim years after he finished it. But he had managed to produce eleven more books — all of them written
in very short concentrated bursts of creative energy, and published, as Allen Ginsberg wrote in his preface
to Howl, “in heaven.” This body of work, as John Clellon Holmes would astutely observe, is “not so much
concerned with events as it is with consciousness, in which the ultimate events are images.” In his own way,
Jack was a perfectionist with an aesthetic no one without his extraordinary gifts could live up to. Each
paragraph had to be a “poem,” each sentence “a breath separation of the mind.” In 1952, after driving himself
to complete The Subterraneans in only three days, he looked in the mirror and did not recognize the gaunt
white face he saw there. Two years later, he began to wonder whether he had written himself out. Jack’s
voice was his center; outside that center was chaos. He told me once that he had written all his books so that
he would have something to read in his old age, but he would die in 1969 at the age of forty-seven, with the
book that meant the most to him, Visions of Cody, still unpublished in its entirety.
For many years, I waited for a definitive biography of Kerouac to appear. But I have come to wonder,
especially in the process of writing this book, whether there can be such a thing as a definitive biography.
Even our own lives cannot be entirely defined despite our knowledge of “the facts,” which is why some
writers — and Kerouac was one of them — are drawn toward the ceaseless examination of the self. Our
perceptions change, as well as what we remember, as the passage of time alters our angle of vision.
“Poor Leecie,” Jack wrote in Desolation Angels, the novel in which I appear as a character, “she never
understood Goyeshe me.” If I had written this biography in my fifties, when there was so much less
reliable information available, mistaken assumptions would undoubtedly have led me down some
wrong paths. If I had attempted to write about Jack in my twenties, when my memories of my own
relationship with him between 1957 and 1958 were still fresh, I would not have had the objectivity I
brought to my memoir, Minor Characters, when I began it in 1981.
There are many ways to tell the story of Jack Kerouac, depending upon the biographer’s point of view or
agenda. One can emphasize the Beat aspect, while treating the ways Kerouac does not seem Beat at all as
puzzling inconsistencies. One can speculate on the nature of Kerouac’s sexuality; present a relentless chronicle
of his drinking and dysfunctional behavior; call him a saint or a manic depressive; visit all the places he lived
or to which he traveled and attempt to show that everything in On the Road or his subsequent “true life” novels
was true. One could, until fairly recently, go out with a tape recorder and conduct interviews with many of the
people he knew or even track down those who had run into him a few times in Florida, New York, or San
Francisco and were convinced they knew all about him. Such recollections, reliable and not, were by default
the bases of many of the biographies that preceded this one, and it is good that so much valuable and colorful
material was collected before it could evaporate. But I have been interviewed myself and have often been
troubled afterward by distortions that changed the meaning of what I said and even by invented anecdotes
other writers have added to the accounts I gave them. I can only imagine how many distortions, misremem-
berings, and outright fabrications there must be in the huge accumulation of Kerouac oral history.
In doing the research for this book, I have relied instead upon Jack’s own written words as well as the letters,
journals, and books of his closest friends, especially Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and John Clellon Holmes.
The papers of these remarkable men recapture the past in the most authentic way— not as a frozen entity but as
something still volatile, quivering with life, passion, contradiction.
If one were to try to reconstruct Jack purely from what people have said about him, one would have to leave
out a good part of his most important relationship— the one he had with his work. Although Kerouac’s life
was at times so crowded with dramatic events and intense, complicated friendships that one month in it could
seem like a year, he spent far less time than most people in the company of others. What has always especially
interested me, in fact, is the Kerouac no one ever saw, the man alone in a room writing. As a boy Jack thought
he was only playing as he put the stories he imagined down on paper in the English he was determined to
master. I am interested in the way that play grew into the kind of need that could consume a man’s entire
existence, endangering his ability to survive, making him seem “indolent” or selfish in the unsympathetic eyes
of most of society. I am interested in the epiphanies that came to him when it seemed impossible to move his work
forward. I am interested, in short, in the unlikely miracle of the development of a great artist— something I can
only shed some light upon but do not presume to entirely account for.