Beyond Beat: Johnson discusses Kerouac’s French connection

Mar. 24, 2014 @ 11:43 AM

The publication of “On the Road” in 1957 soon earned novelist Jack Kerouac the title “King of the Beats.” His fame and the cultural phenomenon of the Beat Generation masked a different side of Kerouac that remained largely hidden from his readers – his French-Canadian heritage.

Writer and editor Joyce Johnson, who had an almost two-year relationship with Kerouac around the time of the publication of “On the Road,” came to UNC last week to discuss the importance of that heritage to Kerouac’s art in a lecture titled “Jack Kerouac: Beyond Beat.” His family left Quebec and settled in Lowell, Mass. Kerouac’s first language was French, and he did not really speak English until his teens.  Speaking to a group at Toy Lounge in Dey Hall, Johnson said Kerouac’s French background was central to the writing technique he called “spontaneous prose.” It also became “one of the things that gave Jack’s first-person prose its singular quality,” she said.
In his earlier writings, Kerouac did not acknowledge his French-Canadian roots. In Lowell and other parts of the industrial Northeast, French-Canadians were treated as second-class citizens. It was very unusual for them to leave their neighborhoods and enclaves like Kerouac did, Johnson said. In our more multiculturally-conscious time, a writer might see their ethnic identity as a boost to their work, “but 60 years ago the label Franco-American would probably be a liability,” she said.
Kerouac once “called himself only half American,” she said, and his identification with outsiders – African-Americans and Hispanics -- can be seen in “On the Road” and other books. Later, when Neal Cassady (the model for Dean Moriarty of “On the Road”) wrote a long confessional to him, Kerouac began writing his first-person novels, even penning several in French that have never been published, Johnson said. In his experimental novel “Visions of Cody,” Kerouac “would finally inhabit his Franco-American identity” and never leave it, she said.
Johnson is the author of several novels, among them “Come and Join the Dance,” the first Beat Generation novel by a woman. “Come and Join the Dance” was published in 1962, followed by “Bad Connections,” in 1978 and “In the Night Café” in 1987.
She has written several works about the Beat writers: “Minor Characters,” a memoir of her time with the Beat writers, “Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters” (about her relationship with Kerouac,” and in 2012, her literary biography of Kerouac, “The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.”
As an editor, Johnson was instrumental in publication of “Blues People” By LeRoi Jones, “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Anne Moody, and “Born on the Fourth of July” by Ron Kovic.
“The Voice is All” is considered the first biography to consider the influences of Kerouac’s French-Canadian heritage. It also differs from other Kerouac biographies because Johnson had access to Kerouac papers not available to previous writers. In 2007, his journals were made available through the New York Public Library’s collection, and Johnson made extensive use of them. Previous biographers had to rely more on interviews, too often emphasizing the more sensational aspects of Kerouac’s life. “No one had read what Jack wrote about his most important relationship,” which was his relationship with his writing, finding “his interior music,” Johnson said.
Many myths and misconceptions about Kerouac have been touted as gospel in many biographies. The writer many people see as always being on the road was in fact often holed up in his mother’s apartment, focusing on his work, Johnson said. The writer who supposedly never revised was in truth a disciplined craftsman, she said. By the time he was given the name “King of the Beats,” he did not want to play the role, she said.
After the publication of “On the Road,” Johnson said she saw how the media would distort the Beat movement and Kerouac. “Take care of this man,” one of Kerouac’s editors told Johnson. Fame for Kerouac “took more from him than it gave,” she said.