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The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac Hardcover – September 13, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for The Voice Is All

“Spectacular…definitely the Kerouac book for our time…traces the birth of a literary genius and dispels many of the Kerouac myths:  that he wrote from memory, not the imagination, and that he wrote spontaneously and without revising…The Voice is All has a lot going for it, including the author’s own confidence-inspiring voice that plunges readers into the maelstrom of Kerouac’s intensely creative and yet intensely self-destructive life, and then pulls readers back and provides much needed detachment…Johnson knows how to create suspense and weave the complex lives of her characters into a narrative that rumbles along…her own voice is eloquent, her prose clear and crisp.” —Jonah Raskin, The San Francisco Chronicle

“A major new biography that traces the gradual emergence of the voice that came to define Kerouac’s distinctive style of autobiographical fiction…Johnson redirects our focus to Kerouac’s writing – an aspect that has been overshadowed by his legend…she suggests his internal struggle to navigate his mixed ethnic identity gave his prose a hard-earned depth and directness…By forcing us to reckon with Kerouac as a Franco-American author, Johnson has reminded us of the immense and often unseen burden of forging a life on the margins of two cultures – even for someone as emblematically American as Kerouac.” —Lauren Du Graf,


“In The Voice is All, Johnson brilliantly and intimately gets beyond the Kerouac legend to the solitary soul of the man...she has infused Kerouac’s work with excitement, struggle, desperation, and love.” —Royal Young,


“Johnson has wisely chosen to emphasize the part of Kerouac’s life all but lost in the Kerouac legend:  Behind the coast-to-coast craziness, the drug- and booze-inspired flights of mysticism, the Benzedrine-fueled writing sprees, a very serious writer was at work.”  —Bill Marvel, The Dallas Morning News

“An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer…Johnson [turns] a laser-sharp focus on Kerouac’s evolving ideas about language, fiction vs. truth and the role of the writer in his time…there’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer.  A triumph of scholarship.” – Kirkus Reviews

“An intimate of Kerouac who has chronicled his life and the beat culture, Johnson brings an insider’s perspective to this insightful study of how Kerouac found his literary voice…Johnson excels in her colorful, candid assessment of this evolution of this voice – up through the genesis of On the Road – the point where most other appraisals of Kerouac begin.” – Publishers Weekly

"This is quite simply the best book about Kerouac and one of the best accounts of any writer's apprenticeship that I have read. And it should generate a serious reconsideration of Kerouac as a classical, because hyphenated, American writer, one struggling to synthesize a doubled language, culture, and class. It's also a terrific read, a windstorm of a story." —Russell Banks

“Joyce Johnson brings her immense narrative gifts to this portrait of Jack Kerouac. In these pages, there is an intimacy of knowledge which renders previous accounts of Kerouac's life null and void -- and it's about time!  This is an indispensably honest book about an inimitable American writer, composed by an inimitable American writer.” —Howard Norman

“With The Voice Is All, Joyce Johnson has vaulted from memoir to biography, clearing every hurdle with a portrait of young Jack Kerouac that is as beautifully written as and even more enlightening than her classic Minor Characters. She illuminates the period, brings nuance and new information to twice-told tales, and recasts Kerouac from a beat to a writer. This is the way literary biography ought to be done and rarely is: a revelation.” —Gary Giddins

“Only another writer could have given us this extraordinary portrait of a major artist's challenging apprenticeship and triumphant breakthrough into a new literary style and narrative form. Johnson takes us deep within Kerouac's creative process and tender, troubled psyche; to read The Voice Is All is at once exhilarating and heartbreaking. This is the definitive work on Kerouac, alive on every page; it is also yet another stunning achievement for Johnson herself, one of our most gifted, versatile and powerful writers.” —Ann Douglas

“Joyce Johnson’s knowing and intimate The Voice Is All delivers the most ambitious of biographical results. She restores dignity and intellect to her subject, and gives her readers access to the poignant and complex young man behind all of that charismatic beat prose.” —Brad Gooch

“With eloquence and a wealth of detail, Joyce Johnson chronicles Kerouac's false starts, switchbacks, and re-tunings on his path to a fiction of sheer energy.  This remarkable  portrait of his early years gives a close view of the intense process of one writer's development.” —Joan Silber

“This biography of Jack Kerouac, the product of a lifetime of sifting truth from myth and ruminating about the subject, is arguably her best book.  There is a maturity, wisdom and compassion here that puts to shame most literary biographies.” — Phillip Lopate 

“We think of Kerouac as an overnight sensation, but Johnson tells a deeper and more surprising story.  Guided by memory of youthful intimacy with her subject and equipped with thorough knowledge of his works and access to newly opened archives, she strips away myth to give us a nuanced, engrossing biography – an indelible account of a hardworking young man’s inspiring effort to become a great writer.” —Honor Moore

About the Author

Joyce Johnson’s books include the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Minor Characters, Missing Men, Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957–1958 (with Jack Kerouac), and In the Night Café. She has written for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (September 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025100
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025107
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #770,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joyce Johnson (née Glassman) was born in 1935 in New York, the city that has been
the setting for all her books. At eight, she began her brief career as a child actress,
which included a role in the original Broadway production of I Remember Mama.

She attended Hunter College High School and entered Barnard College in 1951
when she was sixteen. At nineteen she left home and landed her first job in
publishing as a secretary in the literary agency Curtis Brown. By that time she
had also begun work on her first novel, Come and Join the Dance, which was
inspired by her determination to write about the real lives of young women,
including a frank treatment of their sexual experiences--a taboo subject during
the repressed 1950's. In 1956, she enrolled in a novel workshop at the New School,
taught by the editor Hiram Haydn, who bought her book for Random House the
following year on the basis of its first fifty pages. Because of her tumultuous life, it
took her another five years to complete the novel. Although long out of print, it is regarded by scholars like Ann Douglas, Nancy Grace and Ronna Johnson as an important contribution to Beat literature, since it was the first Beat novel by a woman.

In January 1957, Joyce Johnson met Jack Kerouac on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg--the beginning of
an affair that lasted for two years. (Kerouac wrote about it in Desolation Angels.) She was with him on the September
night when the New York Times Review of On the Road brought him instant fame as the voice of his generation
and she soon began to experience the heady excitement of being in the midst of an ongoing cultural revolution
as the Beat movement spead throughout America. She was also the firsthand witness of the destructive effects
of Kerouac's celebrity. Johnson considers this period the most important part of her education and remains
grateful to Kerouac for the encouragement he gave her to continue writing; she believes the many letters they
exchanged during their romance had a direct impact upon her writing style. In 1972, three years after Kerouac's
untimely death, she was able to get his experimental novel Visions of Cody published at McGraw-Hill, where
she was working as an editor. It was the book he considered his masterpiece.

Come and Join the Dance was published in 1962, when Johnson was twenty-six, but it was not until 1978 that her
second novel Bad Connections was published. The intervening years were filled with demanding editorial jobs,
two brief marriages, the birth of her son Daniel Pinchbeck, and the challenge of becoming a single parent. Like
many women artists, she had to put the creative work that meant the most to her aside. In 1981, when she was
the executive editor of the Dial Press, Johnson began getting up at dawn to work on her new book, the memoir
Minor Characters, about her coming of age in the 1950's and her involvement with Kerouac and the Beat circle.
It had taken her twenty-five years to get the right perspective upon that time and to see her own story as it
related to the experiences of the young women of her generation. In 1983, the book won a National Book
Critics Circle Award and has remained in print ever since.

Johnson's third novel, In the Night Café, based on the story of her first marriage to the painter James Johnson,
who was killed in a motorcycle crash a year after their wedding, was published in 1987 to wide critical praise.
A chapter first published in Harper's as a shsort story won first prize in the O'Henry Awards. Johnson's next
book, What Lisa Knew: The Truths and Lies of the Steinberg Case, her first foray into investigative journalism
appeared in 1989 and received a front-page review in the New York Times. In 2000, Johnson published Door
Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, which contained her correspondence with Kerouac and a running
commentary that reflected her deepening understanding of his life and work. Her second critically praised
memoir Missing Men was published in 2004. She continues to experiment with various genres--most recently
biography. In her new book, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, she feels she has broken new
ground in the intimate way she has examined the development of a writer.

As an editor, Johnson was well known for books that related to the Civil Rights movement and the New Left:
The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse; Blues People by LeRoi Jones, Revolution for the Hell of It by
Abbie Hoffman, Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody; and Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic.

After ending her publishing career, Johnson taught creative writing in a number of MFA programs, including
Columbia's School of the Arts and the New School. Since 1984, she has been teaching a memoir workshop
at the 92nd Street YMHA.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Helen Weaver on October 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I haven't read all of the Kerouac biographies, but Joyce Johnson's "The Voice is All" is by far the best of the half dozen or so I have read. In fact, it's one of the best books I've read on any subject, and I look forward to reading it again.

Johnson has three great advantages as a biographer: she knew her subject intimately, she's unusually intelligent, and she can write.

Paul Maher's Amazon customer review is titled "Recycled from older biographies and
paraphrased from Kerouac's archive." The first statement is untrue and the second is misleading.

Not only did Johnson have access to the treasure trove of journals, letters, and other material that has finally found its way to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library; but unlike most earlier biographers, she has sensed the importance of Kerouac's French Canadianness and has explored his ethnicity in a way that helps to illuminate the many paradoxes of this complex personality. As a writer of no mean talents herself, Joyce Johnson is well qualified to trace the development of Kerouac's style. The result is the story not just of a man coming of age, but of a writer finding his voice. Far from being "recycled from older biographies," her book is unique in its approach and adds greatly to our understanding of this much maligned and underrated writer.

As for Johnson's book being "paraphrased from Kerouac's archive"-because of the limitations placed on Kerouac's papers by his literary executor, quoting directly from this material is not an option: paraphrasing is all anyone can do.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By AF on October 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover
A Pathbreaking Book

I found Johnson's account of Kerouac's life as a writer compelling and insightful. It's based on fact, not legend: Kerouac's experience as a child in a working-class French-Canadian immigrant family, speaking joual, the language of that family, until he was five years old; his life in a New England factory town, at Columbia University on a football scholarship, and in the U.S. navy during World War Two; his influences, which ranged from Celine to Saroyan; his friendships and loves. Most important, it centers on his struggle to make his own way as a writer, and his commitment to that struggle. The book is especially valuable for Johnson's perceptive and pathbreaking reading of materials from the Kerouac archive-- manuscripts, letters, and journals in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. As a distinguished memoirist and novelist who has lived the history she writes about, Johnson is eminently qualified to write about Kerouac. Relating the archival material to the published work and to her own experience and research, she has been able to trace the writing of such books as The Town and the City, On the Road, and Visions of Cody from their earliest stirrings to their publication and to define their place in the body of Kerouac's work. Her book makes a substantial contribution to a larger project, defining Kerouac's literary achievement, distinct from the absurd fables that have grown up around his image.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Literary R&R on September 24, 2013
Format: Paperback
Mandy's Review:

The interesting thing about biographies is the information you learn about a person that you may or may not have known about. I knew nothing about Jack Kerouac before reading The Voice is All ... and I'm still wondering how much I really know. The other interesting thing about biographies is that the information within is based (usually) on one person's perception of the one they're writing about. Most of the time, I take biographies with a grain of salt instead of as the absolute truth.

Joyce Johnson had a relationship with Jack. She relayed the facts: he was French-American, he lost his older brother Gerard when he was just a boy, and he was a very quiet, contemplative man. Jack never really talked about his older brother but, if Joyce paid close enough attention, certain mannerisms were evidence of Gerard's influence over Jack's life ... even years after Gerard's death.

In some ways Jack is like many other people. Others have family problems. Others have deaths in their family at a young age. Others travel around a lot. Others don't allow people to get close to them. With Jack, though, it's almost as if he took everything to heart and held it inside. He allowed situations to fester within himself and he eventually used all of those pent up emotions in his writing and poetry ... and ultimately became one of the greatest American writers of our time.

I enjoyed this biography and getting to (somewhat) know a man and writer I knew nothing about. I think others who have an interest in biographies would enjoy The Voice is All as well. Why not give it a try?

*A paperback copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Steve Dossey on October 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Well all the glowing reviews by others I echo. This biography benefits from a meticulous researcher who steeped herself in Jack's journal notes and focused on his struggle to find his writing voice. The book incorporates commonly known facts about Jack's upbringing but indeed focuses mostly on his struggle to become a great writer. The book ends in the tale of Kerouac in 1951, when indeed Kerouac finds his writing voice. This book is cleanly and elegantly written, eschewing the "psycho babble talk of personality" that is so much the vogue of many biographies these days. And this is what one should get from a writer (Joyce) who knows writing and knows how to write. Really an excellent and necessary addition to our views on Kerouac.
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