on October 21, 2012
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. Having come up against this problem myself in writing my Kerouac memoir, "The Awakener," I discovered that there is actually a positive side to the ban on quoting, in that doing so at any length interrupts the author's voice and makes for a less readable text. The implication that Johnson has added nothing new to what she has studied so scrupulously is mean-spirited and inaccurate.
My only problem with "The Voice is All" is that it ends too soon! Not that I wanted Johnson to go into Kerouac's sad decline; her decision to end the book in 1951, when he has found the voice in which he will write his greatest works, was the right one, and sets her book apart from all the rest. I guess I wanted more of a celebration of that lonely victory.
But in fact, "The Voice is All" is that celebration. In it Kerouac's development as an artist is given the respect it deserves and is placed firmly within the cultural context of the times and places in which he was born, grew up, and lived. This book is a milestone in the journey of Kerouac's afterlife. Johnson brings Kerouac into the pantheon of literature where he belongs: with Melville, Twain, Whitman, and yes-even with Proust, that other great French rememberer. The French piece of the puzzle is only one of the major insights of this beautifully researched and crafted book.
on October 10, 2012
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.
on October 3, 2012
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.
on September 24, 2013
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.
on September 12, 2013
The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson is an in depth exploration of not only Jack Kerouac's writing, but his life as well. I'm not sure how many of this generation knows Jack. I had never heard of him, and after reading this, not sure I wanted to know so much of him. It touches a lot on his sexuality, his tendency to be attached to his mother, and his writing. The author writes with great love, awe, and candor on Jack Kerouac, a Franco-American. The endorsements say Jack Kerouac was a legend in the 50s, but the subject wasn't nearly as interesting as the writing itself.
The way Joyce Johnson writes is a good lesson for writers. Color has so many symbolic meanings and she uses color adeptly to describe Jack Kerouac's moods. It's been on my mind for a week as I experiment in my own writing in describing emotion using color. The subject, Jack Kerouac, is strange, disturbing, and it seemed as if his writings were merely thin memoirs of his life experiences disguised in fake identities. In some ways, writers will always have pieces of their lives mixed within their novels, books, and stories. Another author once wrote on her blog how an author's first novel is usually autobiographical. Jack Kerouac might be a good cautionary tale about how we write our stories.
I read The Voice is All because another author spoke about reading as many biographies as possible and to learn from them. The risk of picking a biography of a man you've never heard of is finding a dark subject. This book is perfect for the person with a literary degree, but for the everyday reader, I'm afraid that, unless you are a fan of Jack Kerouac, you'll find it interesting only for a little while as it's a study of human nature. I gave this book four stars purely for the writing. Joyce Johnson does a wonderful job in bringing a man to life with mere words.
*book given by publisher to review.
on September 26, 2013
This biography is so well written by an author who actually lived with Jack Kerouac. You can feel his influence in her writing. This biography is a must to read in order to understand and appreciate Kerouac's 'stream of conscious' writing style. It also gives insight as to what was happening in America during and after WWII and how a group of writers influenced and changed the thinking of future generations. Read this biography before and after reading Kerouac's best selling book ON THE ROAD. It will help you to understand the cast of characters and the crazy happenings that Kerouac writes about. Joyce Johnson's book will hold your attention and this book is a must read if you are a fan of Jack Kerouac.
on September 10, 2013
As an everyday Kerouac admirer who has read most of his works, I received this book as a gift from someone who knew I would be interested. In all fairness, this was my first Kerouac biography. I have mentioned the above because it seems the reviews/comments are dominated by writers/authors/scholars/experts/professors who are either aligned with Johnson in some way or those who have some sort of problem with her (it seems the problem is mostly her "access" to these archives from which most of the book's references are cited). While I have enjoyed the banter, as someone who is very interested in reviews (movies, books, TV shows, Consumer Reports), I generally like to know what the 'everyday' person thinks about the product/work. Not what 'professionals' think. I guess I feel like the authors who wrote the reviews have an unfair advantage. We 'normal' readers who do not know about publishing rules and such just want to know how the book was. Not whose is better, etc. So, with that being said, I am a fan of literature in general with a vast variety of literary interests. I discovered Kerouac at 15, and at 25 I continue to come back for more. I enjoyed this biography very much because it explored Kerouac's ethnic roots and his ambivalence between identifying himself as French Canadian or American. I do have to agree with one of the other reviews in which I would like to have read beyond his completion of On the Road. I would liked to have read about the publishing/editing/fame thereafter. This book is more of a prequel to Kerouac's victories beginning from early childhood ending upon finding his 'voice' upon completion of On the Road. I do wish I had another biography to compare it to, as this was my first one! Overall, a good read if you're really interested in Kerouac's earlier years before he became a big deal. Check it out if Kerouac is your thing.
on July 9, 2013
This is certainly not the most complete biography of Kerouac, but if you are interested first and foremost in his writing and formative years then this is the best book available to date. Joyce Johnson is not only a respected writer in her own right, and was a writer when she met Kerouac, but she understands Kerouac's influences and development. Along with Dennis McNally's "Desolate Angel" and Gerald Nicosia's "Memory Babe", this is the book to read if you want to understand Kerouac and philosophy of art. Though it has been criticized for its lack of quotes from Kerouac's papers, something Johnson was unable to do because of the rules of the Kerouac Estate, Johnson's credibility and her notes more than make up for what surely would have made this book even better. It is not bogged down in the detail of Nicosia and with a plethora of new information since McNally's publication, this is nothing short of a godsend for Kerouac fans. Highly enjoyable and to the point, it is highly recommended!
on February 7, 2015
Joyce Johnson was fortunate enough to actually be present for "the lonely victory of Jack Kerouac." She stood by his side in 1957 as Kerouac purchased a newspaper from a NYC street vendor that contained the first review of "On the Road".
Knowing that, I don't have any problem with Johnson's decision to write a critical biography that connects all the dots in Kerouac's creative life up until the publishing of his most successful book. It isn't a strict-form biography (since it doesn't touch the last twelve years of his life), but neither is it a "selfish memoir" as some of Johnson's critics have claimed.
Part of Johnson's motivation was to counterbalance some of the myth and hagiography surrounding the Beat writers, and Johnson has always been a clear-eyed and moderate writer. In charting Kerouac's development as an artist, she goes back to his childhood in the "mill town" of Lowell, Massachusetts, where as a young boy Jack formulated elaborate games in which he presided over a mythical horseracing journal. His rich imaginative life continued when he was a teenager, who although he was something of a "golden boy" and a football hero, still sought out creative oddballs as friends.
When he took classes at Columbia University, and finally joined the "libertine circle" (Johnson's characterization of the Beats) of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Holmes, Carr, and Harrington, Kerouac's muse went into overdrive, stimulated by marathon late-night conversations, letters, and various forms of bacchanalia. The final piece in the puzzle came with the arrival of the westerner, Neal Cassady, whom Kerouac saw as a brother figure, and whose charismatic and nearly sociopathic behavior demolished all moral barriers in his path. Writer Allan Harrington, who was intimate with the Beats, even went on to write a book called "Psychopaths" in 1972... perhaps inspired by the very dubious personality of Neal Cassady.
Johnson portrays Kerouac as a split personality. One Kerouac was shy and self-effacing, holing up to work feverishly on his writing. The other Kerouac caroused with his polymorphously perverse brothers in the "Beat" fraternity, and used any excuse to get "roaring drunk."
Johnson shows that the Beats were a terribly misogynist bunch. But that isn't the focus of her book. She hones in on Kerouac's tenacious drive to synthesize his own writing voice, following the influences of others like Proust, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Wolfe, Celine, William Saroyan and Zane Grey. Trying to put into his writing the same "rapture" that he found in the music of bop jazz musicians, Kerouac experimented with writing collage techniques, going outdoors to "sketch" in words at different locations in New York, and making trips to the western United States and Mexico to fuel his ideas about a "big novel" that would encompass all of America in one vision... and reflect freedom and endless possibility.
That is the Kerouac that Johnson salutes in her book-- the fellow writer who pushes beyond his own weaknesses and deficiencies to create something big and lasting. It's a great story, and one that Joyce Johnson tells very comprehensively and convincingly.
NOTE: I have been reviewing books that I have chosen for my own pleasure for the past ten years on Amazon, and though several years ago I reviewed Joyce Johnson's "Missing Men", I am following no one else's agenda in reviewing "The Voice is All." This is my honest assessment of the book.
on September 6, 2015
The best biography of Jack. Although it only covers his formative years (until about 1951 and his completion of On The Road), it captures and enraptures us in his ferocious devotion / obsession with writing, chronicling in enlightening detail his journey to find his literary voice. Includes all sorts of delicious background details, surprises and insights from every one of the characters involved - especially Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. It's an unbelievable story and I found it very inspiring for my own journey as a writer. Great research from an insider of the Beat scene.