Top positive review
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An Important and Ground-breaking Book
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.