September 15, 2013

Author Q&A: C'est Jack

Joyce Johnson's biography of Jack Kerouac delves into the impact the Beat writer's Franco-American identity had on his life and work.

By TOM ATWELL Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

(Continued from page 1)

Jack Kerouac

click image to enlarge

Joyce Johnson

We always have focused on one book, "On the Road," and then the whole Beat thing. Until recently, people have not explored the implication of his Franco-American heritage. That was very important to him but not something he spoke about, not even to people who were close to him. It was something he kept locked up until he began to write about it. 

Q: The scroll version of "On the Road" (1951) has reached mythic proportions as a sort of stream-of-conscious masterpiece. But it was largely a rewrite of the earlier versions, wasn't it? 

A: It was more than a rewrite; it was a different book, although it had elements of early tries he made. There are people who believe that Jack never revised. His method of revision was start a book and put that version aside when he didn't like it, and then to start again, using some elements of the discarded work. He had conceived of the book "On the Road" for a long time, even before he met Neal Cassady (the person on whom Dean Moriarty was based in "On the Road"). 

Q: How different was the scroll version from the (published) 1957 version?

A: He wrote it as one long uninterrupted paragraph, and editors told him it couldn't be published that way, so he broke it up into paragraphs and chapters. All characters had their real-life names. They deleted some sections, especially a lot of the sexual references. One particular editor kept angering him by chopping up his long, rolling sentences, but it is essentially the same book. 

Q: What part of Canada did the Kerouac family come from?

A: Riviere du Loup (about 50 miles from the northern tip of Aroostook County, on the St. Lawrence River). His grandfather came from there and emigrated to the United States. He had a very large family, and the children kept dying, and he settled in Nashua, N.H.

Some of Jack's aunts on his father's side later settled in Maine. (Johnson did not know what towns in Maine.) 

Q: You write about Kerouac's multiple personalities. But the idea that he is supported by his factory-working mother and writes at her home, leaving occasionally to visit his friends in the city, is a bit strange, isn't it?

A: He had a strong feeling of being very divided, and one of the big divisions was of being American and French Canadian. His mother provided him with a home in years when he hardly made any money. He couldn't tolerate the routine of going to a job, was constitutionally unable to tolerate it. He did get some odd jobs, and did a lot of movie synopses for a couple of companies, for which he was paid $25 or $35.

His mother provided him with a home when he was working on his first novel. He promised his father he would take care of her and buy her a home, which he did right after the success of "On the Road." But he did have a spoiled existence when he was living with her in an apartment in Queens. He was a very young man, living an austere existence, holed up writing every day and counting how many thousands of words he wrote, and then he would go into the city and drink a lot, and then go back to Queens. People don't associate discipline with Kerouac, but as far as his writing went, he was very disciplined. 

Q: How important were the Kerouac papers at the New York Public Library?

A: They were immensely valuable. They provide a lot of insight into his development as a writer and his feeling about being Franco-American. Until these papers became available thanks to the Berg Collection, a lot of other books were based on other people's visions of Kerouac -- and we were lucky to get them when we could -- but these were Kerouac's visions of himself. 

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


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