What is it about Jack Kerouac? Why have generations flocked repeatedly to his landmark On the Road for inspiration ever since it was first published? Why do biographers continue to write books about him? And why have moviemakers always sought to turn his novels into films?
There's no better time than now to answer these questions about the man. Kerouac was born in 1922 and died from internal bleeding in 1969 at the age of 47 in the house he shared with his third wife, Stella, and his mother, Gabrielle, who taught him how to tell a good story.
Fifty-five years after it became a bestseller, On the Road comes to movie screens later this year, when teens flocking to see Kristen Stewart's topless scenes will be exposed to the author anew. A cinematic version of Kerouac's Big Sur is on its way, too, and there's a forthcoming feature film, Kill Your Darlings, about Kerouac and his buddies that stars Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac, and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg.
There's also a new biography out by Kerouac's ex-lover Joyce Johnson titled The Voice Is All (Viking; $32.95), which recounts his evolution as a writer but doesn't tell all about his personal life. Johnson did that already in her memoir, Minor Characters, and in a collection of her correspondence with Kerouac called Door Wide Open. In one of her letters to him, Johnson wrote, "I'm your girl, your mistress, or whatever." She added, "The door is still open always."
Johnson was not the only woman to feel so intensely about him. Even when he was living with Johnson in her New York apartment, he pursued other women. Married three times, with dozens of girlfriends, mistresses and whatever, Kerouac appealed to women because they could see him as the little boy who needed to be rescued from his own worst habits or the handsome lover who promised the wildest nights of uninhibited sex and existential adventures. He also appealed to men, to whom he might seem like an older brother they always wanted to have.
In On the Road, he advertised himself and his friends as saintly outlaws who wouldn't and couldn't stop doing whatever they did. "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time," he wrote. "The ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars." Kerouac was a roman candle who exploded from too much sex, too much travel, too many illicit drugs, especially speed, and too much writing.
Like Jack London, whom he revered and wanted to emulate, he burned himself up and burned himself out. "I would rather be ashes than dust," London said. Kerouac felt exactly the same way. London died at 40. Kerouac lived seven more years than London and wrote books until the end, most of which are in print and most of them widely unread, including masterpieces like Visions of Cody in which he experimented with the English language, writing long sentences like "But the latest and perhaps really, next to Mexico and the jazz tea high I'll tell in a minute, best, vision, along on high, but under entirely different circumstances, was the vision I had of Cody."
Speaking by phone to the Bohemian, Joyce Johnson says she wishes Americans would turn to Visions of Cody, Dr. Sax and The Subterraneans. "They're all really wonderful novels," she says. "Perhaps the movies about Jack and my biography will encourage readers to discover the vast library of books that he wrote."
Kerouac fans have usually read his novels as fictionalized autobiographies, a habit he encouraged when he described his work as "true-story novels." Biographers have on the whole added to the myths about the man, and though Johnson tries very hard in her biography to separate fact from fiction, it's too late in the game for that. The forthcoming movies seem guaranteed to magnify the myths and turn Kerouac even more than ever before into an American icon.
Maybe that's a good thing. After all, Jack Kerouac is our Dostoevsky, our Marcel Proust. He was also a major con artist who may even have conned himself into believing that he wrote his novels spontaneously and never changed a word. If you want proof that he revised, you have only to compare the "scroll edition" of On the Road with the standard edition first published in 1957. There's a world of difference.
William Burroughs once said that Kerouac sold "a million pairs of Levis." Indeed, his lifestyle was contagious. He also knew how to write a bestseller. On The Road keeps on selling, its appeal assured, with no end in sight.