Mad to be Saved: Kerouac’s Lonely Victory

Mad to Be Saved

  • The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

  • by Joyce Johnson Viking, 489 pp, £25.00, September, ISBN 978 0 670 02510 7

Mad to be Saved

Reviewed by Tom Powers
London Review of Books

Jack Kerouac’s short life, big talent and last dollar were all just about exhausted when the young writer Joyce Glassman bought him a dinner of hot dogs and beans on a Saturday night in New York City in January 1957. Glassman understood he was broke, but the rest she learned only later. She thought Kerouac was beautiful, with his blue eyes and sunburned skin. He had recently returned from 63 days alone on a fire tower in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific North-West, where he wrote furiously in his journal and was tormented by dark thoughts of mortality. Glassman was 21, born, raised and educated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She had read Kerouac’s ambitious first novel, The Town and the City, she believed in the redemptive power of love, and she was pretty much open for anything. When Kerouac asked if he could stay at her place uptown, she said: ‘If you wish.’


The Kerouac Glassman met was not the Kerouac of later fame. At the time she was working for the literary agency which handled Kerouac’s first novel, then failed to find publishers for his later books. In a borrowed office copy of The Town and the City (never returned) Glassman read a lightly disguised account of a bookish boy growing up in a rundown, middle-sized New England industrial city. It was a big book filled with gorgeous descriptions of summer nights and teenage girls at soda fountains, the urgent longing of a boy’s heart, and his later struggle to find a way to live. In the book, Kerouac had divided himself among several brothers named Martin. One (Pete) was fiercely determined to excel at football, a second (Joe) drove big trucks and longed to wander the West at terrifying speed on a motorcycle, and a third (Francis) was ‘a musing, discontented, lonely young reader of books … filled with a strange pleasure and the belief that he is the only mortal in the town who has frighteningly understood the meaning of life and death’.

When Kerouac’s friend the poet Allen Ginsberg handed Glassman the phone on that Saturday night in 1957 she was already half in love with the man who told her he would be waiting at a restaurant on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, easy to spot with his black hair and red and black checked shirt. Kerouac had a winning sweetness and an obsession with writing that no girl working half-secretly on her first novel could resist. She was bowled over by his physical beauty, and insisted later that beauty was the right word. Other women responded the same way. When Kerouac caught Glassman sneaking peeks he began to make cartoon faces that got her laughing. Of course she confessed she was writing a novel. He asked the inevitable questions and grimaced when she told him her favourite writer was Henry James. ‘He asked me if I rewrote a lot and said you should never revise, never change anything, not even a word. He regretted all the rewriting he’d done on The Town and the City. No one could make him do that again.’

Kerouac soon put Glassman in a novel, describing her as ‘a Jewess, elegant middle-class sad and looking for something’. ‘Sad’ was one of Kerouac’s favourite words. Desolation Angels joined the manuscripts of half a dozen other much rejected books written in the manner he urged on Glassman – in a passionate headlong rush of words. Glassman met Kerouac during his last months of anonymity. Before the year was out he had published the book that transformed his life, On the Road; he had twice rushed off to distant places (Tangier and Mexico), where he was immediately miserable; he spent most of his time between trips living with his mother; his letters to Glassman invariably said he was lonely but his visits to her were brief; he had written most of the books he would ever write, and the time lapse between drinking binges had begun to shorten considerably.

Few writers’ lives have been as copiously recorded as Kerouac’s. The grain is exceedingly fine. On the night of 12 December 1940 he kissed a young Russian beauty called Norma Blickfelt and then took his agitation to the West End Bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he drank six beers. Kerouac was 18, Norma was 16, and I was zero, born on that very day across town in New York Hospital. Kerouac forgot nothing. Friends in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up, called him ‘Memory Babe’ for his grip on the details of his past. From his teens he seems to have written down everything he ever did, thought or felt, often in multiple versions, creating, in addition to his shelf of autobiographical novels, a vast manuscript archive of notes, letters and diaries – now housed in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Six of the women in Kerouac’s life – his first two wives and four occasional lovers – either wrote books about him or were the subject of books. Glassman was the first with a memoir and now, writing under her married name as Joyce Johnson, has added a second, more substantial account. Kerouac’s friend and champion Allen Ginsberg, who longed to be his lover as well, kept a journal famous for its bulk. Many of Kerouac’s friends wrote books and all seem to have written long letters no one threw away.

Some of the longest and liveliest of these letters were those of Neal Cassady, who became the central figure in Kerouac’s life, eclipsing even his mother. Cassady showed up in New York in 1946 and for the next dozen years passed in and out of Kerouac’s life with the abrupt independence of a cat. Cassady was the product of a life of purest contingency. At the age of six he had moved onto Denver’s skid row with his father, a barber whom Cassady described as one of ‘those dreary men who had committed themselves … to the task of finishing their days as penniless drunkards’. From life on the streets Cassady acquired formidable skills as a hustler. He moved sure-footedly through life, taking what he wanted, notably women and cars. He could drive off in a stolen car as speedily as the owner with the key. By his own estimate he had taken (and later abandoned) five hundred before he was twenty. More tentative souls were in awe of him.

But language was Cassady’s first and greatest love. Impassioned reading of Proust and Shakespeare, discovered in his teens, made him want to be a writer. It was this dream that brought him to New York, where friends said they would help him get into Columbia. It never happened and the passion for writing gradually faded with scant result. He could never stick to one thing long enough to finish it. An account of his first meeting with Kerouac, also the most important event in Cassady’s life, was only four pages and ended in mid-sentence. A hundred and some pages of an autobiography was the biggest thing he managed, but those pages, later published as The First Third, were pretty good.

Cassady was a few years younger than Kerouac and just as good-looking but not in the way Glassman and others called beautiful. Where Kerouac was shy and watchful, Cassady was direct, confident and sure. His energy never flagged and he was a nonstop talker. His speech was manic and obsessive, a kind of running commentary on the thoughts and events of the day passing over him. ‘Of course now no one can tell us that there is no God,’ Cassady might say as they sped through the night towards a distant city. ‘Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong. You can’t make it with geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It’s all this!’ Here Cassady took both hands from the steering wheel and seized one finger in his fist. (‘The car hugged the line straight and true,’ Kerouac noted.) ‘And not only that but we both understand that I couldn’t have time to explain why I know and you know God exists.’ On he would go. ‘We know time. Yes, yes …’

Kerouac loved to listen to Cassady. ‘There was nothing clear about the things he said but what he meant to say was somehow made clear and simple.’ Cassady was intoxicated with the deep books he was reading, impatient of settled life, quick to leap up or change course, and unstoppable in a car. Cassady and Kerouac made several road trips together, now legend. Only a few weeks in transit all told, they were always in a hurry, always close to their last nickel, trusting to the luck of the day. These pell-mell cross-country journeys seized hold of Kerouac’s imagination and pushed him to rethink his life and his art. His first novel, The Town and the City, written in 1947-48, was deeply indebted to Thomas Wolfe but otherwise a conventional narrative of a young man in a backwater city tortured by hope and hesitation, swept along by history. Cassady never hesitated, was always ready for the next thing, shrugged at rules, compelled attention. His comings and goings, deeds and words, went beyond ordinary life in Kerouac’s view, and excited his audience like the late-night jazz riff of a genius saxophonist. That’s what Kerouac wanted to put into words – the racing of the heart and mind in an exalted state – and when he finally developed a way to do it Ginsberg called it ‘spontaneous bop prosody’.

That is the short version of the big thing that Kerouac achieved as a writer. The long version is what Glassman/Johnson sets herself to explain in her second book about her long-dead lover, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. Publication of On the Road, in the fall of the year she met him, stopped him where he stood. Success was the problem – not the money but the fame. The money, in truth, was modest but the fame was overwhelming – the sort of fame a nation gives an artist only two or three times in a century. The New York Times called On the Road a ‘major novel’ that marked a ‘historic occasion’ in American literature, transcending the Lost Generation and replacing it with the Beat Generation. Most Americans encountered here for the first time Kerouac’s name for the restless, wandering, drug-taking, God-seeking, poetry-ranting saints of the late-night city streets where college-grad, middle-class, pipe-smoking revisers and rewriters in cardigans were afraid to go. Between one day and the next he went from hopeful boy with manuscript to king of the Beat Generation. The success of On the Road saddled him with an open-ended promise too immense, too demanding for the hopeful boy to bear, and he didn’t. Drink helped mask his hesitations and then took over, the way alcohol does. Midway through his two-year relationship with Glassman, Kerouac’s story was just about over, the books mostly written, the talent wrung dry. Kerouac and Glassman both understood something ghastly had happened, roughly on the order of a stroke victim discovering he can no longer speak. Kerouac’s life thereafter took a dozen years to reach its final and bitter end. The second acts in American creative lives are often like this – dismal stories of lost direction and too much alcohol. In Kerouac’s case no detail remains a secret. Glassman’s most important decision with her new book was to stop before the train wreck, to leave the blank pages and binge-drinking and failed relationships and health problems and pitiful dependence on his mother for all the other biographers. Chief among them is Gerald Nicosia, whose Memory Babe is savagely complete. What Glassman/Johnson wanted to explain was how Kerouac learned to write On the Road. The result is a measured, powerful book which recognises Kerouac’s unique gift for putting into words the chaotic longings of American men in the middle of the 20th century to enlarge their lives to myth. Kerouac admired Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman but he was not like them. He is not really like anybody else at all.

Kerouac the writer is of course inseparable from the life of Kerouac the man. In brief form it goes like this: he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts of French-Canadian parents in 1922, moved 11 times before he was 17, was addicted to books and imaginary play, stayed up all night in high school talking about poetry and ideas with one group of friends, stayed up drinking with a different group, learned to love night and rain, longed to marry a local girl whose father promised to get him a brakeman’s job on the Boston and Maine Railroad, parlayed a talent for football into a scholarship to Columbia, dropped out of college after ten minutes, made a couple of Atlantic crossings as a merchant seaman at the onset of the Second World War, returned to college for a further ten minutes, and thereafter divided his time for a number of years between a quietly disciplined writing life at home in Queens with his widowed mother and occasional forays into Manhattan for too much drink and talk with a circle of brilliant, reckless and variously talented friends who provide a couple of hundred pages of frantically complex narrative in any complete Life of Kerouac the writer and man. During this period he married and divorced twice, narrowly escaped prosecution as accessory to a murder, ‘decided’ – writing in his journal at 25 – ‘not to get drunk anymore’, started to use the word ‘beat’ to describe the spiritual state of friends who pushed experience to its ragged edge, and embarked on a big novel.

As early as 1944, Glassman/Johnson tells us, Kerouac was asked by a girl what he was seeking in his writing. ‘A new method!’ he answered. His working theory in 1946 for the right way to write a ‘veritable Niagara of a novel’ was to put everything in. He divided American writers between the taker-outers and the putter-inners. In the first group he included Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, who wrote and rewrote to render a book down to a polished gem. The second group included Whitman and Wolfe, who reached out to embrace the whole impossible landscape of American experience to make a mighty book like the Mississippi river in flood.

In late 1946, while Kerouac was in the early stages of putting every minute of his first 22 years into The Town and the City, Cassady arrived in New York, bringing with him his gorgeous and irresistible 16-year-old wife, LuAnne Henderson. LuAnne later became Kerouac’s lover but it was Cassady who changed his life. In a sense Kerouac had been waiting for him. Kerouac’s brainiest friend in Lowell, Sebastian Sampas (later mortally wounded at Anzio), had predicted in their teenage years that America would soon be redeemed by a new man, a ‘primitive man, crude, raw, unfinished – superb – [who] is shaping the heart of our land’. Kerouac took this windy notion seriously and Cassady, schooled in the streets and juvenile detention centres of Colorado, with his physical grace and intellectual energy, seemed to fit the prediction. It was Cassady’s use of language that planted the seed of the new method. Writing to Kerouac in December 1947, Cassady said writers should drop all literary pretension. ‘Rather, I think, one should write … as if he were the first person on earth and was humbly and sincerely putting on paper that which he saw and experienced, loved and lost; what his passing thoughts were and his sorrows and desires.’

This suggestion came too late for The Town and the City. When completed in early 1948 the book was a thousand-page manuscript; Kerouac’s New York friends were in awe. But apart from its length and ambitious writing it was a traditional novel of the sort Glassman was also trying to write, filled with characters, scenes, natural description and progress through time. The last did not quite add up to a story; Kerouac was not much interested in story. It was Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac said, who ‘woke me up to America as a poem’. Kerouac had a gift for extended prose poetry; in The Town and the City he lets it rip – two and a half pages, for example, on the rain in Galloway, his name for the Lowell of his youth. In my view he fully captures a boy’s lonely torment on a rainy night in the provinces. ‘The river swells and elbows darkly through folded shores, all bulging, all softened by rain’ is a fair sample. But if you find Kerouac’s elegy only irritating, then you’ll find The Town and the City unreadable.

After the book was accepted by a New York publisher Kerouac cut it down and tightened it up – all the things he swore to Glassman he would never do again. But even before The Town and the City was finished, he noted in his journal that he had ‘another novel in mind – “On the road” – which I keep thinking about … two guys hitch-hiking to California … Also,’ he added, ‘I’m finding a new principle of writing. More later.’

The new novel and the new method were both slow to arrive. In the summer of 1948 Kerouac told himself the new right way was to include only ‘thoughts that come unannounced, unplanned, unforced, vividly true in their dazzling light’. But the road novel that emerged from his typewriter was still made up in the usual way – characters, scenes, dialogue. Kerouac wrote one version after another, changing the names of characters, adding or cutting scenes, thinking up new titles like ‘The Hipsters’ and ‘The Furtives’ before going back to ‘On the Road’. Gradually, the fictive story disappeared, replaced by a bare-bones account of what happened during the two or three years when Cassady was most present and made his deepest impression in Kerouac’s life. ‘It’s not the words that count,’ he told himself, lying in bed in November 1949, ‘but the rush of what is said.’

Finally, by the spring of 1951 Kerouac was ready to start again from word one. Glassman/Johnson thinks one of Cassady’s letters showed him the way, a breathless, mesmerising account of Cassady’s intensely sexual affair with a Denver girl that was read eagerly by the New York crowd. It is probable that Cassady deserves some of the credit for what Kerouac did next, which was to start feeding an endless scroll of paper into his typewriter on the second day of April 1951. Three weeks later he had written On the Road. He told Cassady in a letter that the book ‘went fast because road is fast’.

But the ‘On the Road’ of the scroll is not the book that made him famous and wrecked his writing life in 1957. In the scroll, despite Kerouac’s many dismissive remarks about revision and rewriting, which he condemned as a sin, he had written only a first draft of On the Road. It took him five years to find a publisher, who then insisted on some basic editorial work: on breaking up the river of words into sentences, paragraphs and chapters, without which the book is easy to put down; and then, more important, told him that the tangle of back-and-forth road trips made no sense. Kerouac might have refused but did not. He listened to his editor, compressed the many journeys into a few, each with its own purpose and consequence, and thereby gave the book its structure of quest. Some readers – the novelist and essayist Larry McMurtry, for example – like the scroll better, but odds are the scroll would have remained unpublished, or unread if printed, or dismissed if read, which is roughly what happened to the later books.

The rewrite came later, however, when Glassman was passing through his life. The big thing in 1951 was Kerouac’s embrace of the new method – letting out through an open door whatever was fermenting in his mind, an unguided, unrevised, unchannelled river of words. All the rest of his books, beginning as he turned thirty, were written using the new method. The wear and tear of getting to this point had been immense. The drink was telling him how to organise his day; he often woke up sick unto death; he was perpetually broke; his friends half dreaded to see him coming; no woman trusted him to pay attention for long. The drift of things was apparent even to Kerouac himself. In his journal in November of his big year, Glassman/Johnson notes, he described the man others saw – clothing sweaty and skin glistening, hair uncut, stomach swollen and hardened with drinking. He did not fight this, but took his victory elsewhere. ‘I’m lost,’ he wrote, ‘but my work is found.’

Little, perhaps nothing Kerouac wrote after On the Road would have been read, or published, if it hadn’t been Kerouac who wrote it. The last dozen years have a certain grim interest as a case study of end-stage alcoholism. He started to drink at 18 and later noted that that was when ‘melancholy and indecision first came over me – there’s a fair connection there.’ But his understanding of his own condition went no further. During the last months of his life he lived in St Petersburg, Florida with his mother and did his drinking at places with names like the Flamingo Bar. He died at the age of 47 in October 1969 of oesophageal varices; in effect, he bled to death following the rupturing of blood vessels in his oesophagus. It was ‘the classic drunkard’s death’, Gerald Nicosia writes. Medical details differ but Kerouac’s progress otherwise resembles the latter days of Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O’Neill.

Kerouac’s was a short but not a wasted life. He left a substantial body of work, all of it containing passages of impressive power, and On the Road did something very few works of literature ever do – changed the way people thought and behaved. Kerouac had no interest in trying to redeem the world, or in how to live the good life, or in telling a story. What he wanted was to capture in words what everything is like. Ginsberg, who appears under pseudonyms in nine of his books, put the question that drove Kerouac during his productive years. As Carlo Marx in On the Road he interrupts Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), who is goofing around, to say: ‘I have an announcement to make.’
‘Yes? Yes?’

‘What kind of sordid business are you on now? I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?’
The narrow answer was nowhere in particular. But where Cassady went Kerouac wanted to follow, ‘because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.’ That sort of thing gets barely a glance now, but in 1957 it seized the imagination of a generation. Suddenly it seemed everybody wanted to go on the road, and for a dozen years they did.
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