The Myth Endures

Jack Kerouac is poised to become the all-time iconic American writer

| October 03, 2012

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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.

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