Reading their love letters from before I was born is an eerie experience.
My mother met Jack Kerouac on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg. It was January 1957. Kerouac at the time was penniless, 34 years old, burned out from frantic world wandering. My mother, Joyce Johnson, then 21, worked in book publishing as she slowly wrote and revised her first novel. Years later, in his novel “Desolation Angels,” Kerouac called her “an interesting young person, a Jewess, elegant, middleclass sad and looking for something.” He also wrote, “I still love her tonight.”
The correspondence between them, collected in the new book “Door Wide Open,” starts a few months after that first meeting, when Kerouac characteristically splits for Africa, then San Francisco, Mexico City and Florida. As he speeds from place to place, he sometimes asks my mother to join him, then abruptly changes his mind. “I admit I’m flipping and am bugged everywhere I go,” he writes from Berkeley, Calif., distraught as each new place offers no refuge, no vibration, no new vision.
When “On the Road” was published late that year, the Beats quickly went from underground cult to mainstream clichi. But the success of “On the Road” only increased Kerouac’s sense of isolation and despair, hastening his desertion from the cultural revolution he helped to invent. In the letters, he comes across as a mad, ruined genius, swinging between the “starrynight exstasies” of his writing binges and the squalid excesses of his alcoholic binges.
My mother’s letters radiate precocious self-awareness and tenderness. She seeks to lure Kerouac closer without frightening him away with any hint of commitment, and she also tries to dissuade him from his “desperate, gluttonous drinking,” his bitterness and the other demons that threaten to destroy him. “I remember the first party we went to last Fall,” she writes. “You said, ‘Protect me,’ and I wanted to with all my heart, but didn’t do a very good job, having all my old shynesses and especially my strange shyness of you.”
I feel a kind of shyness approaching these documents. My mother’s relationship with Kerouac ended six years before she met my father, painter Peter Pinchbeck, and eight years before my birth. There is something eerie about reading a parent’s early love letters; it gives you a vertiginous glimpse into the accidental processes that led to your own creation. Covering a span of less than two years, the letters not only suggest huge worlds of possibility that my mother could have lived, they also make me aware of the various ways these distant events shaped my own consciousness.
I learned about my mother’s relationship with Kerouac when I was an adolescent — around the time my mother started work on her memoir, “Minor Characters.” When I was a teenager, the Beats attracted me as a model of enthusiasm, adventure and community. It is incredible to me that I am now almost the same age that Kerouac was when he exchanged these letters with my mother. I still feel as if I am at the beginning of my writing road, and he was already nearing the end of his. (He died in 1969, in Florida, while watching daytime television, but his last years were unproductive.)
My mother’s letters show her as a young writer trying to define her own voice, unable to follow Kerouac’s technique of “spontaneous Bop prosody.” She writes, “There’s something in me that always says Stop when I’m about to lose myself and really go deeply in when I’m writing.” My mother’s literary aesthetic is not one of spontaneity, just as her lifestyle is not at all extreme. “I look at your way with wonder — but there is nothing I can say about it, except that,” my mother writes to Kerouac in Tangier, Morocco. “I move two miles downtown to a new job, not too different from the old one, and you move across the ocean to another continent!”
She took radical steps for a woman of her generation — leaving her parents’ house without a husband and seeking a life for herself in the artistic milieus of the city. But they were small, safe steps compared with the Beats’ pell-mell charge toward new experiences and pure freedom. Many were consumed by that pursuit. My mother’s best friend Elise ended up addicted to speed, killing herself at the age of 28.
While Kerouac looks for the face of God during Mexican earthquakes and storms at sea, my mother’s letters detail a series of risks not taken, adventures not pursued. Called to San Francisco by Kerouac, she hesitates, and he moves on. He asks her to meet him in Mexico City, where “we’ll do our writing & cash our checks in big American banks & eat hot soup at market stalls & float on rafts of flowers & dance the rumba in mad joints with 10c beers.” By the time she quits her job and buys a ticket, he is down with the flu and on his way to his mother’s house in Florida.
“The trips I didn’t take in the summer of 1957 have always haunted me,” my mother writes in her commentary. I wish she had gone. She would have escaped the feeling she described in one letter as “desperate rootedness,” holding her to New York. It took me a long time to overcome my own hesitation. In my late 20s I began to pursue Beat-style journeys, traveling in India and Nepal, visiting communes throughout America, participating in a tribal ritual in West Africa, seeking out a Mazatec shaman in Mexico. These trips validated parts of the Beat vision for me — their “mad to live, mad to love, mad to be saved” ethos, their unironic search for mystical truth, their openness. For her part, my mother tolerates and even encourages my journeys with a certain degree of natural parental anxiety.
The letters in “Door Wide Open” contrast my mother’s “desperate rootedness” to Kerouac’s despairing rootlessness, his terror of commitments. There was one commitment he couldn’t escape, however. As I consider this book of my mother’s, I see the dark shadows of two other mothers falling across its pages. Both Jack and Joyce were in flight from their mothers, Jack’s Memere and Joyce’s Rosalind, Depression-era survivors who denied themselves and then hungered to consume their children’s souls.
The children, in turn, escaped to freedom, but ultimately circled back to where they began. Jack ended his days living with his mother. Joyce settled on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from where she was brought up. As the survivor, my mother gets the last word, whether she wants it or not. “The reality of the past keeps fluctuating, almost as if Jack was still alive,” she writes.
For me at least, Kerouac’s urgency still resonates, even in this age of simulated spectacle and media narcosis. “But you decide and you always do what you want,” Kerouac tells my mother. “ALWAYS DO WHAT YOU WANT.” It remains a difficult demand to satisfy.
Daniel Pinchbeck is a fellow at the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Esquire and Wired, among other publications. He is an editor of Open City, an art and literary journal in New York. More Daniel Pinchbeck.
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