“Yesterday, in 4 hours, I typed up the 12,000 word Diamond Sutra on a long 12-foot scroll, beautiful, with my final transliteration, one of the most precious religious documents in the world, even you’ll like it when you read it,” Jack Kerouac writes to Joyce Johnson in November 1957. A little more than two months have passed since the publication of On the Road and Gilbert Millstein’s glowing review in the New York Times. Kerouac and Johnson, a budding literary talent in her early twenties, have been romantically involved since January, their sporadic visits in New York interspersed by a lively correspondence. Kerouac had gone to Mexico City in the summer of ’57, but left after falling ill. He landed in Orlando, Florida, where his mother was renting a 1920s bungalow. From August to April 1958, he would make several trips to New York and celebrate his newfound literary acclaim. No one at the time, including Jack himself, could have realized how this small, sleepy house would figure in his life: becoming not only his refuge as On the Road climbed the bestseller lists, but the site of his last, prolific outpouring, resulting in a novel that many consider to be his greatest work, The Dharma Bums.
Kerouac and Johnson’s letters from this pivotal time are collected in Door Wide Open, with an introduction and commentary by Johnson; the raw portrait that emerges is revelatory and compelling. It is Johnson who sends Kerouac the thirty dollars he needs to hop a bus to New York for the release of On the Road that September. “I had to spend some of your money on food, so have to wait till Wednesday 4th to leave, when my mother gets social security check, so will be in Friday 6th and take the subway to 65 West 68th … As you can see, I was truly broke. After this trip, no more,” Kerouac writes from Orlando. He manages to arrive at Johnson’s brownstone apartment on Labor Day; at midnight the two of them go out and get a copy of the Times. An immediate media blitz follows. Two weeks later, Johnson writes to her friend Elise Cowen:
Jack is here in town now, has been for 2 ½ weeks—he may leave tomorrow, but may stay another week—the plans keep changing. All the publicity doings in connection with ON THE ROAD bugged him quite a bit. There’ve been a round of parties with vast phalanxes of hand-shaking people who think the Beat Generation is so-o-o fascinating, isn’t it?—everyone pours drinks down him trying to make him live up to the book.
And in a letter to another friend:
After the first frenzied week we have been trying to live quietly with the receiver off the hook most of the day. He sleeps, broods, eats, stand on his head—I cook, clean, work on my novel—and I like it! Rather—I love him. ON THE ROAD is a great success, looks like a bestseller already … and he’s so innocent, can’t play it like a game, but tries to like everybody and worries about whether or not they really like him and if they’ll be hurt if he doesn’t show up at their parties. So maybe he’s better off getting away from New York now …
By mid-October, Kerouac has returned to Orlando, having bought eight White Castle hamburgers for the trip down. There, he answers fan letters on penny postcards, sleeps, and plunges into work. He admits to being “a little lonely down here,” but a few lines later says, “Very happy life now.” His drinking wanes, his mother puts dinner on the table every night at eight, and occasionally, in the backyard, a tangerine falls onto his head as he strokes his cats. The stretch of letters that follows exhibit an upbeat, clear-eyed tone: “Yes, I’ve found peace in Florida and will find peace in my new pad in Long Island (Queens) this winter too, as before … wont have a phone or nothing, wont give address except to [Sterling] Lord. Thats the only way to get work done. And rest for work.”
For the duration of Kerouac’s residence in Orlando, this focus and productivity prevail. On November 1 he writes Johnson that he’s bought “a roll of white teletype paper that reaches from Orlando, Fla. To NYCity,” and a few paragraphs later we get a glimpse of his charm: “Eating tangerines now, but I saved the one that fell on my head, if you come here … you can eat it, it’ll be delicious in a month.” One can imagine Johnson’s frustration and dismay when, less than two weeks later, a restless Kerouac, energized by a burst of inspiration, writes,
Joyce, dont come down to Florida, I’ve started on my novel and I want to work on it every day and night until it’s time to go to New York, probably before Xmas, and besides there’s no room for you, you’d have to sleep on an Army cot next to my mother’s couch in the kitchen-livingroom-bedroom and the only other room is my small room which, when you want to go to toilet, you have to close the door (of) and besides there’s nothing we can do here in the way of going out (no car) or any kinda fun. Okay?
Back in New York, Johnson works on her novel and updates Kerouac with literary happenings and press clippings. His letters drop off, and the silence doesn’t go unnoticed—especially since he’s supposed to return to the city in December. “I love you quite independently of eighty-six gold rings and documents—don’t you understand that, you idiot,” Johnson writes. “So, look—live at Henri’s if you think you have to do that now—but the door is still open always. Jack, I don’t expect anything from you. Don’t be scared of me, please!” In her emphatic professions of love and simultaneous insistence on not needing him, an innocent and brittle aspect of youth emerges; she is, after all, nearly fifteen years his junior and it isn’t difficult to see the relationship’s impending end. The tension is even more evident as in the next paragraph, she brightly changes the subject: “What’s DHARMA BUMS about? Will it be finished by the time you come?”
When Jack returns to New York, he drunkenly performs a series of readings at the Vanguard—alarming his friends and Johnson, for he has never been known for sloppy performances; quite the opposite. But his newfound cultural celebrity has him speeding towards disaster. He falls back in with Johnson and makes plans to move with his mother to Long Island. Whether unmoored by his sojourn in New York, on a come-down from penning Dharma Bums, or both, his sentiments about Florida change upon his brief interlude in Orlando before relocating north. In mid-January, he once again writes to Johnson:
Ah, shit, I feel dreary, I’m telling you there are NO VIBRATIONS in Florida or anywhere in the south, the people are DEAD. Now I’m entering a period of mingling with human beings again, and leave the quiet night of woods awhile, I want to be back in the Nation of People, which is New York.
Several paragraphs later, however, he clarifies:
I’VE changed tho, not Florida.
What arises and lingers, in the end, is not only Kerouac’s gradual self-realization of his own cracking up, but the greater conflict of the highly sensitive, creative, sometimes manic introvert who yearns for solitude and must then battle loneliness, versus the insatiable thirst for kinship with fellow artists, and above all, recognition. By spring of ’58, he has inserted himself back in the Greenwich Village scene, but his romance with Joyce Johnson falters soon after—the beginning of his infamous downward spiral.
Yet Kerouac’s Florida legacy remains strong. The bungalow in Orlando where he spent so many contented working days was left forgotten until the mid-1990s, when Bob Kealing, a reporter and freelance journalist, heard about Kerouac’s rumored stay and got the address from Kerouac’s relatives. A group of locals raised funds to purchase and remodel the property. Today, the quaint bungalow at 1418 Clouser Avenue hosts four writers a year and is known as the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project. In 2012, the house was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Kerouac’s typewritten scroll of The Dharma Bums is on display nearby in the Olin Library at Rollins College.
Vanessa Blakeslee recently received an Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Her debut story collection, Train Shots, is forthcoming in March 2014.