Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson

This post was first published by Suite101. 

Joyce Johnson met Jack Kerouac when she was Joyce Glassman, 21 years old, in Greenwich Village, New York. Kerouac was 34 then, and about to publish On the Road – a novel that would change his life and hugely influence the history of American literature. Minor Characters is a memoir – part biography, part autobiography – about Johnson’s relationship with the Beat generation of the 1950s in general, and with Jack Kerouac in particular.

As a young woman in New York in the 1950s Joyce Johnson found herself irresistibly attracted to what became known as the Beat generation. Young, serious men who wrote poetry, played music, experimented with drugs and drank copious amounts of coffee in cafes late at night. These men – and the women that accompanied them but did not, at least according to Johnson’s memoir, participate in the same way – were counterculture, alternative, interesting. There was an excitement that surrounded their philosophy, a feeling that somehow they would, eventually, change the world. This fervour was fed by a natural youthful restlessness, as described by John Clellon Holmes in his essay “This is the Beat Generation”:

Everyone I knew … felt in one way or another – that bottled eagerness for talk, for joy, for excitement, for sensation, for new truths. Whatever the reason, everyone of my age had a look of impatience and expectation in his eyes that bespoke ungiven love, unreleased ecstasy and the presence of buried worlds within.

The minor characters of Joyce Johnson’s memoir are most certainly the women – the significant others of the serious men who characterised the Beat generation (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs). Women rarely contributed to the Beat movement – they were present to inspire, support and perhaps distract these brilliant men, but rarely did they become famous themselves. As Johnson’s memoir implies, many of the women of the Beat generation were too busy helping their poetic other-halves home from the bar at 3 a.m. to concentrate on any artistic endeavours of their own. During her relationship with Kerouac, Joyce herself was unable to write, too preoccupied with Jack’s writing, his difficulties with fame and alcoholism. And Joyce’s closest friend Elise – in love for a long time with Allen Ginsberg – committed suicide with piles of unread poems in her closet. Another friend never attempted to publish her work for fear of it not being as good as her boyfriend’s.

It seems that while the Beat generation may have changed the way the world thought about poetry and literature, it was an artistic movement that revolved mainly around men, not women.

Novels by Joyce Johnson include Come and Join the Dance, Bad Connections and In the Night Café. Other non-fiction includes What Lisa Knew: The Truth and Lies of the Steinberg Case. Minor Characters won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for biography and autobiography. It is published by Houghton Mifflin Company Boston.

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