Minor Characters: A Memoir of a Young Woman of the 1950s in the Beat orbit of Jack Kerouac

by Joyce Johnson
(1983)
   When writer joyce johnson accepted a serendipitous invitation to a London café in the early 1980s, little did she suspect that the evening would lead to the resurrection of women writers of the Beat Generation. Johnson remembers that she found herself at The Pizza Express listening to “these old guys, very nattily dressed, who played this wonderful music, and I began reflecting on the fact that here were these septuagenarians, still on the road, [while] others in their generation are dead—people like Charlie Parker. . . .” The experience convinced Johnson to write a memoir of her early years in Beat Greenwich Village. Minor Characters was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1983, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year. It was reissued by Simon and Shuster in 1990 and in 1999 by Viking Penguin.
   Minor Characters is a traditional memoir in that it chronicles the story of someone who had an intimate relationship with a cultural hero or someone famous, a subgenre termed a “marginal memoir” by James Atlas. Many readers have been attracted to the book’s original subtitle: “A Memoir of a Young Woman of the 1950s in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac.” (The subtitle was later changed to “A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac” and later to “A Beat Memoir.”) Johnson, then Joyce Glassman, met jack kerouac in 1957 after allen ginsberg encouraged Kerouac to call her. Their first date took place at the Howard Johnson’s on West Eighth Street. Kerouac had no money on that auspicious occasion, so Johnson paid for his meal: hotdogs, home fries, and baked beans. She also recounts that when she opened the heavy glass door of the restaurant, Kerouac was the only person there “in color,” a black-haired young man in a flannel lumberjack shirt with “amazingly blues eyes.”
   More importantly, however—and unlike many “marginal” memoirs—Minor Characters is much more about its author than it is about the Beat icon with whom she had a two-year romance. A reader will find glimpses of the private Kerouac and the tumultuous days following the publication of on tHe road, but what one learns about the heroism of young women in midcentury America far outshines the other. Johnson credits the women’s movement with helping her recognize the importance of her own story, so to grant justice to both her life and Kerouac’s, she constructed Minor Characters as two distinct narratives that converge and then diverge at the end. The stories that emerge create a lyrical and painterly vision that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction to foreground the truth of how a self(s) is created.
   The self that tells Johnson’s story is never didactic, apologetic, or self-impressed, but she does make certain that she speaks as a gendered being. The memoir opens from a moment in the present, the narrator looking at a 1945 photograph of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs and thinking about all those who are missing from the portrait—especially the women, such as Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs (Burroughs’s second wife), and Edie Parker (Kerouac’s first wife). Through a tone of detached intimacy, she then begins her own story as a young girl who at the age of 13 rode the bus to Greenwich Village, unbeknownst to her middle-class Jewish parents, to spend afternoons with her friends. The narrative takes her to Barnard College, where she became close friends with the poet Elise Cowen, who introduced her to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. After Barnard, which she left one credit short of the degree requirements, we see her struggle to forge a career as a novelist and her valiant efforts to live independently. We also witness the efforts of Cowen to do the same as well as Johnson’s other female friends and acquaintances, such as the writer hettie jones (the first wife of LeRoi Jones/amiri baraka) and the painter and sculptor Mary Frank (the wife of photographer Robert Frank), respectively.
   In the process, Johnson illustrates how dangerous and yet necessary it was for young single women after World War II to live alone (they ran the risk of being mistaken for prostitutes), of acting as full sexual beings (they ran the risk of unwanted pregnancy and life-threatening abortions), and of daring to actualize their own artistic talents (they ran the risk of being told to get their M.R.S. degree and of working in stultifying isolation). The ironic, point-counterpoint copula technique that Johnson employs subtly effects these political arguments. For example, by juxtaposing a description of Ginsberg traveling in 1954 in the Yucatán with her own memories of a creative writing instructor at Barnard telling the all-female class that they should instead “be hopping freight trains,” Johnson poignantly wields indirection to clarify the difficulties the aspiring females artists of her generation endured. In like manner, she connects a trip she took to have an abortion with Kerouac’s journey to Desolation Peak; while he spent the summer in meditative isolation as a firewatcher, an experience recorded in The dHarma Bums and desolation anGels, she endured the shame and ridicule of an illegal and dangerous medical procedure, a strikingly different isolation.
   Johnson’s memories of Cowen are perhaps the most dramatic in the memoir, which provided the first published examples of Cowen’s raw power as a metaphysical poet. Cowen’s unrequited love for Ginsberg, her elision by her Beat male friends who nicknamed her “ellipse,” her bouts of depression-which were not effectively treated and which became increasingly severe—her desperate experiments with sexuality, and her eventual suicide in 1962 are treated by Johnson with tender dignity. Johnson’s narrative of Cowen ultimately embraces the myth of the tragic artist while transforming it to accommodate the female experience, suggesting that within the masculine Beat community the female tragedy often went unrecognized.
   Minor Characters is not, however, a sad and tragic tale; rather it is remarkable testimony to the power of the artist to remember and imagine—and thereby to create knowledge that was heretofore nonexistent or inaccessible. Through memories and imaginative reconstructions, Johnson resurrects Cowen as a worthy human being; she also presents a sympathetic portrait of Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle, generally characterized in Beat histories as paranoid and nasty; and she makes visible the intangible bonds of female friendship that have guided the women artists of the Beat area into the 21st century. Fittingly, it is not the break-up of her relationship with Kerouac in late 1958 that concludes Minor Characters; it is instead an image of muted young women in cold-war United States-Hettie Jones, Elise Cowen, and Joyce Glassman, in particular—whose silence has finally been broken.
 Bibliography
■ Atlas, James. “Marginal Memoirs.” The Atlantic Monthly. 251 (1983): 100–101.
■ Grace, Nancy M., and Ronna C. Johnson, eds. Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Beat Women Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
■ Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters: A Memoir of a Young Woman in the 1950s in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. Reprint, New York: Washington Square Press, 1990. Expanded ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
■ Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • Johnson, Joyce — (1935– )    It is fair to say that writer Joyce Johnson deserves considerable credit for bringing to center stage women artists from the Beat Generation. With the publication of minor cHaracters, her memoir of coming of age in the New York Beat… …   Encyclopedia of Beat Literature

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