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 scene of the 1950s, Johnson gave voice and a cultural history to women who had long been invisible. She herself was one of those women who had found a home in the Beat arts community, making important literary contributions to it, but whose presence had been elided from Beat histories until she reinserted her own story of self discovery.
   Johnson was born in New York City on September 27, 1935. Her mother, Rosiland Ross, came from a Jewish family that had immigrated to the United States from Warsaw, Poland, in the late 1800s. Her father, Daniel Glassman, who had immigrated from London, England, was also Jewish. He worked as a bookkeeper and auditor for the Metropolitan Tobacco Company in New York City. Johnson’s mother, who had studied voice prior to becoming a housewife and mother, made sure that the young Joyce Glassman also got an early start in the arts, enrolling her in dramatic movement classes as well as the Professional Children’s School where Joyce became a child actor. At the age of 10, Joyce also began to take private weekly piano and composition lessons, her mother intent on transforming her into “a kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein combined,” Johnson has written. While in high school, she managed to compose three full-length musical comedies, but it was only during her senior year at Barnard College, which she entered in 1951, that she quit the piano, finally confronting her mother with the truth that she did not want to pursue someone else’s dream.
   As Johnson recorded in Minor Characters, a world more adventuresome than the Broadway musical attracted her. As a 13-year-old, she and a friend would ride the bus downtown to spend Sunday afternoons in Greenwich Village where the bohemian art world flourished. A secret desire to write also occupied her thoughts. Even as a preschooler, she had composed poems and dialogues, dutifully recorded by her Aunt Leona Ross in The Book of Joyce Alice Glassman. In college, she took literature and creative-writing classes. She also became friends with Elise Cowen, an intelligent and troubled young poet, who introduced her to allen ginsberg and the burgeoning Beat Generation movement. Johnson left Barnard in 1954, only one course short of her degree requirements, using her secretarial skills to find jobs in publishing so that she could concentrate on becoming a novelist, including taking a novel-writing workshop taught by Hiram Hayden at the New School.
   In January 1957, while working on her novel and paying her rent as an employee of the MCA Literary Agency, Johnson had a blind date set up for her by Ginsberg that would redirect her life once again. She received a telephone call from jack kerouac, asking her to meet him at the Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street. She said yes, bought him a hotdog, and began a two-year relationship with Kerouac, during which she witnessed the publication of on tHe road and his transformation into an unprepared media icon. Johnson first wrote about those experiences in Minor Characters, also using the memoir to discuss her own coming of age as a woman artist and to document the lives of other women in the Beat circle, such as Edie Parker, Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs, Elise Cowen, hettie jones, and Mary Frank. Her correspondence with Kerouac was published as Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 19571958 by Viking Penguin in 2000.
   Johnson’s relationship with Kerouac ended in late 1958. She continued to work on her novel, which he had encouraged her to do, and in 1962, her efforts came to fruition: Come and Join the Dance, the first Beat novel written by a woman, Joyce Glassman, was published by Antheneum Press. Come and Join the Dance, which has been out of print for many years, is based to a large extent on Johnson’s Beat bohemian experiences during her late teens and early 20s. The novel illustrates Johnson’s early apprenticeship to the fiction of Henry James and through psychological realism presents from the perspective of a female protagonist key elements of Beat culture, including hipsterism, gratuitous sex, and cold-war existentialism. The novel helps to fill in gaps in the master Beat narrative by placing women artists in the scene and illustrating how they helped to integrate Beat ethics and aesthetics into their personal lives. Come and Join the Dance does not claim female emancipation as did many first- and second-wave feminist texts; rather through its characterization of the Beat woman as subject, the book anticipates the emergence of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
   That same year, she met James Johnson, a young, married, abstract expressionist painter named from Painesville, Ohio. They soon moved into a New York City loft together where he could paint while she worked as a copyeditor at William Morrow and he completed a turbulent divorce. Joyce and Jim were married in December 1962, but he was killed on December 9, 1963, when the motorcycle that he was riding crashed into a truck just a short distance from their home. After Jim’s death, Johnson went to Europe to escape familiar haunts, but by October 1964 she had returned to her editing job with William Morrow, and that month she met another young painter, Peter Pinchbeck, a native Londoner. A year later, Johnson became pregnant, and she and Peter married. Their son Daniel was born on June 15, 1965.
   Johnson has said that her writing stagnated during these years, and it was not until the early 1970s when she separated from Pinchbeck that she began to write again. As a single mother, she also continued to work in publishing, adding Dial, Atlantic Monthly Press, and McGraw-Hill to her résumé and editing important civil-rights books including abbie hoffman’s revolution for tHe Hell of it, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, and Ann Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. She also edited for posthumous publication Kerouac’s visions of cody.
   Johnson returned to fiction writing with the publication of Bad Connections in 1978. The novel portrays the confusion and ambivalence of the white, middle-class housewife named Molly in the 1960s as she fights to raise her child and seek sexual and political liberation. Eleven years later, Johnson published In the Night Café (1989), which she considers her best work: As lyrical fictive–autobiography, Café returns to Beat-era themes to explore the life of Joanna Gold, a young mother married to a talented and destructive abstract painter, Tom Murphy. A chapter of the novel about the son Nicky was published earlier as “In the Children’s Wing,” winning the O. Henry Prize Award for Best Short Fiction in 1987.
   The genre of documentary nonfiction has also drawn Johnson’s interest, and her report of the controversial murder of six-year-old Lisa Steinberg, What Lisa Knew: The Truth and Lies of the Steinberg Case, was published in 1990. The sad, brief life of the little girl, the trial of her nonlegal adoptive father Joel Steinberg, and the complicity of his partner Hedda Nusbaum are chronicled in the book, which received both positive and negative responses from feminists.
   Most recently, Johnson has revisited the genre of memoir, bringing out Missing Men (2004), which narrates memories of her father, James Johnson, and Peter Pinchbeck. All her books reflect her introspective nature, her relentless determination to establish self and community with equanimity and to speak for the best of Beat values: honesty, and integrity and artistic liberation.
■ Glassman, Joyce. Come and Join the Dance. New York: Antheneum, 1962.
■ Grace, Nancy M., and Ronna C. Johnson. Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Beat Women Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
■ Johnson, Joyce. Bad Connections. New York: Putnam, 1978.
■ ———. In the Night Café. New York: Dutton, 1989.
■ ———. Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming of Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 1999.
■ ———. What Lisa Knew: The Truths and Lies of the Steinberg Case. New York: Kensington, 1990.
■ ———. Missing Men. New York: Viking, 2004. Johnson, Joyce, and Jack Kerouac. Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958. New York: Viking, 2000.
■ Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace. 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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