Joyce Johnson: Let’s Dance to A Female Beat
December 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
When I first created this blog I had also created a couple of pages that I devoted to literary time periods that inspire and influence me. In particularly I wanted to highlight people from those periods that are often neglected in the tombs of praise. I had been feeling for quiet some time that I wanted to elaborate on those people whose names I wrote on those pages: Good Poetry- The Beat Women and The Harlem Renaissance. This blog is ultimately about poetry and poets, and my own play with poetry, but since I’m focusing on movements, I will also dedicate some time to non-poets too.
I decided to create a series of essays or articles on each of the people listed on the pages elaborating on their lives as writers or artists. I also want to follow with a second essay on why that writer was important to me personally. I’m starting my series off with Joyce Johnson a writer from the second generation of Beat Writers. I hope you’ll enjoy the exploration with me.
Joyce Johnson is probably best known for her 1983 memoir, Minor Characters, in which she writes about her brief, but significant, two year relationship with writer and poet Jack Kerouac, during 1957 and 1958.
In 2012 she published a third book with Kerouac as the subject; The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, this time a biography. The focus of this biography is on his life experiences, upbringing, and the detailed practices and habits that lead to his writing style that created, not the man Kerouac, but Kerouac the writer. Although, she has written three books on Kerouac: one a memoir, one a collection of letters they wrote to each other, and one a biography, Jack Kerouac is not the sum of all her writing.
Young Joyce Glassman, as was her name before her marriage to Jim Johnson, was with Jack Kerouac on the evening of 1957 when together they read the New York times review of On the Road. The review that was to change Jack’s life forever. This moment was a turning point in the world of literature and defining moment for a generation without a name. The point that took a normal guy who had been palling around with his quirky friends writing and “experiencing life” all hoping for that great work, but never knowing or realizing that he and they would be rocketed into a fame or infamy, depending on how you view it. But, more than his lover and more than the “woman who was with him on the night he became famous”, Joyce should be remembered as what she was, and that is a writer of the Beat Generation. She is from the second generation of beat writers and artists. If there are beat enthusiasts and purists who only view her as a chronicler of the Beats and their time, that is fine because it is still a valuable contribution to a time period; if not essential. Only having one perspective does not allow us the richness or a history of a time. Yet, Johnson was more than just a chronicler of the men of the beat era. She gives us a view into the world of women (mainly white women) during the 1950’s. Women who did not want to follow in the footsteps of their mothers, women who wanted to be more than the confines of their gender, confines that were created by the society in which they were raised.
When I was at college in the early 1950s, we didn’t have much liking for the period we were in.
Joyce wrote in her 1994 forward of the 1994 edition of her book Minor Characters.
In the late 1950s, young women-not very many at first—once again left their homes rather violently. They too came from nice families, and their parents could never understand why the daughters they had raised so carefully suddenly chose precarious lives. A girl was expected to stay under her parents’ roof until she married, even if she worked a year or so as a secretary, got a little taste of the world that way, but not too much. Experience, adventure— these were not for young women… Those of us who flew out the door had no usable models for what we were doing. We did not want to be our mothers or our spinster schoolteachers or the hardboiled career women depicted on screen… If you want to understand Beat women, call us transitional— a bridge to the next generation…
Before Joyce ever met Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg she was already living a “Beat” life. Raised in New York city, at the age of eight her parents moved to Manhattan on West 116th street. Their apartment was around the corner from where William and Joan Vollmer Burroughs had lived, and where years before they had hosted many gatherings and parties for the young Kerouac, Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr and other friends both males and females. You can portend it was some kismet coming together a serendipitous connection of place or you can call it New York city, but unbeknownst to little Joyce and her parents she would know some of these apartment dwellers for better and for worse. It wasn’t some romantic influence of their neighborly association that influenced Joyce Glassman. Joyce was too young to know the Burroughs, and most likely they were not passing on the street as Joyce would only have been eleven years old at the time. It was Joyce’s own curiosities and drives that would compel her to defy her parents and sneak down to Washington square to watch the street artists and musicians. It was her own distaste with the conformities of identity put upon her as a girl. It was Joyce who decided to have an affair with one of her professors, it was Joyce who took a risk by having sex and ended up getting pregnant, and it was Joyce who decided to have an abortion. It was Joyce’s decision to drop out of school, to live on her own, and to find her own path. And, it was Joyce who wanted to be a writer, and who decided in 1955 to write a book called Come and Join the Dance; all of this was before ever being introduced to anyone that was called a Beat. There were no beats at the time, only restless people who did not want to conform to their society, and who wanted to feel free to live and experience life as they wanted- not icons, but normal people with a passion that many humans experience.
Joyce began writing Come and Join the Dance in 1955 while she was working as an editor at various agencies in New York. It was her dear friend Elise Cowen who she met at Bernard College that introduced her to Allen Ginsburg. It was Allen that thought Joyce would be a good match for Jack, who was returning from a hiatus in Florida, and it was Allen who set up the blind date which became the one of the main the subjects in Joyce’s memoir, Minor Characters. If you read Minor Characters and only focus on the relationship of Jack and Joyce than you’d be missing the essence of the book and playing into the ironic title. Jack Kerouac doesn’t enter the text until a quarter through the book. He is mentioned as an entity as a being that we the readers will anticipate, but his actual arrival is not until a hundred and twenty-eight pages in. The truly compelling character in the story, prior to Jack and Joyce’s first date, and after, is Elise Cowen. It is Elise who is in the shadows in the background unintentionally directing all of the interactions of these people who will become icons and muses, majors and minors in the world of literature and art; the projections of fantasies of later generations who wished they could have been there too. Like Joan Vollmer before her, Elise’s obsessional love toward a man who did not and could not want her, she was the string that tied them all together.
One can easily claim that Jack Kerouac did not intend nor want to be famous. It is also easy to claim that Joyce Johnson and other women from the time period are only riding on the coattails of that unwanted fame, but to do that is to ignore the quality of the actual writing. Joyce Johnson’s contribution is fundamental to the generation as are the other women from that time period. They give us different perspectives on what was happening, and it is only the current generations’ identities that place the labels and the judgments. Minor Characters was initially read and became popular because people were interested in knowing more about Jack Kerouac, but it did not win the 1983 National Book Critics Award or the 1987 O. Henry Award because of Jack Kerouac, It was Joyce Johnson’s who won the awards because of the writing, because it is an interesting and well written memoir. She wrote the book not Kerouac. She wrote before this book was published, and she continued to write after it was published. She did not emulate Kerouac’s writing or the writing of the other men from that time period she wrote in her own voice, and on her own terms.
To be “beat” to be beatific was to be free. A group of individuals who did not want to buy into the new consumerism and cliche that was postwar America; people who wanted something else something not provided by the illusion of the American dream. Joyce Johnson had that individualism innately within her and she was willing to risk the same (if not more) consequences as men that would come with attempting to live her own life the way she wanted- freely and without conformity. As Amiri Baraka said:
The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.*
This desire would not end with the beat generation, as evident that it continues on today as it has in earlier societies and time periods. We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and one gender, sexuality or race should not be the judicial bases of the quality of a work art or literature, those categories should only be viewed as another perspective. The quality stands on it’s own regardless of who or what brought it to us.
The women and people of color who contributed to the beat generation may be considered the Minor Characters to the great generational play written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and William Burroughs, but as Gregory Corso said:
“Three writers does not a generation make”.*
Joyce Johnson was a Beat Writer from the Beat Generation and what she brought to the era and the generation is a perspective of dimension in a world that was already dynamic, and that is beatific.
Joyce Johnson’s work:
Come and Join the Dance, 1962
Minor Characters, 1983
In the Night Cafe, 1987
What Lisa New: The Truth and Lies of the Steinberg Case, 1989
Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 2000
Missing Men, 2004
The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac
The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse
Blues People: Negro Music in White America By LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
Revolution for the Hell of It by Abbie Hoffman
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic