Minor CharactersPosted: April 5, 2022
Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir
read by Samara Naeymi
Brilliance Audio, March 16, 2021
$21.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
Joyce Johnson’s memoir has gone through multiple iterations. Houghton Mifflin first published the book in 1983. Johnson wrote a new introduction for the book on the occasion of a 1994 reissue. Then Ann Douglas penned a thoughtful and illuminating introductory essay about American women in the 1950s for a 1999 edition. Finally, Samara Naeymi recorded the unabridged audiobook version, which Brilliance Audio released only last year.
When we read about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, we generally encounter the names of men: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady, to name the most prominent figures. You will find all these men mentioned in Johnson’s book. But the prominence of the men diminishes the role women played in the movement. Johnson writes about her own involvement close to the movement but behind the scenes, and about how her close friend Elise Cowen and the wives of the Beats were very much a part of that world.
Johnson recounts her childhood and how her mother desperately wanted her to be a success in musical theater. That was not what Joyce wanted. She describes how she and her friend took the subway to Washington Square to participate in the folk music scene, telling their parents that they were doing something more wholesome. Her father was a corporate accountant who got little pleasure out of life other than playing the horses with the bookie at the newsstand and stopping by the bar for an occasional beer.
Johnson’s mother was intent that Joyce attend Barnard College, making her one of the few Jewish people to attend what has then an all-women’s school. (She was born Joyce Glassman.) Johnson spent four years at Barnard but did not graduate because the school had a physical education requirement that she ignored.
The author describes finding secretarial work after her non-graduation and maintaining a social life. Margaret Sanger had recently opened her birth control clinic in New York City, and the word among the young, unmarried Barnard alumna was that one could visit the clinic using a made-up married name to obtain the necessary services. Johnson admits that there was no logical reason for her hesitancy to do that herself. That omission had its consequences, and she describes in detail her experience of obtaining an illegal abortion by a seedy doctor in an unpleasant part of the city.
Elise Cowen and Johnson were close friends in college and maintained that friendship after their Barnard days, sometimes sharing an apartment. Cowen met Allen Ginsberg, with whom she immediately became infatuated. This was shortly before Ginsberg acknowledged his homosexuality, but Cowen never gave up hope, futile as that was.
It was Ginsberg who brought Johnson and Jack Kerouac together. Kerouac, constantly without money, suggested that he stay in Johnson’s apartment, something to which Johnson readily agreed. Kerouac was not one to stay in one place for long, however, and was always off to one place or another, whether it be Mexico, San Francisco, or Florida at his mother’s house. But he always had a place to stay with Johnson when he was in New York City.
Johnson makes a point of noting that Kerouac, always on the road (book reference intended), never headed out with a woman. Except for his mother. He moved her from Florida to San Francisco, back to Florida, and then to the New York countryside once his income from On the Road permitted his purchase of a house there. Loyalty to his mother transcended all other loyalties. He invited Johnson to visit their new home in New York, but afterward told her not to come back. His mother did not like her much. Among other things, she used too much hot water washing the dishes.
The author is clear-eyed in her perception of herself and others. She recognizes Kerouac had no romantic interest in her. (Sexual interest was a different matter.) She writes about how Kerouac kept insisting that they were “friends.” She also admits that she would have immediately taken him in had he chosen to commit. Johnson tells us that Kerouac never owned a typewriter. He always borrowed someone else’s, or very occasionally rented one. I have written here about how Kerouac famously composed On the Road on a scroll, and I have said that Kerouac scholars have said that the scroll consisted of sheets of paper taped together. Johnson says that he actually used a teletype roll that one of his friends obtained for him.
Johnson was at the center of the media frenzy after the publication On the Road. Kerouac had just returned to New York City and was living with her at the time. Johnson fielded telephone calls, sorted through the mail, and made sure Kerouac arrived on time for radio and television interviews. He was neither a gracious nor a pleasant guest for his media hosts.
Near the end of the book Johnson writes about breaking up with Kerouac (as if they were actually a couple in any genuine sense of the term). He had taken up with another woman and Johnson had reached her limit. It was outside a restaurant in New York City when she told him that enough was enough.
The final chapter is about the women in her world. In particular, she writes about how Cowen, who had been in a mental hospital, committed suicide rather than move to Florida with her parents. Although Johnson saw success as a writer, she tells us that the decade of the sixties did not hold she same attraction for her as the fifties did.
Samara Naeymi is superb in her reading of Johnson’s work and Johnson has structured her memoir with the flow of a novel. Listening to Minor Characters was time well spent.