I recently came across Joyce Johnson’s 1983 book Minor Characters on a Goodreads list of memoirs by women, and I was intrigued to find a female voice from the Beat Generation.
At first, it seemed too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of a female writer among the Beats, even when studying them in college courses. After all, most Beat criticism quotes the following observation from Allen Ginsberg: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” So who was Joyce Johnson? Would her book have literary merit, or would it be a just-okay read, piggybacking off of Kerouac’s celebrity?
Johnson’s cover features the original photo used in a 1993 Gap ad “Kerouac wore khakis.” As one can see, her figure was gently erased.
Speaking for herself, Johnson is almost unrecognizable as a Beat woman. Whereas in On the Road, et al., the women are all legs and beds – sirens of small towns, briefly featured, ultimately discarded – Johnson is a Barnard graduate and aspiring writer, living in New York City. She holds jobs at various literary agencies, gets a book deal, and rents her own apartment. Kerouac mopes through town, between stays at his mother’s house, and crashes on her living room floor.
One of the highlights of reading Johnson is precisely what she has promised in her title: a sketch of life as a minor character, a girl stuck on the sidelines of the boy gang camaraderie. Consider this image of Edie Parker in Johnson’s opening chapter:
“One night Lucien Carr found an empty barrel and rolled Jack Kerouac home in it — that’s a solemnly recorded fact. As it crashes along Broadway through the hot, empty streets with Lucien attempting to push it faster and faster, I see Edie Parker running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.”
This scene calls to mind Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 essay “On Pandering,” in which Watkins introduces the concept of “watching boys do stuff”:
“As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. . . I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”
When I first read Watkins’ essay, part of my experience that had remained a nameless frustration suddenly presented itself clearly. Friday nights during junior high and high school spent watching football games, in makeup and tight shirts, even though I didn’t like football. Going over to boys’ houses, only to get stuck watching them play video games. Studying abroad with boys who were always saying “take a picture of me here,” “Liz, can you videotape me doing this?” Senior year of college, sitting silently with my cup of whisky (all they had), listening to them debate in ever-louder registers about a random philosophical question. Primarily interested in each other as opponents, the girls mostly watched.
Reflecting on the social conditioning that leads to hours, days, collective months of forced spectatorship can be embittering. And Johnson understands that – and understood it long before anyone had started using the hashtag #watchingboysdostuff.
Of course, the practice of spectating and the art of writing are naturally intertwined. Baudelaire’s flaneur roams the streets at the turn of the 20th century, yet lives inside his mind – David Foster Wallace writes “Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers . . . They are born watchers,“ at the turn of the 21st. Johnson recognizes herself as a natural observer, quiet and watchful. But she moved in a community of writers, and, upon reading her eloquent prose, it seems should have had equal footing within it.
Thus Johnson explains not only what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, but specifically how it feels to be an emerging female writer in a literary movement that prioritized the kind of writing that only (white, privileged) maleness afforded.
For example, on the first day of a creative writing class at Barnard, a male professor asked Johnson’s class of young women, “Who among you want to be writers?” Slowly, they all raised their hands. He responded, “I’m sorry to say this . . . first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You couldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight [trains, riding through America.”
Johnson writes, “The young would-be writers in this room have understood instantly that of course there is no hope. One by one their hands have all come down.”
To read Minor Characters, then, is to be part of a victory – to bring to life a tale that was ignored and stifled for a long time. Moreover, to hear the unsexy account of how Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg moved through the world is unexpectedly heartening – it gives hope to the quieter type, the more socially-boxed-in person, that he/she can live fully, and write well, too.
Photo 3: https://tinhouse.com/on-pandering/
Photo 4: https://doitagaindreen.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/joyce-johnson-lets-dance-to-a-female-beat/