Title: Minor Characters
Author: Joyce Johnson
Publisher: Washington Square Books
The women didn’t mind, or, if they did, they never said – not until years later. (p. 218)
To be a woman is difficult in any era, but to be an independent, creative, curious woman is especially difficult. In the 1950’s, after World War II, gender roles were supposed to be fairly well established. But things were starting to rumble a little. Change was stirring.
Really, the story of the Beat Generation begins in the late 1940s, when a confluence of personalities and talents converged at Columbia University in New York City. It was there the big names began to meet and discuss a new way of writing, and of being.
A teenaged girl named Joyce Johnson lived in a “respectable” neighborhood with her “respectable” parents. And, around the age of thirteen, this “respectable” girl rebelled. She went to places young girls shouldn’t go, and met people who opened her mind. These people led to the Beats; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them
Minor Characters is Johnson’ memoir centered around the years 1957-58, when she was Kerouac’s sometime girlfriend. She tells a story many can relate to, being attracted to someone who can’t reciprocate at the same level.
Much has been written about the Beat Generation writers. The men, that is. Not so much has been written about the women. Especially not much about the way women were treated. Johnson’s story about being in the middle of that maelstrom is fascinating.
She relates how women were discounted by the men. The usual story; taken for granted, belittled, not taken seriously, etc. etc. Her story could be the story of so many women, but what makes it stand out is that it happened with a group of men who are revered for their open-minded views about all sorts of things. They were especially interested in changing the rules of writing, and literature. But women were only for amusement, or housekeeping.
And as Joyce Johnson, reiterates, the women stood for it. Because as many generations of women will say, “we thought that’s what we had to do.” To find love, to find a life partner, meant a woman had to put up with the meanness of her beau’s foibles.
Here is a book in which the woman, after two years of evasion and half-truths, said, “No. Go away” to Jack Kerouac. Joyce Johnson told Jack Kerouac, she was tired of his crap and to leave her alone. Brava! and Well Done!
The pain of this decision is clear, as is the need for something healthier, something more equitable, more loving. To be sure, the most famous names were men who were hard to love, under any circumstances. Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady; all charismatic and difficult. Horrible in their actions, negligent in their search for self-awareness. Of them all, Ginsberg is the one who consistently appears to exert a great deal of effort to become familiar with himself.
While the Beats were changing the way America read and wrote, literature, Joyce Johnson was changing the way women looked at the men with whom they were in relationships. Her story is well-told, and a fascinating look at the minor characters who also played a part in the Beat Generation.