is a 1987 memoir by American novelist Joyce Johnson, narrating her childhood and early life up to the end of her relationship with novelist Jack Kerouac. As well as portraying Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat legends, Johnson focuses on the role that women—the “minor characters” of the title—played in the social and artistic upheaval of the Beat generation. Minor Characters
won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
Johnson grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish-American family. Bright, sensitive, and obedient, Johnson is every parent’s dream daughter up to the age of eight, “the golden era of my career as a daughter.” As she progresses into adolescence under the shadow of the Cold War and a stuffy, out-of-touch government, Joyce begins to feel “the psychic hunger of my generation.”
At thirteen, Johnson hears folk singers performing in Washington Square Park. In that moment, “It's as though a longing I've carried inside myself has suddenly crystallized. To be lonely within a camaraderie of loneliness.” She begins to hang out in the Village and among the “outcast population” of Columbia University. Purchasing a hip pair of dangly copper earrings, Johnson keeps them in her pocket, like a disguise, to don whenever she is mixing with her bohemian circle. The rest of the time she keeps them hidden from parents, teachers, and her boyfriend.
The boyfriend leaves her, accusing her of being attracted to decadence. Johnson admits: ''I was attracted to decadence. ... I had little respect for respectability. I was sure only cowardice kept me on the straight and narrow.'' But Johnson has begun to nurture dreams of becoming a writer, and respectability starts to feel like a straight-jacket: “As a writer, I would live life to the hilt as my unacceptable self.”
At Barnard College, she chafes against teaching in writing and literature, which seems designed to re-enforce her respectability rather than her creative talent and energy. Her writing instructor forbids his charges to use sentence fragments, which are for “effect,” something he seems to believe should be forbidden girls. He announces that if his students were going to be writers, they wouldn’t be at Barnard: they’d be riding the rails. He means: they wouldn’t be girls.
Johnson’s awareness of this double-standard crystallizes as she tries to find a soul mate amongst the young men of her generation: “I’d learned myself by the age of sixteen that just as girls guarded their virginity, boys guarded something less tangible which they called Themselves. They seemed to believe they had a mission in life, from which they could easily be deflected by being exposed to too much emotion.”
Through a friend, Johnson meets the poet Allen Ginsberg, who sets her up on a blind date with Jack Kerouac. Johnson—twenty-one and a college dropout—picks up the tab. Kerouac wishes aloud that he were alone at the top of a mountain, then suggests that Johnson move in with him. When they reach his apartment, he mutters that he dislikes blondes. Nevertheless, they become an item.
Just nine months later, Kerouac publishes On the Road
and becomes the most visible figure of the Beat generation. For the next two years, Johnson, who is hard at work on a novel of her own, is known only as Kerouac’s girlfriend. It is a heavy responsibility. Kerouac quickly tires of fame, his drinking worsens, and Johnson finds herself charged with the responsibility of telling him when “it is time to go home.” She is his friend, adviser, cheerleader, but she is not the love of his life. Kerouac reserves his passion for dark-haired women. Nor is she his fellow-artist. For Kerouac and the rest of the Beats, art is a masculine calling.
Instead, Johnson listens to endless stories culled from Kerouac’s travels and nights of hard drinking, stories “of a hundred small occasions when in the ripening atmosphere of some midnight or endless beery afternoon came the moment when the absolutely right and perfect, irreducibly masculine thing was said or demonstrated unforgettably—an illumination worth waiting hours for.”
Hemmed in by the dominant assumptions of the era, Johnson finds herself accepting the narrative that “the heightened moment, intensity for its own sake” is something men “apparently find only when they’re with each other.”
Writing her memoir, Johnson offers a corrective. Alongside her own story, she portrays the women of the Beat generation, too often regarded simply as helpmeets, destined to pick up a male artist, “straighten him out a little, clean up the studio, contribute to the rent, have a baby or two, become one of those weary, quiet, self-sacrificing, widely respected women brought by their men to the Cedar on occasional Saturday nights in their limp thrift-shop dresses made interesting with beads. Even a very young women can achieve old-ladyhood, become the mainstay of someone else's self-destructive genius.”
She traces the lives of her friends Elise Cowen and Hetty Cohen. Cowen’s life leads her down a dark road of drug addiction to eventual suicide. Cohen married the black poet LeRoi Jones, faithfully supporting him in the creation of his work, only to be left with her two children by him when the assassination of Malcolm X caused Jones—now Amiri Baraka—to reject his ties to his white wife.
Reflecting on her experiences, Johnson feels grateful for the “permanent sense of impermanence” her youth imparted to her. She has managed to retain her youthful “sense of expectancy” but she also knows that expectancy is to some extent simply a condition of youth and not the same thing as optimism or excitement for the future.