- Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
Collins, 262 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 00 272511 8
- Neurotica: The Authentic Voice of the Beat Generation 1948-1951 edited by Jay Landesman and G. Legman
Jay Landesman, 535 pp, £19.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 905150 26 0
- Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac by Gerald Nicosia
Grove, 767 pp, £14.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 394 52270 2
Joyce Johnson was Jack Kerouac’s lover during a brief but crucial period in his career. She met him on a blind date fixed up by Allen Ginsberg in January 1957, nine months before the publication of his second novel. Outside a small circle of avant-garde writers and artists and drinking buddies, Kerouac then had few admirers. In 1950, under the name John Kerouac, he had published The Town and the City, a lengthy, rather formal account of his childhood and youth, heavily influenced by Thomas Wolfe. The novel had made little impression, and Kerouac himself had swiftly turned against it, finding its traditional style and form far too restrictive. Influenced by the creative improvisation of jazz musicians, in contact with Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollock and de Kooning, above all exhilarated and inspired by his friendship with the charismatic free-thinking and fast-talking con-man and car-thief Neal Cassady, Kerouac began to experiment with his prose, attempting to find a new form which would allow him to express his visions of himself, his friends, and the strange, new post-war American world. Over the next few years he wrote, in whole or in part, at least seven separate novels, all of which were firmly refused by the publishing world, until Viking decided to take a chance with On the Road.
Vol. 6 No. 2 · 2 February 1984
From Michael Horovitz
SIR:Peter Prince gets one detail and several emphases wrong in his sympathetic review of Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters (LRB, 19 January). It was the pioneer homosexual liberationist Ginsberg transcribing his own 1954 ‘Dream Letter from John Clellon Holmes’ into his journal, and not Holmes writing to Ginsberg, with the proposition that ‘the social organisation which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.’ Holmes was by his own published accounts a then somewhat uptight heterosexual, and Ginsberg’s bias was not so much anti-girl or anti-woman but anti-bourgeois-conformist. Ms Johnson recalls that he ‘added sternly, “Not society’s perfum’d marriage” ’.
Her memoir is clearly true to her own experience of beat beginnings in New York City but it doesn’t, pace Prince, therefore follow that all ‘the women waited and watched the men with varying degrees of resignation and desperation’, or that ‘the most celebrated achievements of beat women seem to have been their deaths.’ The male Beat Generation writers whose works survive would be among the first to affirm the very real, deserved celebrity of the enduring oeuvres of their female comrades, most of whom are very much alive and kicking and writing as well as ever today: Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Lyn Lifshin, Joni Mitchell, Sonia Sanchez, Patti Smith, Diane Wakoski, Anne Waldman, Joyce Johnson et al.
The fact that several of these are unheard of and only one or two at all widely published in Britain testifies to the inference that Little England’s literary establishment is still run by a profoundly bourgeois-conformist, if somewhat incelebrable and old boy gang.