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.
Johnson was with Kerouac that early morning, 5 September 1957, when he walked to the news-stand at 66th and Broadway to read Gilbert Millstein’s review in the New York Times: ‘Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The sun also rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation.’ She was witness to the whole amazing process whereby this maverick, hitherto obscure 35-year-old writer was catapulted beyond literary fame into a sort of chaotic, international notoriety. She saw, too, the beginnings of Kerouac’s ultimately disastrous attempts to survive within the circus of fame. Booze and the horde of suddenly-available would-be lovers of both sexes were high on his list of escape routes. Pounded both by acclaim and insult – for the critical reaction against Kerouac set in almost immediately – the King of the Beats wavered alarmingly between bitter self-disgust and wild exhibitionist boasting. Unwilling to stand so close to the spectacle of disintegration or to compete with relentless groupies, Johnson finally broke off the relationship in the autumn of 1958.
Minor Characters is much more than a worm’s-eye-view of a famous man. Johnson’s real subject is her own youth, the teenage Joyce Glassman who in the early Fifties began to make hesitant forays from the sterile, claustrophobic Jewish home on the Upper West Side down to the mysterious, burgeoning bohemia of Greenwich Village. It was a journey, an imaginative and physical adventure, that she shared with many of her contemporaries. But like the clearly marked BOYS and GIRLS entrances to old schools, the stream diverged sharply as it entered the new-found land below 14th Street. The boys for the most part went on to a world of experiment and ambition and, for a few, achievement and recognition. And the girls for the most part ... ?
Well, look at the numbers. Neurotica was a small avant-garde magazine which began life in St Louis in 1948 and perished in New York at the end of 1951. It carried the early work of such future luminaries as Marshall McLuhan, Anatole Broyard, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen, Chandler Brossard. But out of over eighty ‘authentic’ voices, exactly nine were female, and none of these was destined for future fame. As Joyce Johnson remembers it, these were voices that came essentially from the periphery:
I see the girl Joyce Glassman, twenty-two, with her hair hanging down below her shoulders, all in black like Masha in The Seagull – black stockings, black skirt, black sweater – but, unlike Masha, she’s not in mourning for her life. How could she have been, with her seat at the table in the exact centre of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that’s alive? As a female she’s not quite part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall and their beer glasses collect and the smoke of their cigarettes rises towards the ceiling and the dead culture is surely being wakened. Merely being here, she tells herself, is enough.
The beat world was not exactly an exclusive male club. Indeed, as imaginative projections, women occupied high and varied positions as lovers, servers, whores, gypsies, virgins, jezebels, monsters of vengeance, angels of mercy. But the one truly important position was largely denied to them. They could not be seen as equals, fellow explorers, fellow artists. They might be ten miles high or ten miles deep, but they were not on the same level. John Clellon Holmes, who had the distinction – much resented by Kerouac at the time – of publishing the first beat novel, Go, wrote to Ginsberg in 1954: ‘The social organisation which is most true to itself to the artist is the boy gang.’ The formula is brutally simple. The artist needs the boy gang. Clearly a girl cannot join a boy gang. Therefore a girl cannot be an artist.
Cut off from participating freely in the great creative excitement of their generation, the women waited and watched the men with varying degrees of resignation and desperation. The question Johnson probes at like a nagging sore throughout this fascinating book is why she and they were so passive. An obvious answer was that it was apparently much safer to sit on the side-lines. Kerouac’s post-On the Road career was sufficient witness to the dangers of being noticed. But there did not seem to be much safety in passivity and obscurity either. The women suffered like the men, took to drugs and drink, and did desperate suicidal things like the men. Indeed, the most celebrated achievements of the beat women seem to have been their deaths. Dying was something they did rather well. William Burroughs’s wife Joan placed a glass on her head one night and challenged her husband to shoot it off with his pistol. Unfortunately, as Johnson laconically puts it, Burroughs’s ‘aim was off that night’. Then there was Elise Cowen, Johnson’s special friend and Ginsberg’s onetime lover. She jumped to her death from her parents’ apartment, a little while after being released from mental hospital. Her passing won a poetic tribute from the hands of Ginsberg and Lucien Carr:
How old was dear old Elipse when she went her merry way! I wish people I didn’t like did that instead of her. I feel more loyalty than love for Elipse.
Thus by her leap to death, dear old Elipse, a poet herself but distinctly uncelebrated, finally won a secure place in the pantheon.
In some ways, the position of the women was far more vulnerable than that of the men. The beat world rejected and despised the old conformist ‘bourgeois’ models of male and female behaviour. But while the men had an alternative and rather splendid American role to fall back on – the outlaw, the lone pioneer conquering the wilderness – there was nothing similar available to the women, except perhaps for ‘outlaw’s moll’ or ‘pioneer’s squaw-woman’. And they were still some years away from developing a feminist alternative. It irritates Joyce Johnson very much to look back on the abject silence in which she feels she passed too much of her young womanhood. But she is not inclined to pretend that things could have been much different, to dismiss the weight of opinion that lay on her generation. Nor, as she looks back at her personal submission to that culture, is she led to deny her youthful choices. She thought then that she was fortunate to be in touch with so many brilliant, exploring minds, to have at least a place in the vicinity of the boy gang. She thinks so now. It is not the presence of the girl Joyce Glassman at the edge of the charmed circle, while the voices of the men – ‘always the men’ – rise and fall, that she wishes to forget: ‘It is only her silence that I wish finally to give up.’
While it lasted, the affair with Kerouac clearly caused Johnson much pain. She was almost always in the difficult position of being the one who loved rather than the beloved. But this sad, dignified book is in no sense an attempt to get her own back. She writes of Kerouac with shrewd generosity, and leaves a convincing impression that behind the usually boorish public façade of the King of the Beats was a man of great sensitivity and sweetness. Her insight is confirmed by the portrait of Kerouac that emerges from Gerald Nicosia’s long and absorbing biography, even though Nicosia is unsparing in his description of his subject’s prolonged alcoholic downfall – what a newspaper in his lifetime termed ‘the Celtic Twilight of Jack Kerouac’. To some degree, this very harrowing account unbalances Memory Babe, for Kerouac’s story is fundamentally one of creation rather than disintegration. Nevertheless, by the end, one is convinced that the horrors needed to be exposed. The anguish that spilled out of Kerouac spectacularly in the last phase of his career was the same anguish, so carefully nursed and rawly confessed, that made him, in flashes, an extraordinary writer.
The family stands behind Kerouac’s life and work like monstrous deities – overwhelming images of warning, perfection, adoration and revenge. He was born in the winter of 1922 in the French Canadian section of Lowell, Massachusetts, the third child and second son of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac. Within the family, within the small, isolated Cannuck community, he was known from the first as ‘Ti-Jean’ – ‘Little John’. Not until years later, when he began to mix with English-speaking people, when he himself was forced to speak English, would he be called Jackie or Jack. The father, a bold, attractive man, flourished briefly as an independent printer, only to lose most of what he had gained in the Depression and to turn increasingly to the solaces of drink and gambling. Disappointed in her man, the mother turned all her expectations and capacity for possessive love onto her son. For there was only one son now. The older brother Gérard – a child whose goodness, beauty and patience in the face of suffering convinced his mother and the nuns of the parish that they were dealing with a boy-saint – had died in 1926 after a protracted illness. The ‘martyrdom’ of Gérard was the central trauma of Jack’s childhood, perhaps of his life. It left him with an image of perfection which he could never hope to attain, and a guilty awareness, always encouraged by his mother, that the good angel in the family had departed, leaving behind one much more worthy of death, the humanly-flawed Ti-Jean. Lost in this tiny, claustrophobic, death-haunted world within the vast English-speaking sea, assailed by the most intense emotions of love and grief and guilt, the childhood of Jack Kerouac was a spectacular shadow-land, adored and much feared, from which as a man he never finally escaped, and which as a writer he would endlessly try to reclaim.
Nicosia is a fierce partisan of that writing. Kerouac was so often dealt with unfairly and obtusely by reviewers in his lifetime that it is perhaps only fair that he should have such a whole-hearted posthumous assessment. And Nicosia is generally convincing in his insistence that behind Kerouac’s celebrated device of ‘spontaneous composition’ lay a great deal of hard-won theory. Sometimes, though, the biographer does seem to overplay his hand, ranking Kerouac far too high in a sort of hit parade of the mighty dead – Melville, Rabelais, Céline, Sterne, Shakespeare: one chapter is entitled ‘The Footsteps of the Bard’.