Minor Characters – Joyce Johnson

Written by:
Nancy Chapple
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One "minor character" is accorded just half a sentence in biographies of cult author Jack Kerouac: he had "an erratic love affair with Joyce Glassmann between 1957 and 1959." In 1983, Glassmann (now Johnson) published her account of that time, and of what came before (sheltered Jewish family life on New York’s Upper West Side) and after (love and loss, motherhood and friendship, reading and writing). She makes it abundantly clear that while women may have been considered muses, more often they were seen as inexorable pulls towards fatal domesticity (fatal to art, that is).

The book is through-composed and the story draws the reader forward towards her meeting Kerouac, falling in love with him – and separating from him. Johnson, of course, shows what Kerouac was like, but she also skillfully captures the feel of Greenwich Village and Barnard College. Those threads describing the texture of the 1950’s are gently interwoven with the great love story as seen from Joyce’s perspective; the short, tragic affair between Joyce’s best college friend, Elise, and Allen Ginsburg is told in parallel.

Showing how grammar was taught in the 1950’s conveys an immediate feeling for the restricting corsets of convention of the time. A teacher "has particular scorn for sentence fragments, which she says ‘can only be used for effect.’ So as not to confuse us, no writers who break such rules are ever named. … Effect is something we girls have no right to. Only after years of laboriously equipping each sentence with subject and predicate, as with boots and umbrella, can we hope to earn it. Perhaps not even then." The complete sentences demanded were just as rigidly proscribed as the sweater set and skirt outfits that were worn.

Like many born writers, Joyce feels a certain distance from the world around her. She has no choice other than to be slightly outside what’s going on, to observe and soak up, but remain slightly detached. Long before she met Kerouac, she was fascinated with the risque culture of writers and artists and jazz musicians in the Village. She tried to grasp all the fascinating fragments she overheard: "I’d hang out around the edges of the crowded tables, listening, looking, not really participating. Ideas flashed by like silver freight trains that wouldn’t stop at your station to unload but had to push on to a vanishing point in the distance. What was Jungian? Existentialist? Abstract expressionist?"

It is assumed that men’s experience is more authentic and counts more – but then, they’re free to experiment and travel. And it’s not easy to get away from the mystique. The women felt they had no choice but to succumb to it: "… 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 …"

Have things changed very much? "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." Times have, indeed, changed. Today’s young people, male and female, feel equally free to explore sexuality if they so please, equally on the lookout for love or the sparks of attraction – and equally confused by adolescent torrents of emotion. Roles are less fixed. Other passages in Minor Characters put other changes in perspective – the squalor and discomfort of an illegal back room abortion is a graphic example.

Johnson’s memoir is a moving chronicle of an adventurous – and ultimately lonely – woman in New York in the 1950’s.

– Nancy Chapple

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