Johnson and Kerouac, ca. 1957
  • Jerry Yulsman
  • Johnson and Kerouac, ca. 1957

I received one of my most important lessons about feminism when I was about 16 and attempted to read On the Road. I think I got as far as Montana, where Sal and Dean hitch a ride in the back of a pickup truck and gaze up at the stars. I liked that part, but shortly after, I fell asleep and didn’t bother picking it up again. I thought Sal and Dean were boring and the bebop language was annoying, but most of all, what bothered me was that there were no women. Well, there were women, but they barely existed, only for a few pages, as long as it took for the men to spend the night in their beds.

What I learned from On the Road was this: just because women had the right to vote and just because sexism was no longer institutionalized—that I was not only allowed, but expected, to go to college and get a job and live independently when I graduated—it did not mean all our problems were solved. On the Road taught me that there were still a lot of men who still believed that just because they had dicks that they could swing around, they had the right to do whatever they wanted—to be free, man—without bothering to consider that women might want to get to do what they wanted, too, and that they might have other ambitions in life besides providing temporary beds and sex followed by scrambled eggs. I wanted to go on the road, too! I wanted to have adventures and write about them! I wanted men to listen as intently to me as they expected me to listen to them.

I really hoped that this sort of thinking was just a relic of the 50s, but after observing the boys in my high school (and college, and graduate school, and at various jobs), I realized that it’s not. It’s much easier to change the law than what people actually believe.

I should have been reading Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson’s memoir of her time on the fringes of the Beat generation—the title refers to the friends of Kerouac and Ginsberg and etc, who did not achieve literary immortality and who were mostly women—but for some reason, it’s not considered a great classic like On the Road. Oh, I get that it didn’t introduce a new kind of voice to American literature (or inspire waves and waves of bad imitations), but it would have been instructive for the legions of teenage girls who become obsessed with Sylvia Plath to read about a woman writer who survived the 50s without sticking her head in the oven.

I read Minor Characters for the first time a few years back, but last weekend after I saw a confusing new play called I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation that was allegedly based on it, I realized I remembered almost nothing besides the obvious part, that Johnson, then known as Joyce Glassman, had had an affair with Kerouac around the period On the Road was first published, in 1957. It also left me with the impression that the Beat women got a raw deal and that Joyce was pretty awesome for eventually calling Jack on his bullshit and, by writing the book, insisting on her right to be a person, not just a minor character in a man’s story.

The passport photo Elise Cowen never used.
  • The passport photo Elise Cowen never used.

The most striking character in I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation was Elise Cowen, about whom I remembered nothing from the book. According to the play’s program notes, she was Allen Ginsberg’s last stab at heterosexuality. In the play, she gets hung up on Ginsberg and undergoes many other humiliations and finally dies, tragically. But before that, she’s by far the wittiest character, even when she’s suffering. After she discovers Ginsberg’s dumped her for Peter Orlovsky, for instance, she cries for a bit, then tries on a new hat. “I bought a beret,” she tells Joyce. “I think I’ll go to Paris.” (OK, it sounded much better when Emilie Modaff, the actress who plays her, said it.)

I grew curious about what she’d really been like. So I got a copy of Minor Characters and started rereading.

Though the hook for Minor Characters is that it’s about Johnson’s affair with Kerouac, that’s just part of the story. It’s also about Johnson’s escape from her parents’ dull life in their dull apartment on the Upper West Side and her mother’s expectations that she become a composer—into Greenwich Village bohemia and a life as a writer. Kerouac is part of that, except that Johnson can get no writing done when he’s crashing with her between road trips, and he never gives any indication that he has any respect for her as a writer, even though, when she’s just 21, she signs a contract with Random House for her first novel. (It won’t be published for another five years.)

The real emotional core of Minor Characters is Joyce and Elise’s friendship. They meet during their first semester at Barnard College, where they immediately identify each other as fellow oddballs among their more “collegiate” plaid-skirt-and-sweater-wearing classmates. “We went and had coffee,” Johnson writes. “I think it was in a lounge Barnard had for day students. There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from a conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy.”

They experiment with poetry. They become entangled with a community of writers and poets that hang out in their professor Alex Greer’s apartment. They move into their own places, a sign in those days of a girl who was up to no good. They experiment with sex and endure abortions; Elise’s is “psychiatric,” while Joyce’s is flat-out illegal. This is all much harder on Elise than it is on Joyce; she attempts suicide and spends some time in a psychiatric hospital.

(Is Elise naturally more unstable? Does Joyce have an easier time because she’s able to focus and work, or because she is blonde and pretty and, therefore, more likely to attract people who will be kind to her, while Elise is overweight and plagued by terrible acne and glasses and convinced she is hopelessly ugly? “Elise in her own dread of lovelessness, her fear that she will never be found acceptable, never fit, be outcast even among outcasts . . . Elise who feels herself to be a shadow.”)

Joyce Johnson
  • Mellon Tytell
  • Joyce Johnson

Joyce keeps meaning to go on the road, but she’s held back in New York first because she lacks the money to travel, then because of the whims of Jack Kerouac. (He proposes they go live in Mexico and write. She quits her job and buys a plane ticket. He sends her a letter that he’s already left Mexico and is living in Orlando with his mother.) Elise gets as far as San Francisco, which turns into a personal disaster. The men go to Tangier and Paris and London.

“If I had to go and apply for jobs like you, they’d have to drag me into Bellevue in two days,” Kerouac writes to Joyce at one point. “That’s why I am and will always be a bum, a dharma bum, a rucksack wanderer.”

“But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages,” Johnson writes sarcastically, “since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from.”

Because Kerouac was a genius, he always had people to freeload off of for food and a place to stay. Because Johnson was a 21-year-old woman, albeit one with a publishing contract, she had to earn her own living. At one point, she considers becoming the “old lady” of one of the artists who hangs out around the Cedar Bar, the way her friend Hetty Jones was the “old lady” to the poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka).

“I might . . . 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 in by their men to the Cedar on occasional Saturday nights in their limp thrift-shop dresses made interesting with beads. Even a very young woman can achieve old-ladyhood, become the mainstay of someone else’s self-destructive genius.”

Fortunately, Johnson decided she was not in love with the artist. She was not a genius, but she took her writing seriously.

Elise probably wasn’t a genius, either. But there was no one to tell her she was, no one to minister to her, no one to type her poems, or to buy her dinner, or to soothe her ego and tell her how brilliant she was.

Elise died in 1962. By then she’d actually been to Bellevue (and not just because of the horrific prospect of having to get a job) and was back where she started, living with her disapproving parents in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. She committed suicide by jumping through the living room window. The headline in the New York World-Telegram read, “Woman 28 Found Dead.” In death, she was slightly famous: Ginsberg arranged for some of her poems to be published, finally, in City Lights Journal. “People passed her poems around for a while,” Johnson writes. “Suicide made Elise mythic briefly.”

Johnson never became mythic. But she wrote a great book. She’s still not as well-known as the male members of the Beat generation, even those who never published anything. I wish she were. I wish the book did not need the hook that Johnson fucked Kerouac to be considered interesting. (Lots of women did that.) I wish the world has changed more.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.