“Among the great American literary memoirs of the past century. . .a riveting portrait of an era. . .Johnson captures this period with deep clarity and moving insight.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times
In 1954, Joyce Johnson’s Barnard professor told his class that most women could never have the kinds of experiences that would be worth writing about. Attitudes like that were not at all unusual at a time when “good” women didn’t leave home or have sex before they married; even those who broke the rules could merely expect to be minor characters in the dramas played by men. But secret rebels, like Joyce and her classmate Elise Cowen, refused to accept things as they were.
As a teenager, Johnson stole down to Greenwich Village to sing folksongs in Washington Square. She was 21 and had started her first novel when Allen Ginsberg introduced her to Jack Kerouac; nine months later she was with Kerouac when the publication of On the Road made him famous overnight. Joyce had longed to go on the road with him; instead she got a front seat at a cultural revolution under attack from all sides; made new friends like Hettie and LeRoi Jones, and found herself fighting to keep the shy, charismatic, tormented Kerouac from destroying himself. It was a woman’s adventure and a fast education in life. What Johnson and other Beat Generation women would discover were the risks, the heartache and the heady excitement of trying to live as freely as the rebels they loved.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.66(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Reading Group Guide
1. Why were misogynistic attitudes so pervasive in America in the 1950s? How much have attitudes toward women changed since then? Or are we seeing a resurgence of 1950s thinking?
2. Why did Johnson call her memoir Minor Characters? Are Kerouac and Ginsberg the major characters in her book or Johnson and Elise Cowen?
3. What messages in On the Road spoke powerfully to women as well as men back in 1957? Do they still?
4. Was the publication of On the Road the event that started the culture war? Has this novel found a secure place in the American literary canon, or is it still perceived as an outlaw work?
5. Why are some women so attracted to challenging—even hopelessly “impossible”—men? Are there still relationships like the one Johnson had with Kerouac? Can a woman like Johnson find a certain kind of freedom in loving a man who won’t commit?
6. Why have so few women writers emerged from the 1950s and early sixties? Are there other women writers readers should be rediscovering?
7. Why were the women of the Beat Generation unable to transform the kinds of relationships they had with men? What were the penalties for sexual liberation sixty years ago?
8. Would Elise Cowen have survived if she had been born a decade later? Why did she never share her poems with friends while she was alive?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fantastic journey into the beat generation from a woman's perspective. Not only does Johnson share with her readers a look at Kerouac, she gives us an honest look at women as they begin their ascent to the modern women movement we now take for granted in this generation. In her candid portrayal of herself during that uneasy period of our American history, we are given a more honest example then most other writers ever hoped to achieve. A must for persons interested in late 20th Century America and Beat writing, as while as woman studies. A true luck beyond the ordinary.
I bought this book not knowing what to expect. I knew very little of Joyce Johnson and I guess I thought this book would be a tale of she dated the most famous writer of the Beat Generation and it was claim to fame. Boy, was I wrong. Joyce Johnson talks about so much more than Jack Kerouac that if she had left him out of the book it would still have been a great memoir. There are not many books I read that I wish had another 200 or more pages to go through, but this is one time that I think the book should have been longer. Joyce Johnson is an absolutely wonderful, lyrical, gifted writer. She makes you care about each person in the book. I actually found myself upset when she tells of best friend Elise's suicide. It was easy to imagine as if she were my friend as well, she is described in detail by Joyce. Joyce's sequel to this book Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters is just as good, and so is her second memoir Missing Men. But I think this is her masterpiece.
A riveting account of what it was like to be female in the fifties when women were considered secondary kinds of people who existed only to service and wait on the men. I remember trying to read On the Road forty-plus years ago and putting it aside because it seemed, at the time, nearly unreadable. Joyce's account of her own life uses small excerpts from Kerouac's books. If they are representative, then I'd probably still find him unreadable. I guess I don't get it. But Johnson's own writing style and her personal story are extremely readable - and interesting. I'm on her side. Her comment near the end of the book about what the beat poets and writers were all about seems to sum it up nicely: "I think it was about the right to remain children." This is an excellent book about the Beats, from a woman who was there and who tried to love Jack Kerouac, who was, as it turned out, incapable of returning love. Wise, sad, and eloquent.