Joyce Johnson eschews the muse in Minor Characters

Joyce Johnson Minor Characters


They airbrushed her out of the photos. But it turns out Kerouc’s ‘muse’ Joyce Johnson could write up her own storm.

Take a look at the cover of ‘Minor Characters’, main pic. See that ghostly figure behind good ol’ Jack Kerouac? That’s Joyce Johnson, or Joyce Glassman, as she was then known. You know why that picture’s famous? Apart from having Kerouac in it, of course?

Because every time that picture was reproduced, in the heyday of the Beat Scene, Joyce Johnson was airbrushed right out of it.

“This is the muse’s side of the story. It turns out that the muse could write as well as anybody”- Angela Carter

Joyce Johnson didn’t exist. She was erased, a nothing, one of Kerouac’s girls, someone who fueled his flame and helped propel him to glory. She was considered to be a zero by seemingly everyone except herself and Kerouac, who recognized that she held him together during his darkest period of alcoholism.

For the time they were together, it seems Kerouac leaned heavily on Johnson; both before and after the hurly-burly that proceeded On the Road‘s publication, she represented a rare fixed point in his life. “When I met him in the January of ’57, he had absolutely no idea what awaited him,” she says. “Because he’d suffered – he’d had a novel published in ’49, The Town and the City, and he’d written several other novels, including On the Road, and none of them had been published. And he’d lived an impoverished life, essentially the life of a homeless person. It’s all very romantic to go on the road, but it’s also rather terrible not to have a place of your own. And he was always sort of searching for a place he could be, but because of the way he was, he could never find that. He’d set off for a new destination imagining it was gonna be great, and then he’d get there and bad vibes would come, and the bad vibes were inside him, of course …”

Kerouac took a similar attitude towards relationships, in Joyce Johnson’s view: “I think he had a grass-is-greener idea about women. I also think he was very messed up about women because of his overly intense relationship with his mother. And in a way, I think, flitting from woman to woman was his way of staying faithful to his mother – no one was ever going to supplant her as the fixed figure in his life.”

When Johnson and Kerouac finally split for good, it was after he had spent an evening drunkenly flirting with another woman right in front of her. “Choked with pain, I searched for the worst words I could think of. ‘You’re nothing but a big bag of wind!'” she writes in Minor Characters. “‘Unrequited love’s a bore!’ he shouted back. Enraged, we stared at each other, half-weeping, half-laughing. I rushed away, hoping he’d follow. But he didn’t.”

Joyce Johnson was an aspiring writer who’d given up her cosy job in publishing to lead the beat life and follow a hard-road literary dream. At the time of On the Road‘s publication, Johnson had herself just received a handsome advance of $500 for her first novel, Come and Join the Dance. She had resigned from her job at a publishing house to concentrate on her writing, aiming to have the book completed in six months.

“As a writer, I would live life to the hilt as my unacceptable self, just as Jack and Allen [Ginsberg] had done,” she had daydreamed while still in her office job. “I would make it my business to write about young women quite different from the ones portrayed on the pages of the New Yorker. I would write about unfurnished rooms and sex.”

However, the sequence of events that followed the publication of On the Road stalled her progress. “It took me several years to finish the novel,” she says, “much longer than anticipated because my life was chaotic, and interrupted by people like Jack.”

Kerouac relied increasingly on alcohol to fire him up; the problem was that neither the success nor the liquor helped his writing. He was attempting to write an account of his childhood, entitled Memory Babe. “But he was too demoralized by his experiences following the publication of On the Road, and by the increasing alcohol, to ever complete it,” Johnson says. “It was the first time that it happened to him, that he had to abandon a project. It was very upsetting to him.”

Johnson’s novels, though well-received in the beat years, ceased to be printed. Until fairly recently, only Minor Characters, her tale of living the beat dream with Kerouac, Neal Cassidy and the others, survived – but Come and Join the Dance has now received the reprint it deserves.

There could be a sense of dirty voyeurism about Minor Characters, a desire to gain further insight into noted beat scene icons. But it doesn’t work like that. Only a few pages in, and the person you’ll care most about is Joyce herself. She’s mousy-seeming, gentle and steady. She dreams of being otherwise. Somehow, Jack has found in her a nurse, intellectual equal and source of balance in the chaos of his life. Because she eschews Jack Kerouac’s beat ethos of “the first thought is the best thought” her book has structure, it says exactly what it wants to say, and amid the fun and fearsome tales of revelry and danger there is a cohesive mind showing us what really happened in the lives of the beat poets and dreamers – the dark side of the Beat Dream.

In being one of the few people to write of the beat scene as it happened – from someone who was involved, but at the same time felt more of an outsider than the beat kings ever did – Joyce Johnson has given us a book it’s difficult to put down. She did that. Not Cassady. Not Kerouac.

Now, when you see her photo on Minor Characters, no-one would dare airbrush her out. She’s there, for all the world to see.