Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir

byJoyce JohnsonIntroduction byAnn Douglas

Paperback | July 15, 1999

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
 
“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.

About The Author

Joyce Johnson's eight books include the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award winner Minor Characters, the recent memoir Missing Men, the novel In the Night Cafe, and Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters 1957-1958 (with Jack Kerouac). She has written for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and lives in New York City.
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Details & Specs

Title:Minor Characters: A Beat MemoirFormat:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 7.7 × 5 × 0.66 inPublished:July 15, 1999Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0140283579

ISBN - 13:9780140283570

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Bookclub 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?

From Our Editors

When you think of the beat generation, you probably think of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. But what about the women who helped shape the beat movement? Minor Characters looks at the female friends and lovers of the men who made beat a buzzword. We learn about their contributions in shaping the movement and how they chose to live more freely a decade before the 1960s Women's Liberation Movement.

Editorial Reviews

"This is the muse's side of the story.  It turns out the muse could write as well as anybody." –Angela Carter   “This little known Beat Generation memoir uncovers the hidden female characters who played pivotal roles in the progression of the 1950’s literary movement.  One can imagine how Hannah’s bookish heart beats to the drum of figures like Edie Parker and Elise Cowen and Joyce Johnson.” – Lena Dunham“Rich and beautifully written, full of vivid portraits and evocations of the major Beat voices and the minor characters, their women.”--Anne Lamott, The San Francisco Chronicle"A first-rate memoir, very beautiful, very sad." --E.L. Doctorow  “Minor Characters is, in its quiet but deliberate way, among the great American literary memoirs of the past century . . . [It] is not just about the Beats . . . in part it’s a portrait of Johnson’s cloistered middle-class childhood on the Upper West Side. . .Best of all, perhaps, this book charts Johnson’s own career as a budding writer . . .it’s a book about a so-called minor character who, in the process of writing her life, became a major one.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review"Joyce Johnson hands over to us the safe-deposit box that contains lost, precious scrolls of the New York '50s." --The Washington Post