Joyce Johnson is best-known for her 1983 memoir, Minor Characters, which focuses on the years 1957-58, and concerns the role of the marginalized woman in the Beat sphere. It is ironic, then, that she is often written off as Kerouac’s girlfriend and the woman who wrote about being Kerouac’s girlfriend. Indeed, Johnson is an accomplished novelist in her own right, and an important figure in Beat studies beyond being merely one of the “minor characters.” Her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, is proof of that.
In 1962, Johnson published her first novel, Come and Join the Dance. She began writing the book a year before meeting Kerouac, and it is considered the first Beat novel written by a woman. Set in 1955, it details the life of a young college graduate in whom Johnson instills the sort of values people thought only the Beat men possessed – a wanderlust, yearning for freedom, sex, and adventure. She said:
“I wanted to write the real way that the girls I knew were living. And it was at a time that there was all this incredible anxiety about having sex, that was the great breakthrough and adventure for a girl – if you could dare to have sex outside your marriage. And so it was about a girl who was in her last week in college and feels that nothing real has ever happened to her, and she decides to lose her virginity. In the 1950s, young women did not write those books.”
Even readers of the Beat Generation may be slightly shocked and surprised, as they are more accustomed to reading about the female participants of the movement as being more reserved in the eyes of their male counterparts. But Johnson’s contributions to Beat studies and, as evidenced in her novels, to the Beat movement itself, have demonstrated that these people were no mere “minor characters,” and were instead sidelined by the history books. Perhaps most recognizable to the Beat enthusiast will be the character Kay, who is based upon the tragic figure of Elise Cowen.
Johnson’s next two novels, Bad Connections (1978) and In the Night Café (1987), are set in the bohemian culture of the 1960s and, like Come and Join the Dance, are located in her native New York City. Written in a crisp, fast-paced prose that exhibits the sort of liberating exuberance that Beat writing was known for, her novels are also tinged with a sadness that is more palpable even than in Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s writing. Her characters face greater obstacles in their lives and as such are even more beat than their male counterparts, and certainly lack the optimism and hope that existed for the men.
Although these are all fine works of fiction, Johnson has come to be known for her work in non-fiction, and particularly her work in the Beat field. Additionally, her first novel was released only in a run of 1,000 copies. As such, they have previously been hard to come by. Fortunately, Open Road Media has obtained and released these three novels in digital format, with a view to doing “a small paper edition” of Come and Join the Dance. These books are wonderful examples of Beat writing that Beatdom highly recommends. See www.openroadmedia.com for more information.