I was only twenty in the fall of 1955 when I sat down to start my first novel. Come and Join the Dance had been partially inspired by my need to prove that the professor whose journal-writing class I’d had to endure at Barnard had been dead wrong in his attempts to make his female students accept that “the dreary little lives of women” could not possibly be material worthy of a serious writer’s attention. This was typical of the attitudes of male literati at that time. Since then, of course, there has been progressing. Today that professor would probably be fired. But the train is still miles from the station.
While the inclusion of Harry Lowther’s piece on Beat Women Writers in the most recent issue of Beatdom shows that indeed attitudes have been changing, the close reading Hettie Jones and I gave it one night, to the accompaniment of bitter laughter, revealed to us on nearly every page that male condescension is still firmly in place in the Beat field, even when a young scholar like Lowther apparently believes he is expressing nothing but sympathy for the poor overlooked women writers of the Beat period. With the exception of Diane di Prima, Lowther chooses to regard them as victims, even if those women did not view themselves that way. Instead of taking our word for how we actually felt, he applies his misconceptions to the stories we told in our memoirs and diminishes our actual achievements.
Neither Hettie’s memoir nor mine are “recent,” nor are they “forgotten,” as Lowther chooses to insist. How I Became Hettie Jones and Minor Characters have been continuously in print for nearly forty years. Perhaps this has something to do with their literary quality, which Lowther does not care to examine. It took Allen Ginsberg years before he got around to reading one of the complimentary copies of Minor Characters he kept losing. Otherwise, the book received an unusual amount of attention, was widely reviewed, translated into several languages, and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Just a year ago it was cited by Dwight Garner in the New York Times as “one of the great literary memoirs of the Twentieth Century.” Soon after my memoir was published, How I Became Hettie Jones broke important new ground in its portrayal of a white woman who bravely crossed America’s racial barrier to marry the young black poet she loved; it too was translated into other languages and is still an inspiration to its readers. Neither of these memoirs is a tell-all about the Beat celebrities we fell for. They are books about OUR lives, OUR coming of age right in the midst of explosive and significant shifts in American culture, which we wrote about as firsthand witnesses, attempting—perhaps futilely—to keep the record straight. When Hettie met LeRoi Jones and I met Kerouac, neither man had yet achieved the fame that would quickly break up our relationships with them. Our lives intersected with theirs in the late Fifties because we were rebellious and adventurous young woman attracted to the freedom of the Bohemian lifestyle and to men for whom we felt deep affinities.
Sex was by no means imposed on us. Just like the men we knew, we desired it, although for us sex was like playing Russian roulette because of our lack of access to effective birth control devices or legal abortions. Until the IUD, the condom was all we had to protect us. When we later wrote our books, we figured we did not have to spell that out for our readers (What can one really say about The Condom that would fill a chapter? Hettie recalls it as “dry.”) While admiring di Prima’s boldness in writing pornography, Lowther gives less macho women no credit for either sexual agency or the courage it took back then to have a sex life outside of marriage.
It is true that both Hettie Jones and I needed to be working women, rather than full-time artists, but having a day job was also a matter of choice. We were both interested in and proud of the editorial work we did over the years and managed to find time for our writing. (Men were not as good at that kind of balancing act.) We had not expected to be supported by husbands. Earning one’s own income was one of the prerequisites of being independent, being able to call the shots in one’s life or to exit at will from bad situations rather than becoming the victim of male dominance. As a point of fact, I did not financially support Kerouac, apart from lending him a few dollars now and then, which he always repaid. As I thought I made clear in Minor Characters, he actively encouraged me to keep writing my novel and our continuing dialog about our work was one of the best features of our two-year affair. Jack believed that having a child would put an end to my efforts to write, but he turned out to be mistaken about that.
It took me six years to finish Come and Join the Dance. but that was largely due to the fact that I needed to learn how to write a novel and kept obsessively revising along the way. Fortunately, the editor who had seen something new in its opening chapters did not ask me to return the $500 he’d advanced me. When it was finally published by Atheneum in 1962, I had reached the advanced age of 26. It was quite rare for a young woman to get her work published by a major publishing house even by the early Sixties, when misogyny was still pervasive. I received the hostile reviews I anticipated, though oddly enough they were not as nakedly sexist as the responses I got from male reviewers in 2012 when I published my Kerouac biography, The Voice Is All. In 1963, there had been some handwringing because “a young well-educated woman” had written about sex in a way that demonstrated some deplorable knowledge of it. At 78, however, I found myself being denounced as “Kerouac’s fuck buddy turned biographer,” by the Beat loudmouth Paul Maher, warned that Beat studies were a “rough neighborhood,” by a turf defender in the Boston Globe and informed by the contemptuous gentlemen of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books that my half-century of life après Kerouac had been a complete vacuum, despite the other men in my life, the child I’d raised singlehandedly, and the production of eight books. Most of my male reviewers also idiotically persisted in calling my biography a memoir. I had set out to write a book about how Kerouac had found his voice, but the idea that I could have brought the unwomanly objectivity of a biographer to the portrayal of a man who had been my lover back when I was a kid was evidently quite threatening to them… On the other hand, “another memoir of Jack” could be discredited on the grounds that it was merely subjective.
Lowther has his own questionable assumptions about memoir writing. It is not especially feminine to write a memoir years after the events that are being recollected. That has long been general practice for both sexes. Time changes the way one looks at one’s life. From a distance, the writer can see the landscape that surrounds the figure as well as patterns it would have been impossible to make out close up. (Vladimir Nabokov believed that the tracing of patterns was the true purpose of memoir writing.) Yes, Kerouac did proceed differently, but then he was out to reinvent the first-person novel. It is really a mistake to read his work as memoir.
Since the term memoir implies fidelity to the truth as part of the writer’s implicit contract with the reader, perhaps di Prima’s memoir, which so often breaks the contract, should simply be reclassified as fiction. But I have never felt Diane should be applauded for her creative departures from the truth, particularly in her mean-spirited portrayals of other women.
As for the “rule of cool,” it does have a catchy rhyme, but it is a construct created by academic critics of a different generation rather than a rule either Hettie or I was ever actually aware of as we improvised our own ways to live. It cannot be said that we consciously attempted to break it or that our relationships during our Beat years were determined by it. Finally, although I did write the first Beat novel by a woman and opened up the subject of women and the Beats in Minor Characters years before Brenda Knight threw together her anthology, I refuse to remain in the constricting pigeonhole of “Beat woman writer.” After all, wouldn’t it sound absurdly unnecessary If I kept referring to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso et al as Beat male writers? What most women who write have always wanted is to be perceived and accepted as writers among writers without the tag of sex. If that ever happens—probably not within my lifetime—then progress will truly have been achieved.
I must first thank Joyce Johnson for setting the record straight. I too, am sometimes credited with one book-my memoir (published first in the mid-80s), whereas beginning in 1970 I had published eight books for children, and since then have continued to publish–essays, fiction, and poetry. To be labeled forever by choices made in one’s twenties is ridiculous and leaves readers with a false impression of one’s contribution to American letters and works in English in general. As a woman who has always been independent (even when married) I claim an identity based solely on my own choices. Having got this far successfully–I’m 84 years old– I prefer to be known as a woman who has always stood on her own two feet and encouraged the same position in all women.
I truly enjoyed reading “How I Became Hettie Jones” and “Minor Characters.” Thank you, Joyce and Hettie. I learned quite a lot about the Beats and what life was like in post World War II America from your books.
I loved Minor Characters when it was first published, and I loved it upon rereading, reminded to do so by the NY Times list of 50 best memoirs. Although a generation younger, I lived my own version of Joyce Johnson’s memoir, seeking the NYC experience on the Upper West Side, escaping Midwesten roots. Minor Characters is one of the best Beat Generation books, clear in perspective and compelling in composition. I crossed paths with minor characters on Denver’s skid row; these many years later, Johnson’s memoir reminds me of the consequence of women’s lives and choices and narratives, even if the 50’s and 60’s did not yet provide an equal platform. I will seek out Hettie’s work, as well, as I have gained the perspective and will to write the story I know.
another mopey missive from the writer that insists she’s not entirely beat derivative, and mad that she’s not Joyce Carol Oates, I am extremely flattered that I’m still occupying mental real estate all these years later. From yr Beat loudmouth … ha ha.