It began at a restaurant counter on Eighth Avenue, on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg, he in a checked shirt, she in a red coat and lots of eyeshadow. Two years later, in 1958, it ended drunkenly, tearfully, outside a restaurant on a New York street corner. What happened in between, in the time that Joyce Johnson spent with Jack Kerouac, has come if not to dominate then certainly to colour Johnson’s life.
Fifty years after the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road, Johnson’s role as the author’s former girlfriend has almost overshadowed her own work. She is herself an accomplished writer who has published three novels: Come and Join the Dance, In the Night Cafe and Bad Connections; two memoirs: Minor Characters and Missing Men; and a collection of her letters to and from Kerouac: Door Wide Open. Her fiction and articles have appeared in publications including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper’s, and the New York Times Magazine. She has won the National Book Critics award and the O Henry award. And yet her work, like that of many other female artists and writers, has been ushered to the sidelines of the beat movement.
“I’m a 47-year-old woman with a permanent sense of impermanence,” Johnson writes on the final page of Minor Characters, and there is something about her today, now aged 72 and sitting in the pale light of her New York apartment, that is gauzy and impalpable, like a bathroom curtain. Minor Characters is the story of how the young Joyce Glassman (as Johnson was then known) turned her back on her safe, middle-class upbringing, embracing the bohemian culture of New York’s Greenwich Village; it is a story of an extraordinary period in cultural history, and also of friendships, untimely deaths, and illegal abortions in a small white room in Brooklyn. “Being in the middle of this new beat movement, it was the beginning of a big cultural shift,” she says, in a voice that is unexpectedly strong, “and being right there, that was an incredible experience. And Jack was an amazing person. Never met anyone like him.” Whether out of habit, or perhaps out of generosity to the listener, Johnson readily anchors much of her conversation with references to Kerouac.
The day in September 1957 that On the Road was published, Kerouac was staying with Johnson in her narrow-windowed apartment off 68th Street. At midnight, they headed to a newsstand at 66th Street and Broadway, to collect the first copy of the New York Times review, in which the critic Gilbert Millstein would proclaim it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’, and whose principal avatar he is”.
As much as the review made Kerouac’s reputation as a writer, it also encouraged in him a degree of self-destructive behaviour as he attempted to live up to that role as “principal avatar” of the beats. “Following that [review] most of the attention he got was hostile, humiliating,” Johnson recalls. “It’s very hard to stand up to a barrage like that. Suddenly you become not only famous but notorious. And then to have all these people who expected a much more extroverted character as their leader, than Jack was.”
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 demoralised 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.”
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 furnished 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.”
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, it seems, a similar attitude towards relationships. “Yes,” she nods, “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.”
“You know,” she says now, “I always felt that, in his own way, flawed as it might have been, Jack loved me as much as he could. And I think our relationship was one of the best relationships that he had. But he couldn’t sustain a relationship, and I think I realised that even then. I had this sort of double-vision, even though I was quite young; if Jack had said, ‘Let’s get married!’, I definitely would have done it, but I also knew, deep down, this wasn’t for ever.”
In a funny way, though, it has been for ever. Johnson would go on to marry the artist Jim Johnson, who died in a motorcycle accident in the early 60s, and later another artist, Peter Pinchbeck, from whom she is divorced, and with whom she had a son, Daniel, also a writer. But it is still to Kerouac that the conversation always returns. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Jack floating around and I keep trying, trying to keep the record straight,” she says. “And then a new generation of people comes along and I find myself repeating myself.”
As much as Johnson’s story is one of the artistic advancements made by the beats, it is also a tale of emancipation. “In the late 1950s, young women – not very many at first – left home rather violently,” she writes in Minor Characters. “They too came from nice families, and their parents could never understand why the daughters they had raised so carefully suddenly chose precarious lives.” Johnson herself came from a nice New York family. She took piano lessons and went to stage school, later attending the prestigious Barnard College. Her parents despaired of how she chose to live her life, causing a rift that would never be healed. When her first novel, Come and Join the Dance, was published, she admits they found its contents “very painful” to read. “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 when it was published in 1962, there were “very peculiar reactions” from reviewers: “‘To think [that] a girl with a good college education at a fine institution like Barnard College would write a book like this … What is happening to our young people?'”
She draws her face into a look of soft resignaton. “There was this prudishness about women,” she continues. “In my day, if you went to college, that was considered good; you acquired some culture that would make you a more interesting and valuable wife. But the idea was that you would marry rather quickly.” Johnson herself pursued a career in publishing, its perceived gentility counterbalanced not only by her “unacceptable” beatnik lifestyle, but also by her own writing.
Sex, she repeats, was for her generation of young women “the great mysterious, important real experience, the turning point”. As adventures went, it was more readily accessible than travelling, for example. “Jack would talk to me about ‘Oh, the experience! You should go on the road like me.’ I couldn’t do that.” What would have happened if she had? “With a knapsack on the road? Nothing good. I mean, I was adventurous, yet kind of cautious and pragmatic, and I knew that I never wanted to find myself in a situation without money. I always knew I had to earn my way and not be at the mercy of other people because I had no money.” It was different for people such as Kerouac and Ginsberg, who were able to free-fall. “They were men! They didn’t have to worry about having sexually exploitative encounters.”
On a couple of occasions she almost joined Kerouac on his travels – in San Francisco and Mexico City – but those plans were thwarted when, inevitably, he moved on to the next destination. “So my adventure was staying here and being with Jack through this process [of On the Road’s success], but also being in New York – it was an incredible moment in New York, there were so many talented people, and everybody knew each other, everybody converged in a few blocks downtown, went to the same drinking places and the same parties. It was an amazingly rich period in New York.”
One of the constant strains in her relationship with Kerouac was his devotion to his mother, Gabrielle L’Evesque Kerouac. “He had this fantasy that he was going to withdraw from the world and be a hermit,” she says at one point, “but his hermitage was his home with his mother. Which was terrible for him in many ways, and she was very suspicious of all his friends, really isolated him from his most important relationships. And she certainly didn’t want any competition from other women.” Having fled the constraining influence of her own domineering mother, this puzzled Johnson. “Yes,” she says, “here I had broken away, and he was tied to her apron strings.”
When Johnson is writing memoirs – she has written a further book of memoirs named Missing Men, she relies on her tendency to regard herself as an observer more than a participator; even in the thick of the beat heyday, on the arm of Kerouac, in the kitchen of William Burroughs’ apartment, she always felt on the periphery. “It’s in my nature to be a watcher,” she says. “That was something I shared with Jack … [And in memoir] I’m looking for the truth of what happened – I don’t want to fictionalise it. I want to find out, what was it really? That’s what I get out of it. I make discoveries about the meaning of things that happened to me in the process of writing.” For the past 20 years, she has taught creative writing (though she bemoans the “professionalisation of writing” such courses can encourage), including a class on memoir, a genre that has become increasingly popular in recent years. “I think the stories told by memoirs are often very surprising, and shaggy, you know? Whereas stories told by novels, fictional stories, are often very predictable and conventional,” she says. “My own aim in writing a novel is to have some of that shagginess and memoir in it.”
Johnson’s style of writing differs greatly from that of Kerouac and the majority of beat writers, more in structure than in theme, and it took her many years to view herself as one of them. “Jack was always telling me, ‘First thought, best thought. Don’t revise!’ But I’m a big reviser. And at the time that I wrote that [first] novel, my big influence was Henry James. I liked the way that he got under the surface of things that people said and people did, that the real action was going on inside people’s heads. That taught me a lot.”
But unlike On the Road and the rest of Kerouac’s canon, unlike the work of Ginsberg and Burroughs and Gary Snyder, Johnson’s novels are now out of print – a situation that seems strangely to echo a passage from Minor Characters in which she recalls herself at 22, sitting black-clad in a beatnik bar in Greenwich Village: “The table in the exact centre of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that’s alive … As a female, she’s not quite a part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall.”
“What has been frustrating to me is that the people who know my work seem to remember it only in the context of my writing about Jack,” she says today with a flicker of that same fierce independence that first led the young Joyce Glassman to head down to the Village all those years ago, that took her to that restaurant counter in her red dress, and that let her walk away from the man she loved that night in 1958. “But I have other books,” she says defiantly. “And all of my books have been very well reviewed. I’d like to establish my reputation as a writer, apart from all that …” she smiles sweetly. “It’s getting a little late. But I’d like it to happen at some point.”