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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Johnson's 1987 NBCC Award- winning memoir of the 1950s and her relationship with Kerouac and other beats features a new introduction by the author.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Publisher

National Book Critics Circle Award-winner, Minor Characters has deservedly become known among the cognoscenti as a classic about the 1950s, a vivid and compelling memoir of one woman's coming of age amidst the angels and poets of the Beat Generation. The friend and lover of Jack Kerouac during the two years surrounding the publication of On The Road --the book that made him suddenly and forever famous--Johnson describes with penetrating insight the circle of rebellious visionaries of which she became a part: Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, LeRoi Jones, Gregory Corso. But more than just chronicling the drama of her life with a diffident and often drunken Kerouac, Johnson describes the roles that she and the other women in her circle played as companions and acolytes to their male muses, women who set aside their own needs and ambitions, for a time, even as they searched to find their own voices and shape their own lives. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times, Johnson "has brought to life what history may ultimately judge to have been minor characters, but who were to her own generation major enough to shape its consciousness." Anchor Books is proud to be reissuing Minor Characters with a new introduction by the author that helps to place the Beat Generation in the context of the 1990s.

"Realistic rather than flamboyant, Johnson succeeds in portraying the Beats not as oddities or celebrities but as individuals. In wry retrospect, she recognizes the folly of young women rebelling against their well-meaning parents only to become subservient to indifferent men."--The New Yorker

"Johnson writes of Dostoevskian evenings, of Kerouac's disastrous confrontation with fame...of the major Beat voices and the minor characters, their women. It's a terrific book, rich and beautifully written, full of vivid portraits and evocations."--San Francisco Chronicle --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; unknown edition (July 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140283579
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140283570
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #123,536 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joyce Johnson (née Glassman) was born in 1935 in New York, the city that has been
the setting for all her books. At eight, she began her brief career as a child actress,
which included a role in the original Broadway production of I Remember Mama.

She attended Hunter College High School and entered Barnard College in 1951
when she was sixteen. At nineteen she left home and landed her first job in
publishing as a secretary in the literary agency Curtis Brown. By that time she
had also begun work on her first novel, Come and Join the Dance, which was
inspired by her determination to write about the real lives of young women,
including a frank treatment of their sexual experiences--a taboo subject during
the repressed 1950's. In 1956, she enrolled in a novel workshop at the New School,
taught by the editor Hiram Haydn, who bought her book for Random House the
following year on the basis of its first fifty pages. Because of her tumultuous life, it
took her another five years to complete the novel. Although long out of print, it is regarded by scholars like Ann Douglas, Nancy Grace and Ronna Johnson as an important contribution to Beat literature, since it was the first Beat novel by a woman.

In January 1957, Joyce Johnson met Jack Kerouac on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg--the beginning of
an affair that lasted for two years. (Kerouac wrote about it in Desolation Angels.) She was with him on the September
night when the New York Times Review of On the Road brought him instant fame as the voice of his generation
and she soon began to experience the heady excitement of being in the midst of an ongoing cultural revolution
as the Beat movement spead throughout America. She was also the firsthand witness of the destructive effects
of Kerouac's celebrity. Johnson considers this period the most important part of her education and remains
grateful to Kerouac for the encouragement he gave her to continue writing; she believes the many letters they
exchanged during their romance had a direct impact upon her writing style. In 1972, three years after Kerouac's
untimely death, she was able to get his experimental novel Visions of Cody published at McGraw-Hill, where
she was working as an editor. It was the book he considered his masterpiece.

Come and Join the Dance was published in 1962, when Johnson was twenty-six, but it was not until 1978 that her
second novel Bad Connections was published. The intervening years were filled with demanding editorial jobs,
two brief marriages, the birth of her son Daniel Pinchbeck, and the challenge of becoming a single parent. Like
many women artists, she had to put the creative work that meant the most to her aside. In 1981, when she was
the executive editor of the Dial Press, Johnson began getting up at dawn to work on her new book, the memoir
Minor Characters, about her coming of age in the 1950's and her involvement with Kerouac and the Beat circle.
It had taken her twenty-five years to get the right perspective upon that time and to see her own story as it
related to the experiences of the young women of her generation. In 1983, the book won a National Book
Critics Circle Award and has remained in print ever since.

Johnson's third novel, In the Night Café, based on the story of her first marriage to the painter James Johnson,
who was killed in a motorcycle crash a year after their wedding, was published in 1987 to wide critical praise.
A chapter first published in Harper's as a shsort story won first prize in the O'Henry Awards. Johnson's next
book, What Lisa Knew: The Truths and Lies of the Steinberg Case, her first foray into investigative journalism
appeared in 1989 and received a front-page review in the New York Times. In 2000, Johnson published Door
Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, which contained her correspondence with Kerouac and a running
commentary that reflected her deepening understanding of his life and work. Her second critically praised
memoir Missing Men was published in 2004. She continues to experiment with various genres--most recently
biography. In her new book, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, she feels she has broken new
ground in the intimate way she has examined the development of a writer.

As an editor, Johnson was well known for books that related to the Civil Rights movement and the New Left:
The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse; Blues People by LeRoi Jones, Revolution for the Hell of It by
Abbie Hoffman, Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody; and Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic.

After ending her publishing career, Johnson taught creative writing in a number of MFA programs, including
Columbia's School of the Arts and the New School. Since 1984, she has been teaching a memoir workshop
at the 92nd Street YMHA.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By C. Ebeling on November 29, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Joyce Johnson's memoir of emerging from an overprotected childhood and landing at the center of the Beat movement in the 1950's is a delight whether you choose to read it for its portrait of Jack Kerouac, for the world that was, or for the inner journey it reveals. It is a fine literary performance. Johnson plays with tense and perspective as if they form a telescopic lens sliding the past out of a fuzzy black and white still photograph into a vivid, colorful present. There is a suspenseful tension to the book from which flows a novelistic structure, never, though, at the expense of truth. Johnson gets down like no one else how it is to carry around that overprotected childhood, to always feel that you could be missing something, that the center has yet to be achieved. Her inner struggle matches the themes of the Beats who are seeking the pure experience of being through their music, their talk, their drugs and alcohol, their lovemaking, their travels and their poetry. She nails the paradox of a quarry that can never sit still, whether it is a person, like Kerouac, or her friend and guide into the Beat world, Elise Cowen, both of whom eventually disappear into their demons. She captures the loss of balance when counterculture is encroached upon by the mainstream. She manages to convey all this without telling, just through showing the events of her life. Johnson is wry but never bitter, she takes full responsibility for her own choices and actions. This is a book that invites the reader to share the wonder that this was all, indeed, real.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Tom Gillis on January 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is an extremely well-written memoir about the college (and following) years of a young woman who happens to fall into the middle of the Beat circle in the early 1950s. The author comes off as a very sympathetic character, and, when I closed the book, I was sorry that Joyce had not continued the story for a few more years.
I was struck by how much the intellectual world has changed in the last half-century: In 1950, the cultural avante-garde could be found (almost by definition) only around some Ivy League schools (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc.), a couple of midwestern schools, and, I guess, Stanford & Berkeley. Today, "place" is not nearly so important.
This is a very nice book. If you've gone to the trouble of getting to this page, you ought to take the next step and read the book; you won't be disapppointed (although you may continue to wonder just why the beatniks faded away in the early 60s).
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
As a long-time reader of Beat literature, and as a man, I must say that Joyce Johnson's take on those heady, wine soaked days of poetry and madness is absolutely as good and as necessary as anything Kerouac or Ginsberg or any of the more famous (male) crew ever wrote. For my money it's right up there with On the Road.
I guess I've read this book three or four times now and it never gets old.
I also recommend Ms. Johnson's novel, In the Night Cafe, another skillful invocation of the Beat period.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By annbenden on January 1, 2003
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book because a friend recommended it. The Beats had never much interested me except as a movement. I didn't much like the the literature or the adulation that surrounded them. But this is primarily a book about Joyce Johnson and her experience with the Beats. She has a real talent for evoking a specific time and place and giving readers a sense of what it was like to be part of this mileu. She makes going for a cup of coffee in Greenwich Village seem incredibly exciting. This is not the story of a Beat groupie yearning to hang out or sleep with famous men but rather Ms. Johnson's coming of age. The Beats are an important part of that story but not the whole story.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
Wow. This book did more for me than I expected it to. I picked it up for the same reason many others probalby did - because of my interest in Kerouac. But Johnson is not telling his story, she is telling hers. And, despite obvious difficulties and social aspects that let us know it is the fifties, it is really a timeless story, something that can be identified with today. She has put into words what every female person who feels like they don't quite belong in the society in which they grew up has difficulties articulating. I found myself talking to the book - "Yes, that's IT! Exactly." I read this book twice this month.
Her unique and fresh writing style should not be overlooked either. She wrote this book at a good time in her life as well, it is reflective and filled with the insight and intelligence of years and experience.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Salvatore on September 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
I first read this book in a community course on the Beats. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to use it in a coming of age course I teach at my high school. Johnson's perspective is clear and fresh, and I found myself admiring her courage. At a time when women too often felt pressure to become June Cleaver, Johnson took some personal and professional risks, and although some were probably foolish, you appreciate her willingness to live her life her own way.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Privacy, Please on February 27, 2010
Format: Paperback
Joyce Johnson's title "Minor Characters" refers to her book's focus on the women who loved, dated, married, fought, and partied with the major male figures of the Beat Generation, including Kerouac, Ginsburg and Burroughs. Joyce herself was Jack Kerouac's girlfriend for a while around the time that his classic "On the Road" was published. It's a shame that the Kerouac connection seems to always be used to push this book, because Joyce was not Jack's girlfriend for all that long, he was absent for a lot of that time and on top of that, her story is interesting, exciting and poetic in its own right even if she'd never dated him.

Joyce recounts how she escaped an overprotective and oppressive childhood that makes the reader wince, as her parents pry into her private life and grill her on her (nonexistent) activities with boys, when they aren't pushing her to become a pianist instead of encouraging her obvious love for and gift of writing. Joyce's efforts as a young teen at fitting in and belonging to the burgeoning Bohemian scene are very relatable to any young girl who's drawn to an exciting new creative world, full of older and potentially dangerous men that are definitely not OK to bring home to Mama. Along the way, Joyce meets and befriends Elise Cowan, another early Beat muse who unlike Joyce comes to a sad end, and Hettie Jones, the wife of poet LeRoi Jones, and she devotes some time to telling each of their stories as well as her own.

I pretty much liked all the women in the book much better than the men before the story was over, but I don't think that was because the author was pushing a feminist agenda.
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