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Illuminating the Beats From Their Shadow
Books | American Beauties
By Joyce Johnson
265 pages, Penguin Books, $16.
Joyce Johnson was 21 and not long out of Barnard College when, in the winter of 1957, Allen Ginsberg set her up on a blind date with Jack Kerouac.
She took the subway downtown to meet him at a Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street in Manhattan. “I push open the heavy glass door, and there is, sure enough, a black-haired man at the counter in a flannel lumberjack shirt slightly the worse for wear,” she writes.
“He looks up and stares at me hard with blue eyes, amazingly blue. And the skin on his face is so brown. He’s the only person in Howard Johnson’s in color. I feel a little scared as I walk up to him. ‘Jack?’ I say.”
Kerouac was older than Johnson, 34, and still largely unknown. The book that would make his reputation and upend American literature, “On the Road,” had yet to be published.
He was broke, hungry, distraught. She bought him a plate of frankfurters. He followed her back to her small apartment. A door had swung open in her life.
Thus began an off-and-on relationship that lasted nearly two years, years that witnessed the publication of “On the Road” and life-altering fame — not only Kerouac’s but also that of many of his closest friends, other Beat Generation writers.
Johnson captures this period with deep clarity and moving insight in her memoir “Minor Characters” (1983). It’s hardly an unknown book. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and it has remained in print since it was issued.
Joyce Johnson in 2009. More than a memoir of her time with the Beats, “Minor Characters” is a riveting portrait of an era. Credit Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild, via Getty Images
I’m including it in this series of columns about neglected American books because I so rarely hear it mentioned, and because I continue to think it is hideously undervalued and under-read. “Minor Characters” is, in its quiet but deliberate way, among the great American literary memoirs of the past century.
Johnson’s book takes its title from her realization that — as was so common in every sphere of cultural life in the 1950s and beyond — the Beats were a boy gang. She would always be, at best, on its periphery. Her memoir braids and unbraids, at length, the meanings of this fact.
She recalls how the women at the San Remo and other bars, hangouts for writers and artists, “are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely.” Johnson and her friends wanted to be among the yakkers, the all-night arguers.
“Minor Characters” is not just about the Beats. It’s about many different subjects that bleed together. In part it’s a portrait of Johnson’s cloistered middle-class childhood on the Upper West Side. Her parents wanted her to be a composer.
She longed for escape and began sneaking down to Washington Square Park to be among the musicians and poets. She was round-faced, well-dressed, virginal. She’d never tasted coffee. It was “my curse,” she writes, that “my outside doesn’t reflect my inside, so no one knows who I really am.”
Her book is a riveting portrait of an era. It contains a description of a back-room abortion that’s as harrowing and strange as any I’ve read. Johnson had the abortion because she didn’t love the boy and wasn’t ready for a child.
“Sometimes you went to bed with people almost by mistake, at the end of late, shapeless nights when you’d stayed up so long it almost didn’t matter,” she writes. “The thing was, not to go home.”
Alessandra Montalto gets credit for the image
actually published with this article./The New York Times
“Minor Characters” is a glowing introduction to the Beats. There are shrewd portraits of not just Kerouac and Ginsberg but people like Robert Frank and Hettie Jones.
Johnson has a knack for summing up a character in a blazing line or two. Here’s how she describes the Beat-era figure Lucien Carr, for example, at the moment he first met Kerouac: “This rich, dangerous St. Louis boy with the wicked mouth who’s already been kicked out of Bowdoin and the University of Chicago, who’s amassed a whole dissipated history by the age of 19.”
Best of all, perhaps, this book charts Johnson’s own career as a budding writer. She worked in publishing when she was young; she was secretary to John Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy (later Farrar, Straus & Giroux). He wanted to promote her; she left instead to visit Kerouac in Mexico and write. She published her first novel, “Come and Join the Dance,” when she was 26.
By then, she and Kerouac had separated for good. There was a final scene on a sidewalk. “You’re nothing but a big bag of wind!” she shouted at him. Kerouac, constitutionally unable to remain with one woman, shouted back, “Unrequited love’s a bore!”
Johnson looks back on the young woman she was, while with Kerouac, and realizes she was “not in mourning for her life. How could she have been, with her seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that’s alive?”
I remember tracking down a first edition of “Minor Characters” — this was harder in the late 1980s than it is today — to give to my college girlfriend as a graduation present. She looked at its title, wrinkled her brow and asked, “Why this book?” Why a book, in other words, about women who are minor characters?
I fumbled my answer. I knew only that I loved the book and wanted to share it. What I wish I had said is this: “Minor Characters” is better than all but a handful of books the boy-Beats themselves wrote. It’s a book about a so-called minor character who, in the process of writing her life, became a major one.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner
American Beauties is a column by Dwight Garner, appearing every other week, about undersung American books of the past 75 years.
He shut the thorn up in his foot, and told his foot / Walk
Rickey Laurentiis’, Boy with Thorn, is simply lovely. In this book, winner of 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Laurentiis addresses the countless brutalization and sexualization accounts in which black, queer bodies endure. In addition, he comments on visual arts in relation to black bodies, and the representation said art holds, using narrative and ekphrastic forms of poetry. Moreover, he allows personal thought to “interrupt” the poem, adding a well needed (and loved, if you asked me) layer to this subjects that we might not otherwise get. As a whole, Laurentiis is stating how the black body struggles with itself, and its understanding of itself. Is seeks to survive through questions, realizations, and art.
In the first section of the book, Laurentiis talks about roots, black bodies, and their relation to the queer black male and the violent acts against said communities. The book opens, rightfully so, with the poem, “Conditions for a Southern Gothic”:
Therefore, my head was kingless.
I was a head alone, moaning in a wet black field.
I was like any of those deserter slaves
whose graves are just the pikes raised for their heads, reshackled, blue
and plan as fear.
All night I whistled at a sky that mocked me,
that fluently changed its grammar as if to match desire in my eye.
My freedom is possible, it said.
As if my torn-off head in that bed swamped and whelming then
with water had one wish, and it did: to think stranger stuff,
to break that boring need to always have a shadow trail its maker, such that:
1. The shadow snaps, rising to kiss the head;
2. The kiss lands, the head flies up in airy revolt;
3. Cracked from the head come the crows of its thinking;
4. Three crows move in minstrelsy against the night;
5. And the head still singing: Last night, a Negro was axed . . .
Who among us was made to scratch a myth? Speak. If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of the imagination.
In this poem, we see a lot of Laurentiis’ tropes–imagery, narrative, personification, and others–to introduce to the book and his writing style. This piece comments on blackness and what it means to be black in America; how it correlates to blackness prior and presently. By taking on this role of being a slave, thus comparing his present blackness, to the violence black people endured, Laurentiis is allowing the reader into a hostile image. “I was a head alone, moaning in a wet black field. / I was like any of those deserter slaves / whose graves are just the pikes raised for their heads, reshackled, blue / and plain as fear” (Line 2-5). There is something jarring about comparing oneself to a staked head. Here, he is saying how stark blackness is, and how even present day, blackness is seen as a threat. Yet, as we get back to him in the field as a head (which is simply a beautiful and rendering image), the reader is again introduced to this notion of blackness as it relates to “freedom.” In line 8, the sky says, “My freedom is possible.” As the poem continues, we understand that there is a risk while this head is in thought–to break away from this track that has been set out; this cycle of blackness. Of queer-blackness. He ends this thought with a pointed finger at God, suggesting that his act of creating man was indeed a failure. A bold statement.
As this section continues, Laurentiis gives us similar poems addressing the black body and how it consistently undergoes violent and trauma. In “One Country,” the body wants a release of itself and its thirst. In “Vanitas with Negro Boy” he is giving the reader the actual painting, Vanitas with Negro Boy by David Bailly. However, in this piece, Laurentiis is inserting the black boy’s thoughts/questions (personified as himself), as well as commenting on this black boy in the voice of David Bailly. There are lines here, that really give us another insight to the portrayal of blackness/black bodies–“That / was the boy’s job, this cage with a debt / in it (And whose boy am I, and what is / my name?) There is something beautiful about how Laurentiis inhabits two bodies at once. In addition, this inhabitation allows the reader involve themselves in the duality of art and the layering of the poem. He addresses more than how black bodies are portrayed, but comments on how the black body questions itself. Furthermore, this poem realizes the beauty in the black body, and how it has to endure the gaze placed on itself through various forms of art and media.
Of the Leaves That Have Fallen
Wallace Stevens, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”
In the imagination there is no daylight and,
Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial.
I sing, I grieve in it, I dream what haunts each night:
These bodies, even lynched, still are thinking.
Nothing is final, I’m told. No man shall see the end—
But them, my fathers, lifted into fire, like tongues.
To navigate the dark you must listen, you must listen
To the dark: the wind, a wind in the trees, the birds,
Birds shaping a sound around the green busyness in the trees.
It was when he only called for mercy as in “God, O Take Me
Higher,” while vanishing, shut up in heat, his eyes and veins
Rupturing, that I knew the night was made for many kinds of desire.
(Read the rest here.)
The entire second section is Laurentiis’ one poem, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen.” And it is completely brilliant. In this poem he is directly asking Wallace Stevens how he could write a poem, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” without commenting on blackness, black bodies, and the brutish acts towards both. In Stevens’ poem, death is meditated through imagery of the gruel landscape. Yet, there is a reference to the black body, seen in his title, but does not inquire or dive into the importance of the black body during this time. Laurentiis’ poem, directly comments on Stevens’ complete disregard for the black body. In addition, this piece evokes how this body is seen, attacked, and often overlooked. He even writes in the same exact form of Stevens, thus going through great lengths to correcting him. Moreover, this piece allows the reader into a conversation about history’s role in blackness by addressing specific accounts, such as, the Civil War and Emmett Till. The reader is understanding and welcomes a different outlook on blackness in direct comparison to how another poet disregards blackness.
The book ends with the third section addressing southerness and the history of blackness as it relates to such. It’s invigorating, actually, how Laurentiis completes this collection. In this section, we see how the black body is stretched and bruised. Also, there is a serene underlying tone in this section that we don’t necessarily see in the sections beforehand. In the poem, “A Southern Wild,” we see a young boy racing another boy to the top of a hill. Though the subject is simple, the commentary in the piece is rich–realizing the boy’s body in relation to the landscape and how much the body can handle. There are questions in this piece that further gives the reader insight on this constant inner battle.
The two poems in this section that can easily sum up the book are “You Are Not Christ” and “Take it Easy.” In “Take it Easy,” we are given this:
That the light stalks your skin,
no, that your skin makes it: a radiating
hum, jive, a freedom, a beehive
packed just as much with honey as does it
hazard; also, a balm for where the sting sits,
a treaty, country upon which I first
laid my claim, but was usurped; where
carefully do I move to cross it again. Now here
come my lips to it, pink over your body’s
good bark. Now here is my mouth, entire.
I’m scared of you, baby, it says, scared like a god
is of his faithful–and like the faithful. Light-
struck. Delighted. Terrorstruck. Come, lift up
your gates, your countenance spread like a lily upon me:
whip me, I am so whipped. These are my eyes.
Do you see it? How the black body responds to itself. How it understands.
*Purchase Boy with Thorn here*