ADVENTURESS #1: Minor Characters
So what the hell is this? Well, in short, it is my newsletter. If you are getting it and wondering when you subscribed, well, it’s because you once subscribed to my TinyLetter and I’ve migrated that list over to Substack. For now, this letter is free, at least until it finds its wobbly feet.
I imagine this letter will come monthly-ish, and will primarily cover the stories of real women who lived (or are still alive) and whose lives I still think about all the time. Or maybe it’s going to be about bubble baths or New York City. Who can say what it will become. But right now, in this moment, it is about the women’s biographies I read; the scattered notes from my frantic attempt to try to pick up the shards of lives we often forget about or that have been generally erased from cultural memory. I have weird hobbies ok???
Last year, I did a Twitter poll (before I took a short break from the site, which was a real Canyon Ranch of the mind and I highly recommend it) about what a newsletter I wrote should be, were I to write one. 2019 seems like as good a time as any to make good on this. In any case, back then, the going answer was that I should use these emails to offer “weird book recommendations.” I don’t know what a weird book recommendation is, but I assume it has something to do with charting all the strange convergences where I meet the material I am ingesting, noticing when one odd life grafts onto another through time. So, here we are. This letter will be about books that have been rattling around in my head recently, some old, some new. They are definitely all talking to each other, though perhaps from separate, distant places, where the reception is spotty and a postcard takes forever to arrive. Each installment will come with a reading list at the end, both of other books you might want to impulse buy on EBay, and current articles that seem to be communicating with the past via tin can.
So. Welcome to Adventuress (the name is explained below, too). Also, they won’t all be this long.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a passage from the end of Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson’s memoir from 1983 about dating Jack Kerouac for two years, in and around New York City in the late 1950s. Johnson’s book, the title of which refers to herself and the other women who did time as the girlfriends (and also as the ad hoc mothers, therapists, travel agents, unpaid amanuenses) of the Beat poets at the height of their fame, is all about peripheries. Living on them, hiding in them, trying to step out of them into the action. Johnson wasn’t teetering on the rim forever; in her mid-life, she found herself inside the melted center of the literary world. She was a book editor at major houses for almost three decades, smuggling the words of radical leftist authors like Amiri Baraka and Abbie Hoffman and the civil rights activist Anne Moody through the mainstream press, all the while publishing several books of her own (her first novel, Come and Join the Dance, came out from Knopf’s Atheneum imprint in 1962, when she was only 26 years old). She is still alive, and close to 84 years old. But when she was 21 and Kerouac was 34, she was living as a dorsal fin, completely suctioned into her lover’s orbit and by extension, his troubles. The two met at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Greenwich Village on a freezing January night in 1957 -- a night when, by the way, she paid for his dinner of frankfurters because he had no cash, and also a night in which she took him back to her first-floor brownstone apartment and slept with him straight away. As they lay in bed smoking cigarettes after, she told Kerouac that she had just come up with a name for her new grey tomcat, a stray she’d found feral on the street. She called the cat Smoke, a nod to both the tabby’s color and what his pelt smelled like after absorbing a distinct nicotine aroma from roaming the alleys. He immediately decided to call the cat Ti Gris instead. “He liked to rename things,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson and her friends circled and coddled and competed with these men who went around slapping new names on ancient and cyclical occurrences, believing their taxonomic bravado to be the great work. The women wanted to write, too, of course, but they spent a lot of their spare time in those early years holding down the edges of the party, or holding down the edges of the group’s sanity, sometimes sacrificing their own to the cause. When fame descended on the Beats, bombastic and ravenous and looking for blood, it was the women who ran cover, and in the end, it was the women who suffered the most. “Even a very young woman can achieve old-ladyhood, become the mainstay of someone else’s self-destructive genius” Johnson wrote of her coterie. One of her friends, the poet Elise Cowan, leapt to her death through a locked window at her parent’s house in Washington Heights in 1962. Cowan grew up wealthy in Manhattan and went to Barnard, dated Allen Ginsburg, wrote disjointed verses about loneliness in secret, and disappeared first to San Francisco and then to various mental institutions. Three decades after Elise’s death, at a tribute to Ginsburg at the Naropa Institute, a woman in the audience asked why there were so few women in the Beat movement. The poet Gregory Corso fielded the question: “There were women, they were there, I knew them,” he said. “Their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the '50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”
The scene from Minor Characters I keep returning to is at the end of the book, when Johnson realizes that if she ever wants to write, as she puts it, her own novels about “furnished rooms and sex,” she has to tell Jack to hit the road. Ambition is burning through her chest, but there’s no room for it in their arrangement. One night, she sits alone in a bar as Kerouac brazenly flirts with a bevy of other women, and she realizes she’s at her breaking point, or she puts it, that cliff edge when “what you’ve been bearing all along suddenly becomes unbearable.” Outside, on the street, she ends it, calling her almost-ex “nothing but a big bag of wind,” which was the worst insult she could think of at the time. The brand he was selling to the world was transience, the art of floating through -- and she hoped to sear him for it, implying that he was only able to be so professionally untethered because he was so personally hollow. He yelled back at her, “Unrequited love’s a bore!” and slumped away into the night. Something about this response still strikes me as impossibly funny, and impossibly sad. We tend to name the things boring that we can’t fully understand. It feels very convenient to express no use for selfless love on a street corner, when you no longer have a clear use for the person who has been buttressing you for years. In fact their bond was not, as he sneered then, a one-sided affair; there had been love notes, there was a written record. Perhaps what he meant to say on that street corner was that what he found banal was messy human attachments; the gummy conditions tacked onto what began as unqualified devotion. “My witness is the empty sky,” he wrote once; he didn’t like having witnesses who asked for something in return. Perhaps he was not so much bored by unrequited love, by human need hanging like smoke in the air, but rather he was terrified of it. He was a man who liked to rename things.
When I recently reread Minor Characters, I realized that as good as it was as a memoir of living with a creative liability, it was even better as a New York Book. Johnson’s ornamental descriptions of the city should be broadcast in Times Square: “Where sunflowers and morning glories would bloom on fire escapes in the summer and old ladies weighed down by breasts leaned on goosedown pillows in windows, self-appointed guardians of the street, and Tompkins Square with its onion-topped church had the greyness of photos of Moscow.” I careen toward New York stories because they are also all ghost stories; the corners you haunted, the corners that haunt you. This book is full of cold gusts of air you cannot explain. I recommend reading it in wintertime; hibernate with it. When the thaw comes, pass your copy along to someone else who needs it; release it back to the cobblestones.
I decided to call this letter “Adventuress” because I had just seen the word pop up in three different books about women of the early 20th century and it felt like kismet. Each of these women passed through New York at one moment or another, and each woman felt wounded by the term but also determined to rise above it. If you look up “adventuress” in the Oxford, you will see that it is simply the feminized version of “adventurer,” and begin to think of a woman who climbs mountains, or treks through the Arctic, or takes a boat into some Conradian heart of darkness. In reality, when the zinger was in its highest rotation (1890s-1920s) it absolutely did not refer to a woman who should be admired for her prowess with a walking stick. There was little admiration in it at all. It was, to put it kindly, a more colloquial interpretation of a woman who had been around the horn. The word was censorious, a smear against those women who had the gall to shimmy out of the constraints of traditional femininity. Usually, this meant either undermining or beating the system, depending on how you tilt your head. This broad umbrella of derision included but was not limited to: gold diggers, actresses, women entrepreneurs, women who slept around, dancers, schemers, spinsters, flappers, socialites, unscrupulous harridans, jilters, coquettes, women who traveled alone, and women with their own bank accounts. The great and terrible thing about the term “adventuress” is that it didn’t really discriminate; the rumor mill shellacked the word in big bold print across the reputations of women young and aged, rich and poor, black and white, old money and new diamonds. Any woman could be downgraded to dubious if she stepped out of line; her character scratched up for the slightest infraction. A synonym for “adventuress” that was also in play at the same time is “demirep,” or a woman with only half her reputation in tact. I love this word, maybe because it sits so perilously close to “demigod” in the dictionary that it makes me laugh. One man’s demirep is another woman from the future’s icon. I kept coming across women who were branded as adventuresses, and I kept falling in love with their stories; how they wore their scarlet letters as seasonal accessories, how they saw less limitations for themselves than the world wanted them to see. I didn’t always understand their choices, but I felt them rhythmically and instinctively; these were women who wanted to be free to move, and sometimes getting free looks to outsiders like leaving claw marks on the walls. I figured: this should be a place for adventuresses, this letter. All are welcome here.
So I suppose, this letter will still tell you about women who were or are writers, or who were written about with some nuance and depth, and about how, seen through a sideways glance, their efforts on the page can be viewed as a form of adventuring. They are trying to perforate the system with sentences, liberate themselves from what is expected in terms of ambition and subject matter and scope. I’m always hunting for books that in some way, resist containment.
Minor Characters is this sort of book, because it is the kind of blood-letting memoir that women vying for literary cache are not supposed to write. Women who sleep with men who later become famous are not supposed to kiss and tell about it in the Library of Congress. They are not supposed to shred the curtain, and they are certainly not supposed to become self-proclaimed historians based on a few torrid years of experience. And yet, I am constantly drawn to these books precisely because they were written in defiance of the criticism that always follows: she was a groupie, she was a mistress, who is she to spill all of his secrets, what is she getting out of all this, how angry would he be about this now. Because the raw fact remains: these are, for the most part, meaty stories. They tend to be emotional blockbusters. There is love in them, and danger, and sorrow, and juicy quotes shouted back and forth outside a bar at 2am. And these women possess these stories; they own the rights. They were there, a full half of the conversation. Why should they lock their halves up in a vault? Why do we always want them to wait until they can burnish their side of the story to a glossy sheen? What amount of beauty do they have to offer in order to be heard?
Minor Characters is a musical, airborne work; it flies off the pages. Joyce Johnson writes like a poet. Which of course leads to the whispered question: does that make her more worthy of sharing her memories of one? Was she absolved of being an adventuress like the others because she proves that she can write her way out of a paper bag, not to mention the Gordian knot of literary paternalism? Perhaps her syntax saved her from the wolves. She did win a National Book Critics’ award for her effort. This was seen as a major happening in 1983, when memoir was mostly dismissed as a trash art form. Confessional writing, then, was part of the commercial mud puddle of the book biz, where celebrities and politicos went to splash around inside their bedazzled, dirty (and often totally invented) hagiographies. Some people argue that Minor Characters ushered in new possibilities for personal writing that still reverberate; that Joyce, like Jack before her, had taken a stale form and broken it to her will. Given the current vogue for first-person narratives, one could even argue that it was she who left the greater footprint on the state of publishing. Still, you don’t see too many copies of The Complete Joyce Johnson tucked under arms on the L train.
(Joyce Johnson, photographed last year by Tremaine George)
When Minor Characters first emerged, the critic Helen Chasin wrote a provocative review in the New York Times, arguing that the book was desperately needed, that it was an undeniable correction of midcentury mythologies. Even Chasin’s glowing recommendation felt subversive at the time, as she took unsubtle swipes at a previous generation of poetic lions. “Joyce Johnson too had stories,” Chasin wrote. “And hers are not only interesting and vivid but in several respects have more dimension than the adventure tales and clubhouse philosophizing that captured America's imagination in the late 50's.” In other words: she writes better than the boys she reanimates.
Chasin added that while the Beats valued, above all things, unbridled adventure, we now know that their roaming came with a human cost: “The road is freedom, in which a fellow can be spontaneous, impulsive, simultaneous, excessive, in progress,” she wrote. “Its literary analogue emphasizes the colloquial and vernacular, immediacy, intuition. In each case the enemies of pure expression impose restraints; cleaning up, revision and what Sal Paradise calls ‘'tedious intellectualness'’ are to be avoided. Editors are spoilers. Women can be useful, but they interfere with solitude and important work.”
And yet Joyce arrived, with some delays, at her destination, and without leaving others to clean up the mess. Adventuresses can outlive you. Don’t forget that. And a lot of them can write. They have enough material. They survived long enough to use it. Maybe you didn’t think they had the talent. But then again, those who stagger home on the city streets, yelling about how boring generous love can be, are not thinking about the future. They are not thinking about how lucky they are, in that moment, that their witness is not the blank sky but a permeable human mind, one that is noticing and remembering and writing everything down. We live by the laws of centrifugal force. The minor characters are always wobbling towards the center of the room. And sometimes, when they get there, they dance.
Midcentury New York:
Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell
The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe
The Men In My Life, by Patricia Bosworth
Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane di Prima
Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight
More current reading:
An interview with Joyce Johnson
Joyce Johnson reads from Minor Characters.
Parul Seghal on rediscovering women’s literature
See you all next time. R.