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Women as “Minor Characters” in the Beat Generation

I first became familiar with the Beat Generation through an English course I took during the summer session. Most people have heard of this notorious group of writers that rebelled against the conformist culture of 1950’s America. They used a lot of drugs seeking transcendence. They explored their sexuality. They criticized the way the government prosecuted homosexuals and suspected communist. They also partied pretty hard. They challenged the status quo, yet somehow they remained fairly unprogressive with their depictions of women. I am referring to the famous beat writers like their figurehead Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Women’s roles in the 1950’s were strict and suffocating. After World War II, women were forced out of the workforce and back into the household. That was the beginning of the rise of the housewife. It was also the time of the Red Scare and the McCarthy hunts for communism. Communism and homosexuality were viewed as threats to the American way. In fact, the term ‘beatnik’ comes from the combination of beat and the Sputnik satellite that the Russians launched – spurning on the US to land on the moon so we wouldn’t look like we lost the Space Race. In many ways, the writing of the male beat writers criticized the sociopolitical climate of the 1950’s except for the issues surround the roles of women.

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            Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson rectifies this injustice. Kerouac’s depictions of women in his most famous novels like On the Road and The Subterraneans paint women as either sexual conquests or nagging lovelorn creatures looking to stop all the fun of the liberating beat movement. Male beat writers were extremely educated but their female counterparts weren’t shown as equally educated, despite the fact that most women received a formal education from esteemed universities (they just got married and settled down right after). Johnson’s memoir gives voice to the unrest many women felt during the 1950’s and catalogs her amazing adventure as a woman who came of age during this time. The ‘boy’s gang’ of the Beat Generation are forced to make room for female writers like Johnson and Diane di Prima (who was in many ways more ‘beat’ than the boys). Feminists in particular will love this memoir. A lot of the topics Johnson discusses are still relevant today like marriage, women’s role in the workforce, poverty, alcoholism, and drug use. Despite the fact that I have little in common with her, I found her to be relatable. These are one of those novels you can find yourself in. I found myself recalling nights out with my girlfriends and previous relationships. Additionally, I was inspired as a writer. Johnson’s fiery independence is astonishing when you consider the climate of the 1950’s. Her perspective is refreshing, especially if you’ve read Kerouac because his autobiographical characters need to be reimagined from someone else’s perspective and who better than one of his former girlfriends?

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