Tag Archives: Elise Cowen

The Literary Career of Joyce Johnson

14 Sep

Joyce Johnson is an award-winning author who also has an important role in the Beat Generation.

After Jack Kerouac’s death, she helped get Visions of Cody published. In a 2012 interview with Michael del Castillo at Literary Manhattan, she explained:

In 1972, when I was an associate editor at McGraw Hill, I was able to realize my dream of publishing the entire novel.  I edited it in the way Jack would have liked me to—in other words, hardly at all, mostly conforming the names of the characters and correcting typos.

In 1983 Joyce Johnson won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Minor Characters (described below). In 1987 she won the O. Henry Award for “The Children’s Wing,” published in Harper’s Magazine in July 1986.

Here are 8 books by Joyce Johnson:




Come and Join the Dance (1962):

The daring debut of the Beat Generation’s first woman novelist It’s 1955. Seven days before her graduation from Barnard College, Susan Levitt asks herself, “What if you lived your entire life without urgency? just before going out to make things happen to her that will shatter the mask of conformity concealing her feelings of alienation. If Susan continues to be “good”, marriage and security await her. But her hunger is rising for the self-discovery that comes from existential freedom. After breaking up with the Columbia boy she knows she could marry, Susan seeks out those she considers “outlaws” the brave and fragile Kay, who has moved into a rundown hotel, in order to “see more than fifty percent when I walk down the street” the vulnerable adolescent rebel Anthony; and Peter, the restless hipster graduate student who has become the object of Kay’s unrequited devotion. This fascinating novel-which the author began writing a year before her encounter with Jack Kerouac-is a young woman’s complex response to the liberating messages of the Beat Generation. In a subversive feminist move, Johnson gives her heroine all the freedom the male Beat writers reserved for men to travel her own road”

— image and synopsis via Amazon


Bad Connections (1978):

The award-winning author of Minor Characters writes with delicious transparency about a love that cannot be harnessed and a woman who refuses to be deceived In the great wave of husband-leaving ushered in by the Sexual Revolution, Molly Held frees herself from her cold, flagrantly unfaithful husband after their final quarrel turns violent. With her five-year-old son, she lights out for an Upper West Side apartment and the new life she hopes to find with Conrad Schwartzberg-the charismatic radical lawyer who has recently become her lover. Having escaped from a desert, she lands in a swamp. While Conrad radiates positive energy, he is unable to tell Molly-or anyone who loves him-the truth. No longer the wronged wife, Molly now finds herself the Other Woman. She is sharing Conrad with Roberta, another refugee from marriage-with Conrad’s movements between the two of them disguised by his suspiciously frequent out-of-town engagements. Roberta either knows nothing or prefers to look the other way, but Molly’s maddening capacity for double vision takes over her mind. What saves her from herself is her well-developed sense of irony, which never fails her-or the reader.

— image and synopsis via Amazon


Minor Characters (1987):

Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg. William S. Burroughs. LeRoi Jones. Theirs are the names primarily associated with the Beat Generation. But what about Joyce Johnson (nee Glassman), Edie Parker, Elise Cowen, Diane Di Prima, and dozens of others? These female friends and lovers of the famous iconoclasts are now beginning to be recognized for their own roles in forging the Beat movement and for their daring attempts to live as freely as did the men in their circle a decade before Women’s Liberation.Twenty-one-year-old Joyce Johnson, an aspiring novelist and a secretary at a New York literary agency, fell in love with Jack Kerouac on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg nine months before the publication of On the Road made Kerouac an instant celebrity. While Kerouac traveled to Tangiers, San Francisco, and Mexico City, Johnson roamed the streets of the East Village, where she found herself in the midst of the cultural revolution the Beats had created. Minor Characters portrays the turbulent years of her relationship with Kerouac with extraordinary wit and love and a cool, critical eye, introducing the reader to a lesser known but purely original American voice: her own.

— image and synopsis via Amazon


In the Night Cafe (1989):

From the award-winning author of Minor Characters comes a haunting story about the persistence of love and the sustaining and destabilizing power of memories. In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art world of the 1960s, where men and women collide in “lucky and unlucky convergences,” a series of love affairs has left Joanna Gold, a young photographer, feeling numbed. Then, at yet another party, a painter named Tom Murphy walks up to her. “Why do you hang back?” he asks. Rather than another brief collision, their relationship is the profound and ecstatic love each had longed to find. But it’s undermined by Tom’s harrowing past – his fatherless childhood, his wartime experiences, and most of all, the loss of the two children he left behind in Florida, along with the powerful red, white, and black paintings he will never set eyes on again. Tom, both tender and volatile, draws Joanna into the unwinnable struggle against the forces that drive him toward death.

Once again, Joyce Johnson brings to life a mythic bohemian world where art is everything and life is as full of intensity and risk as the bold sweep of a painter’s brush across a canvas.

— image and synopsis via Amazon


What Lisa Knew: The Truths and Lies of the Steinberg Case (1991):

“She was found in darkness – the bruised, comatose first-grader who would never wake up to tell anyone which of the two adults in the small, filthy Greenwich Village apartment had beaten her.” On January 30 1989, Joel Steinberg was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter after a twelve-week, nationally televised trial in which his former lover, Hedda Nussbaum, was the star prosecution witness. In this book, Joyce Johnson examines the mysteries still surrounding Lisa Steinberg’s death and also addresses the painful question of how she lived, in an account of what is known about her last days and hours, when no one acted to save her.

— image and synopsis via Amazon


Doors Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 (2001):

On a blind date in Greenwich Village set up by Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Johnson (then Joyce Glassman) met Jack Kerouac in January 1957, nine months before he became famous overnight with the publication of On the Road. She was an adventurous, independent-minded twenty-one-year-old; Kerouac was already running on empty at thirty-five. This unique book, containing the many letters the two of them wrote to each other, reveals a surprisingly tender side of Kerouac. It also shares the vivid and unusual perspective of what it meant to be young, Beat, and a woman in the Cold War fifties. Reflecting on those tumultuous years, Johnson seamlessly interweaves letters and commentary, bringing to life her love affair with one of American letters’ most fascinating and enigmatic figures.

— image and synopsis via Amazon


Missing Men: A Memoir (2005): 

Joyce Johnson’s classic memoir of growing up female in the 1950s, Minor Characters, was one of the initiators of an important new genre: the personal story of a minor player on history’s stage. In Missing Men, a memoir that tells her mother’s story as well as her own, Johnson constructs an equally unique self-portrait as she examines, from a woman’s perspective, the far-reaching reverberations of fatherlessness. Telling a story that has “shaped itself around absences,” Missing Men presents us with the arc and flavor of a unique New York life—from the author’s adventures as a Broadway stage child to her fateful encounters with the two fatherless artists she marries. Joyce Johnson’s voice has never been more compelling.

— image and synopsis via Amazon


The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2013):

Joyce Johnson brilliantly peels away layers of the Kerouac legend in this compelling new book. Tracking Kerouac’s development from his boyhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, through his fateful encounters with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and John Clellon Holmes to his periods of solitude and the phenomenal breakthroughs of 1951 that resulted in his composition of On the Road followed by Visions of Cody, Johnson shows how his French Canadian background drove him to forge a voice that could contain his dualities and informed his unique outsider’s vision of America. This revelatory portrait deepens our understanding of a man whose life and work hold an enduring place in both popular culture and literary history.

— image and synopsis via Amazon




If “Everything Is Possible,” Our Milestones Need to Change

21 Aug

singles-620x412Image from Singles via Salon

In the second paragraph of Sara Scribner’s recent Salon article about Generation X, the journalist says:

Few have even noticed that this small, notoriously rebellious clan – those born roughly between 1965 and 1980, which means about 46 million Xers versus 80 million boomers — has entered middle age.

The article itself is entitled “Generation X gets really old: How do slackers have a midlife crisis?”

Let’s stop right there for a moment. The date range provided here for Generation X refers to people who are currently between 48 and 33 years old. Is 33 middle age? Is 33 “really old”? Hyperbole aside, is 48 even “really old”?

The rest of the article refers to people in their 40s. I get it. The writer is using the median age. Treatises on generations are always rift with broad-swept generalities, however the attention to age in this particular article is telling for the article goes on to bring up issues of delayed adulthood, parents, and leadership.

Scribner quotes historian and generational expert (side note: how does one get to be a generational expert? That sounds like an awesome job) Neil Howe saying:

“Xers experience agoraphobia — everything is possible.”

The article goes on to say:

That’s where this generation gets its reputation as reluctant to grow up. “It’s very hard to mature,” [Howe] says. “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options. The way Xers were raised, there were always options — their parents told them to keep options open.”

Further on in the article, Scribner explains the result of this:

[Sheryl] Connelly, the Ford futurist, says that some of the postponing of the traditional midlife period may come down to a pushing back of all the major life milestones: “Some of that [midlife questioning] would be fueled by empty nesters – the kids are grown,” she says, explaining a feeling of “now what?” “Demographics have shifted such that with each passing generation, people are postponing marriage.” With dependent kids at home, everything has been pushed back. “There’s nothing midlife about my situation right now.  I think that’s why you don’t hear this conversation.”

Maybe, but that’s assuming that we’re talking about a Gen Xer born closer to the 1965 date. Let’s take someone smack dab in the middle of Gen X. If we’re using the range 1965 to 1980, let’s pick someone born in 1972. That person today (well, depending on when their birthday falls) would be 41 years old. Let’s now assume this person married right out of college and then had a kid the following year, when they were about 24 years old. (Keep in mind, that’s younger than the median age for getting married which is closer to 27.) That child would be about 17 years old. It’s therefore not at all shocking that many—even half of—Gen Xers would have “dependent kids at home.” It would actually be rather traditional and, dare I say, old-fashioned.

More interesting is not that life’s “major life milestones” are happening later but that they’re happening at different times for Gen X.

And, just as interesting is that, even with these societal changes, Scribner still upheld conservative viewpoints of adulthood when she paired the phrase “major life milestones” with Connelly’s quote about “empty nesters,” “postponing marriage,” and “dependent kids at home.”

This is where the article gets fascinating but isn’t fully explored. Yes, perhaps on the whole, people are postponing marriage and children and many who did have children now can’t get rid of their boomerang kids, creating a period of limbo. However, just like the age range of Gen X varies, so does the age that they’re getting married and having kids. That’s apparent even in looking at the celebrities the article mentions. Kurt Cobain (born in 1967) had a baby, and that baby is now 20 years old. Winona Ryder is 41 and has never been married or had children. Liz Phair, who is now 46, married a film editor in 1995 and had a child with him the following year; in 2001 the couple divorced.

I have friends I graduated college with who afterwards got married and now have two or three children. I have other friends I graduated high school with who are still very single—and by “very,” I simply mean that they are not only unmarried but also not in a steady relationship. I have a cousin who is about two years older than me who has a seventeen-year-old son. And I have other cousins who are about a decade older than me and have children the same age and younger than the cousin closer to my age.

At a writing conference, I had an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues. On so many levels we connected. We’d had very similar upbringings. We had comparable goals with our writing. We  shared parallel interests. Only about two years older than me, she is a mother of adolescent children and confessed to fearing empty-nest syndrome. At that moment in the conversation, my unmarried, childless self felt like a complete child next to her.

Going back to the statements about Gen X’s reluctance to grow up and the difficulty of maturing in this day and age, I think Howe’s concept of “agoraphobia” is worth more attention. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with Howe’s assessment that we have a phobia, an irrational fear, of “shut[ting] off options,” but the fact that we have those options is significant. We have the option to get married right out of college or to wait until we’ve experienced more of life, know ourselves better, and have amassed a nest egg to support a family. There’s no longer the same social stigma there once was to have a child out of wedlock and so we have the option to have a child with a significant other who we may already be living with. With the advancement of medicine, we also have the option of waiting until we’re in our 40s to have children.

As Howe says, “everything is possible.” But what does that mean for our identities and for the concept of maturity and adulthood?

Does a Gen Xer who is single and childless at 48 years old have more in common with a single and childless 33 year old Gen Xer than with a 48-year-old Gen Xer with a toddler? Does a Gen Xer who is an empty nester have more in common with the Gen Xer who never had children? Does a divorced Gen Xer in their early 30s have a more similar lifestyle to a Gen Xer in their late 40s who never got married? Is the 48 year old who never got married and never had children less mature, less of an adult, because they haven’t reached certain “milestones”?

Maybe it’s time our concept of maturity shifted to match the time period in which we’re living. Maybe it’s time to recognize that today’s milestones have changed.

The Salon article says “Many Xers seem nostalgic for the serene ‘50s,” but the “serene ’50s childhood” is a myth. One, in fact, that we explore in Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” when talking about how illness killed off children, how war fractured families, how gender roles were back then, and how supposed countercultural icon Jack Kerouac longed for a wife and a ranch. Marilyn Monroe died at 36, never having a child. Ella Fitzgerald never had a child of her own but adopted one. Allen Ginsberg had a lifelong partner but his relationship was not considered traditional at the time. Clearly, there were people in the 1940s and ’50s who reached adulthood, reach midlife, without achieving traditional milestones. So why do we continue to use the same markers for maturity today that weren’t even accurate in the 1940s?

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Vice’s Suicide Poet: Beat Writer Elise Cowen

20 Jun

Well by now you’ve probably heard about VICE’s suicide fashion spread, “Last Words.” If not, here’s the low down: The lifestyle magazine with the apparently ironic tagline “The Definitive Guide to Enlightening Information” launched The Fiction Issue 2013 featuring all women fiction writers. So far, so good. In fact, almost exemplary considering VIDA’s stats that women authors aren’t equally published. The issue features works by Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gaitskill, a story on Marilynne Robinson … and a fashion spread on female writers who have committed suicide. Following the public’s uproar, the staff has issued a “statement” explaining their “unconventional” and “artful” approach and “apologiz[ing] to anyone who was hurt or offended.” They have taken it down from their website but not recalled the print publication.

I’m not going to belabor the point about the dangerous implications of “Last Words”—it used self-violence to sell clothing, it said nothing about the writers’ actual work, it glamorized death, it suggested the hysteria of women, oh just to name a few things—but I do want to point out a few things that I haven’t seen the many other critiques point out (though they may certainly be there; I didn’t have time to read every single article): the fashion spread is just one of the many troubling aspects of the issue. Let’s start with the cover: it’s a picture of a skinny woman—her hip bone and clavicle jut out—in a bikini, with her hands behind her back and her legs cut off. Granted it’s a photograph by Ellen Page Wilson of Carole A. Feuerman’s 2008 sculpture Francesca, and Feuerman works out of a feminist perspective, but at quick glance, and when featured on the same page as a link to the Vice “most popular” list that includes “VICE Meets: The Biggest Ass in Brazil,” it would seem to fall in line with the usual negative portrayals of women in the media and representing women as body parts instead of a whole person—even if the artist intended it to show women’s connection with nature and their strength. Oh and that Joyce Carol Oates story I mentioned? It includes a mother on “Xanax or OxyContin.” The one by Mary Gaitskill? About a woman who wonders if it was a mistake not to have children. Hannah H. Kim’s story is about dealing with sadness. Amie Barrodale’s “A Ghost Story” opens with a woman who doesn’t accept a marriage proposal and is disowned by her father, her mother a shut-in with eczema. Zelly Martin’s story “Jailbait” is just what it sounds like: a story about a teenager who drops out of high school after becoming involved with her parents’ friend. They may have literary merit just as the artwork does, but collected together these stories position women as sexual objects and depressives. Based on the staff’s  statement and the fiction and art selected for the issue, “Last Words” was not an “oops” moment for Vice. It was an insidious attack on women.

So just who were these suicidal women portrayed in Vice’s “Last Words”? The spread included Iris Chang, Elise Cowen, Charlotte Perkins, Sylvia Plath, Sanmoa, and Virginia Woolf. Much could be said about any of these writers and why perhaps these particular writers were selected (for instance, the fact that Sanmoa hanged herself with silk stockings and not a rope). The inclusion of Elise Cowen is an interesting one, though, and while I’m by no means endorsing Vice’s tactics, maybe we can turn a negative into an opportunity to discuss the life and legacy of this poet.

Elise Cowen

Vice’s inclusion of Elise Cowen is an interesting choice because she’s not very well known as a poet. As far as I know (a search for her name on BN.com only brings up a DVD), there is no volume of poetry written solely by her. Her work has appeared in various collections but has not appeared on its own. In fact, the first book by her won’t be published until 2014. Tony Trigilio, an English professor at Columbia College Chicago, is editing the first major collection of her writing, entitled Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, for Ahsahta Press. Fourteen of those poems were published last year in Court Green, a literary journal Trigilio edits with David Trinidad.

The fact that Vice chose Cowen, when they could have selected more widely published women writers who have committed suicide—for example, travel writer Gertrude Bell, poet Ingrid Jonker (“the South African Sylvia Plath”), or literary critic Beatrice Hastings (Katherine Mansfield’s lover)—suggests the Vice team is either very well read or they were going on cult following more than literary recognition. The reason I am familiar with Elise Cowen, and presumably most other people are as well, is because of her circle of friends.

Elise Cowen dated Allen Ginsberg. In case you’re confused, yes, Ginsberg did date women here or there. He met Cowen through Barnard philosophy professor Alex Greer, and they went out on a date together. They got to talking and discovered they had a mutual friend in Carl Solomon, whom they’d both met while spending time in a mental hospital. Needless to say, Ginsberg and Cowen weren’t the best match: shortly after their romantic involvement, Ginsberg began seeing Peter Orlovsky, who became his lifelong partner, and Cowen began dating a woman with the pseudonym Sheila. The foursome apparently ended up living together after Cowen graduated from Barnard in 1956.

In New York, Cowen supported herself as a typist until she was fired, and then she went to check out the poetry scene in San Francisco, where she lived with an alcoholic painter. She became pregnant and had a late-term abortion and hysterectomy. After she returned to New York, she wound up in Bellevue to get treated for hepatitis and psychosis. Against the doctor’s orders, she checked herself out and went to go live with her parents up in Washington Heights. There, at their Bennett Avenue home, she jumped through the glass of the seventh-story window. Elise Nada Cowen was only twenty-eight years old.

Known at Barnard as Beat Alice, Elise Cowen may not have published a volume of poetry in her lifetime but her story and poetry is known today because of her friends. Her poetry references other great female writers such as Emily Dickinson and Mary Shelley. It is bold, experimental, and sensual.

For more information on Elise Cowen, her poetry, and her friendships, visit:

Elise Nada Cowen ’56 (Barnard College)

The Lady is a Humble Thing: Elise Cowen (Beatdom)

Elise Cowen: Sappho-Dickinson Hybrid with a Beat Sensibility (Jacket 2)

Black daisy chain of nuns (Jacket 2)

On Elise Cowen (1933-1962): poetry on the margins (Wake Your Mind)

Elise Nada Cowen (Cosmic Baseball Association)

Elise Cowen (UPenn)

Women of the Beat Generation (Knight)

Minor Characters (Johnson)

A Different Beat (Peabody)

Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (Ginsberg)

I Celebrate Myself (Ginsberg)