Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, a memoir about coming of age in the 1950s and the Beats, won a 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award. The most recent of her eight books is The Voice Is All, a biography of Jack Kerouac. (October 2019)
I was raised by my mother in a state of almost Victorian ignorance about my body. Even at a women’s college like Barnard, which I attended as a day student, practical information about sexual matters was sketchy. In Modern Living, a required course I took as a freshman in 1951, we were taught the names and functions of the male and female sexual organs, as if the body were a machine without sentience, under the full control of its owner. In one lecture, there were allusions to Family Planning, which sounded sensible to me, like budgeting, but I certainly wasn’t planning a family at sixteen.
Robert’s black-and-white prints immediately reminded me of Jack’s word pictures in On the Road. Here was the reality beyond the sidewalks of New York that I hoped to see one day with my own eyes, if only Jack would take me along on one of his cross-country road trips. I didn’t know that he was becoming far too famous to make them anymore. Years later, the images I saw that day would become famous themselves: the trolley in New Orleans with the lineup of white and black faces in its windows that told the story of Southern segregation; the unforgettably stony expression of a lunch-counter waitress in Hollywood. When I came to the empty highway in New Mexico, with its mysterious radiance and its white stripe leading toward some vanishing point in the descending dusk, I thought to myself, Wow! There’s Jack’s Road! “Jack has to see these,” I told Robert. As soon as Jack came out of his meeting, I introduced them.