March 12 is Jack Kerouac's birthday, aka the favorite author of all the guys in your creative writing class who consider themselves deep and too cool for genre fiction. He's known for novels like Big Sur and The Dharma Bums, and is arguably the most famous member of the Beat generation, which included writers like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso.
You'll notice that I just named four famous Beat writers and all of them were male. That's because, on the surface, the Beats were pretty much a boys' club. Much of their writing shows a preoccupation with masculinity and male friendships, with a heavy dose of homoeroticism thrown in. When women are mentioned, they're characters that the male protagonists are sleeping with or running away from, lest their femaleness disrupt the male creative process or some nonsense like that.
If you dig a little deeper, however, you'll find that there actually were a bunch of really great female Beats; it's just that no one ever talks about them. These women were hanging out with Kerouac and Ginsberg and producing a ton of work, without getting any of the fame or credit (typical). I know it's Kerouac's birthday, but isn't it time to give the spotlight to one of these ladies?
So the next time that annoying guy at the bar tries telling you how much he identifies with On The Road, ask him if he's read one of these works instead.
'Big Strange Moon' by Joanne Kyger
You may be familiar with Indian Journals, Allen Ginsberg’s account of his time spent running around India looking for enlightenment. Well, Joanne Kyger, then married to the Beat poet Gary Snyder, was right there with him. Kyger traveled through Japan and India with her (unfairly) more famous male counterparts, writing about her own poetic journey and the hardships of being a woman in the boys' club that was the Beat movement. Also, she makes some snide comments about Ginsberg and Snyder that are pretty great.
'Loba' by Diane Di Prima
You’ve heard of Howl, I’m sure. Well, why not read its female counterpoint, Loba? Diane Di Prima’s long poem is a mix of mythical symbolism and feminist ideals. In fact, all of her poems are pretty cool and weird and exactly what you need when another guy in your English class brings up how much he loves Allen Ginsberg.
'Minor Characters' by Joyce Johnson
Probably my favorite book on this list, Joyce Johnson met Jack Kerouac in her early 20s while trying to make it as a writer in New York City. For the next year and a half, he would continually pop in and out of her life, trying to cope with the sudden success of On the Road. Johnson’s memoir is fascinating not only because it humanizes Kerouac, but because it gives such an intimate look at the life of a woman struggling to find her voice in a male-dominated industry. Johnson is an incredibly engaging storyteller, and the writing in this book is gorgeous.
'Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg' by Carolyn Cassady
You’re probably familiar with Carolyn Cassady: the beautiful, golden-haired dream woman who was married to Neal Cassady and idolized by Jack Kerouac (for reference, she was Evelyn in Big Sur). She also carried off a legendary affair with the two men, living for a while with the both of them (damn girl, good for you). But this memoir finally gives her a voice, letting her tell her side of the story rather than seeing her through Kerouac’s gaze. Because let’s face it: Kerouac doesn’t exactly write the most realistic portrayals of women.
'Memoirs of a Beatnik' by Diane Di Prima
Here’s how Goodreads describes this book: “Long regarded as an underground classic for its gritty and unabashedly erotic portrayal of the Beat years, Memoirs of a Beatnik is a moving account of a powerful woman artist coming of age sensually and intellectually in a movement dominated by a small confederacy of men, many of whom she lived with and loved.” Hi, yes, sign me up immediately please. You had me at “unabashedly erotic portrayal of the Beat years.”
'Come and Join the Dance' by Joyce Johnson
Joyce Johnson’s first novel is the semi-autobiographical account of a young woman leaving her safe world of college classes and marriageable boyfriends to join the world of artists and bohemians living in New York City. Sound familiar? Okay, so in a lot of ways it sounds like Minor Characters. Which, actually, makes it all the more interesting to read them side-by-side. Plus, Johnson is considered by many to be the Beat generation’s first women novelist, so this is an under-appreciated classic.