Off the Road, On The Page
By Susan Tomaselli.
Carolyn Cassady, Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Black Spring Press, 2007
“… So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old, broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it … just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty … I think of Dean Moriarty.”
There are no second acts in American lives, F Scott Fitzgerald said, but for the Beats—some of whom have been enjoying posthumous celebrations of their most famous works this year—what glorious first acts, if accelerated at that. ‘Howl’, poet Allen Ginsberg’s magnum opus, said it best: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…” No more so than Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, aka Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity in the ultimate hipster bible, On the Road.
Bashed out in a spontaneous Benzedrine-fuelled three-week session, enthused by bebop and drawing on a wealth of experiences as he criss-crossed Route 66, Jack Kerouac’s fate was sealed in that 120 foot scroll. Published 50 years ago, and dismissed at the time by Truman Capote (“That’s not writing, that’s typing”), there is no question now it made Kerouac “the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation”—or as William Burroughs once put it, the man who “sold a trillion Levi’s, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road”. Eventually, Kerouac fell, slipping into alcoholism, the attention from the book doing him in. No second act.
The original title of the seminal book was to be Visions of Neal for, ignoring the newly released “uncensored” version for a moment which “restores” the original names and turns the novel into piece of non-fiction, Dean Moriarty was Denver’s petty criminal Neal Cassady; and in ‘Howl’, “N.C., secret hero of these poems…” (see The First Third, Neal’s recollections on being a catalyst in the movement). But you know this already. Despite the title, Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road is, to an extent, about that “irresponsible wanderlust of the soul,” as she writes on the “men who dared to live like the characters in my books and movies,” sent her on her own journey, “a long journey in a direction opposite to any I had ever taken and towards an education of an entirely different nature,” when she feel in love with, and married Neal Cassady.
Always on the periphery, the women of, and associated with, the Beat Generation were given short shrift, readers enthralled more with antics of Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, Carlo Marx (Ginsberg) and Old Bull Lee (Burroughs), less so with Camille (Carloyn in On the Road). Carolyn Cassady, alongside Joyce Johnson and Edie Parker (Judie Smith in The Town and the City, Elly in Visions of Cody, Edna Palmer in Vanity of Duluoz), in Minor Characters and You’ll Be Okay respectively, attempts to not so much redress the balance, but make their stories heard.
Carolyn’s recollections of her years as Neal’s wife, and Jack Kerouac’s lover, are honest, quite refreshing. Instead of some rose-tinted account, she lays bare some of the bullshit and deflates some of the myths that surrounded these lionised men. From the start, there were more than two people in her marriage—Neal was constantly running off with his ex-teenage bride LuAnne when he wasn’t sleeping with Allen Ginsberg, and more women appeared later—”Neal could convince so many of us, including Allen, of that same level of devotion,” she writes. Yet Off the Road is far from bitter, despite the strains that were put on their union; “Neal’s moods, his restlessness, the suicide attempt, his frequent absences and trips,” her, a “fifth wheel, like a bratty little sister big brother had to take along with his friends,” a cramp on their rollicking revelries.
Neal Cassady was an electrifying presence, “dashing about looking for kicks,” and when Kerouac came to visit the couple in 1952, Carolyn gives a taste of that excitement, that bond between the two men: “Neal bounded about showing Jack in rapid succession the wonders he’d described in his letters, overdoing the joyous clowning until Jack was reduced to laughter…I didn’t know if it was Neal who influenced Jack or the other way around, and Jack probably thought I believed him to be the tempter. A little of both perhaps.”
There’s a clear sexual attraction to Kerouac and, combined with her new-found willingness to yield to Neal’s shenanigans, this period sees Carolyn not only rolling with the punches—doing things Neal’s way, as she puts it—but consciously changing the patterns of their lives by relinquishing to her feelings and taking up with Jack: “Like night changing into day, everything was showered with new light. Butterflies bursting cocoons had nothing on me. Now I was a part of what they did; I felt like a sun in their solar system that all revolved around, and the variety was an extra added attraction; they were such different men, in spite of their closeness. Opposites that attract.”
She continues, “I wondered if it might be that he appreciated his women more when the relationship was threatened, or whether a rival made him seem less trapped, but a the moment I didn’t care Meals all together amused me, but also gratified my ego. Here the two men were like small boys, vying for the most attention, or the best story, and felt slighted if one held the floor too long. Jack was more sensitive, and since he loved Neal, and it was Neal’s home, he sometimes felt offended, or he would sulk if Neal talked to me, excluding him as though he wasn’t there. Jack might stalk upstairs, and Neal would have to go after him and coax him back. Neal still had to prove he was the best man around. Taken by an large, my cup did runneth over.”
The ‘Mother Image’, “Madwomen, chick and ignu,” Carolyn’s affair with Kerouac was immortalised in Big Sur, and was to continue, albeit long-distance by letter (“All of Jack’s letters were precious to us, not only for what he said but how he said it”) and by ‘phone, until the end, Kerouac “writing himself to death,” pulled down into the quagmire.
Neal fared no better. As Ginsberg wrote to Kerouac, but it is applicable to Neal as well, “None of us are fast and strong enough to battle society forever, really; it’s too sad and gray.” The Merry Prankster as sad clown makes for raw, uneasy reading: “I can’t help it any more. I don’t know where else to go. I’m a danger to everyone—ha—to myself most of all. I keep swearing I’m going to stop making an ass of myself, but then I get in a group, and everyone stares at me, waiting for me to perform—and my nerves are so shot, I get high—and there I go again. I don’t know what else to do. It’s horrible.”
Neal Cassady, a man mourned only by the underground press, a man “intimately involved with two major novelists and a major poet,” was never able to to break free of Kerouac, his partner-in-crime, never able write his own Beat masterpiece: “I read Proust slowly and realize I really can write as he does. Of course he’s better but I’m younger, and while less brilliant, still have a chance to learn how..” Also, more tellingly, “There is something in me that wants to come out, something of my own that must be said. Yet, perhaps, words are not the way for me… I am not too sure that the roots of the impulse to write go deep enough, are necessary enough for me to create on paper…”
There is a sense that the Cassadys lived in the shadow of On the Road, that “barbaric yawp of a book.” Carolyn cannot, despite her best efforts, escape Kerouac’s paean to Neal entirely, but she through her insights, she makes of think of Neal Cassady… we think of Neal Cassady.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 18th, 2007.