Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady (1926-1968), born in Salt Lake City, “Adonis of Denver” (according to Allen Ginsberg), never published a book in his life but gained international notoriety and fame as the near-official muse of the Beat movement.  Cassady’s influence changed English literature and helped to usher in both Beat poetry and literature and the succeeding hippy movement.  He became something like a real American version of John Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost – someone who was willing to appear evil to wider society in order to celebrate his own individuality.  In novels and poems where he appears (there are quite a few of them), he is nearly always portrayed as a kind of drug-fueled human supernova, a fast-talking combination of holy man and devil.  He died in Mexico after a wedding reception of exposure, an appropriately long list of chemicals found in his blood.

Cassady’s early life was marked by tragedy.  He was born in Salt Lake City in 1926.  His mother died when he was 10, after which he moved with his father to Colorado.  He lived a transient existence with his alcoholic father and was first arrested when he was fifteen.  In 1946, on a trip to New York, he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the cornerstones of the Beat movement in literature.  Those relationships, which lasted the rest of his short life, became the foundation of some of the most important and influential works of Beat literature.

As a friend and lover to both Kerouac and Ginsberg, he inspired classic characters and moments in their work.  Most famously, Kerouac modelled the character of Dean Moriarty in his On the Road on Cassady.  The image of Cassady giving the literal and metaphorical finger to society changed the figure of the hero in American literature.  Kerouac’s Moriarty is authentic, a madman and a genius.  He pushes and literally drives the action of the story.  Characters based on him appear in several of Kerouac’s novels.  Ginsberg dedicated several lines of his classic poem Howl to Cassady, the “secret hero of these poems.”

But while Cassady is best known for inspiring Kerouac to create Moriarty, his influence on the novel and on literary history goes deeper than just providing a character sketch.  Kerouac himself credits Cassady with the discovery of “Spontaneous Prose,” the style that characterizes On the Road and which electrocuted American literature at the time.  Although Cassady never published anything during his life, he was a prolific letter writer.  Cassady wrote the “Joan Anderson Letter” in 1950, a mammoth piece of correspondence – “practically a novella,” according to the Beat Museum – to Kerouac, in which he describes in strenuous detail an affair with the letter’s namesake, Joan.  Cassady’s prose is fast-paced, erudite, lurid, and can be shocking to a 21st century sensibility (he talks about leaving Joan for the evening immediately after her suicide attempt during which she drinks ammonia because they won’t be able to have sex that night).  The letter inspired Kerouac, who called it “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw” and used it as the model for the spontaneous style that brought him fame.

Cassady continued his role as countercultural icon and muse through the 60’s, most notably as a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, a band of artists and writers who travelled the United States in a bus named Further, which Cassady drove.  He appears prominently in Thomas Wolfe’s classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as the driver of the Further, the bus that the Pranksters ride across the U.S.  His relationship with the Pranksters lasted until his death.

Although many people remember Cassady for his rowdy life, his legacy has been more complicated.  His wife of fifteen years, Carylon Cassady, wrote a book, Off the Road, that argues that Cassady took fatherhood (they had three children) seriously and desperately wanted to be respected.  She points out that throughout the period in which he became integral to the Beat movement, Cassady maintained a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad.  Indeed, Cassady tried to publish a novel during his life and was close to finishing it at the time of his death.  A fictionalized account of his early life, the novel has been published posthumously as The First Third along with collections of his correspondence.

Bibliography

  • The First Third, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1981.
  • Collected Letters, 1944-1967, Dave Moore, ed., Penguin Books, New York, 2004.

Links

The Neal Cassady Estate website, which collects links and articles about Neal and Carolyn Cassady.

An excerpted section of the Joan Anderson Letter that inspired Kerouac's spontaneous prose.