Maggie Cassidy

by Jack Kerouac
   This novel might not get the respect it deserves because its subject matter is so different from jack kerouac’s more famous novels and its style comparatively conventional. Still, its frank handling of delicate emotional experiences is highly original. Chronologically, Maggie Cassidy is the third volume of Kerouac’s “Duluoz Legend,” following visions of Gerard and doctor sax. Visions of Gerard covers Kerouac’s early childhood, and Doctor Sax covers his late childhood and early adolescence. Maggie Cassidy is the record of Kerouac’s first serious love affair, beginning in the summer when he was 16. All three of these books were originally sketched out in several long, confessional letters that Kerouac wrote to neal cassady in December 1950 and January 1951. The book is not just about Maggie but is also about Kerouac’s family during the years following his father’s loss of his printing business. Emil (Leo Kerouac) is proud and resourceful and careful to tell his son about the world without embittering him.
   The inspiration for the real-life Maggie was Mary Carney, a young woman who lived in a house with rosebushes along the river in South Lowell. In Kerouac’s actual life, Mémêre, his mother Gabrielle Kerouac, always had a say about both his girlfriends and (later) his wives, and Mary Carney was only the first in a long line of women who would not pass Mémêre’s inspection. Kerouac’s relationship with Mary was mostly over by the time he went off to Columbia in 1940, but Kerouac would still walk by her house on trips back to Lowell. To him, she represented the possibility of a life he missed leading-one of home and family, a stable, steady job on the railroad.
   Instead of Mary and the railroad job, Kerouac went on the road with Cassady. It is no accident that Maggie and Neal share similar last names; they are the two sides of the coin of Kerouac’s life. For if Kerouac saw Mary as someone who could have provided him with a much-needed stability, he saw Neal—at least at the time he was writing Maggie Cassidy—as the opposite. In October 1952 Kerouac wrote to john clellon holmes, “and how I loved Mary Carney’s dark sad face, & wanted to marry her at 16 and be a brakeman on the Boston & Maine railroad . . . to have a real asshole like Cassady come along & con me like a yokel into listening to his crap & believing in his kind of franticness & silly sexfiend ideas.” Kerouac’s choice of Cassidy for Maggie’s name is also suggestive of his homosexual desire for Cassady: in essence, he makes “Maggie” Neal’s sister, a strategy that Kerouac admitted to Ellis Amburn was typical of his way of expressing sexual desire for men such as Sammy Sampas (Jack’s third wife was Sammy’s sister) and Gary Snyder.
   Although written at the same time as the experimental novels The suBterraneans and Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy is often called Kerouac’s most accessible novel because of its traditional, linear style—almost a return to the style of The town and tHe city. The book even begins in the third person, a rarity in Kerouac. Kerouac appears to have written the book consciously to resemble a movie scenario or to resemble more of a conventional novel, perhaps because his persona, Jack Duluoz, perceived the world in such terms. Kerouac even went so far as to rewrite the “spontaneously” written sections of the novel to fit them in with the other more conventionally written sections. Written in the third person, the first four chapters capture the last moments before Duluoz and his friends mature into men with jobs and wives and a war to fight. The fifth chapter is elegiac and sets the tone for the rest of book. He meets Maggie, and she plays many roles in the book: sister, mother, witch, and Madonna. Later, Kerouac outlines his confused relationship with religion. He says he has “exchanged the angel of life for the other,” presumably the dark angel with whom he often associates Cassady. He also writes frankly here of his love for a little boy when he was nine and says that we do not notice the “little dramas” of love that children play out. Such observations, analyses, and descriptions make the novel much more than the simple “adolescent love story” advertised on its cover.
   Kerouac is also an excellent sports writer, and here he re-creates an indoor track meet in which Duluoz competes against an African-American runner. Although Duluoz is intimidated by the black runner, when they meet at the starting line, he sees that they are in fact similar: “The Canuck Fellaheen Indian and the Fellaheen Negro face to face.” Later, Jack realizes that “love” is ruining his sports life with the boys and regrets having ever met Maggie. Reading this novel, you have to wonder why Malcolm Cowley and other editors turned down a story with such universal appeal, one that Kerouac says captures “the enormous sad dream of high school deaths you die at sixteen.” Behind the “typical” awkward scenes between high school lovers, Kerouac creates a tension between harmless teenage small talk and Duluoz’s hidden mind. This tension is felt throughout the book and makes for anything but a typical romance novel. His love for Maggie is presented as imprisonment and torture, and the imagery of love carefully includes only nature’s harsh elements—rock, ice, fire. We see Maggie draw Duluoz away from his family and from his love of sports in sirenlike fashion.
   The book was published in 1959 as an Avon paperback with the tag line, “The Bard of the Beat Generation reveals a startling new dimension to his personality in this brilliant and profoundly moving novel of adolescence and first love.” It received no serious reviews, and to this day it is one of the least commented-upon novels by Kerouac. However, critics would do well to examine the relationship between Kerouac and Neal and Carolyn Cassady in terms of how it may have influenced the novel: Their threesome broke up just before Kerouac sat down in his mother’s kitchen in New York and wrote Maggie Cassidy.
■ Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
■ Grace, Nancy McCampbell. “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.” In The Beat Generation: Critical Essays, edited by Kostas Myrsiades. 93–120. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
■ Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1995.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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