Visions of Cody

by Jack Kerouac
(1972)
   Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, his tribute novel to neal cassady, is, arguably, Kerouac’s greatest book, although at the time it was written, Kerouac’s best reader allen ginsberg told Cassady that it was a “holy mess.” No one who had not “blown” Kerouac, said Ginsberg, could ever make sense of Visions of Cody because of the book’s deeply personal material. What Ginsberg did not understand at the time, but came to understand later, was that Kerouac was writing his books with the clear sense that they were all one long book, “The Duluoz Legend,” as he called it. Therefore, any personal references in Visions of Cody would in due course be explained through reference to other installments in “The Duluoz Legend.” Regardless, the reader who comes to Visions of Cody after having read on tHe road, The dHarma Bums, or some of Kerouac’s other works of conventional prose will find the book as difficult to read in parts as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Yet Visions of Cody is the version of Kerouac’s book about his life on the road with Cassady that Kerouac himself thought was the best. The novel is unique as a literary achievement if properly seen in the context of Kerouac’s life and how his life led to his development as an artist. Kerouac started to write the book in October 1951 in Queens, New York, incorporating some of his Denver descriptions from summer 1950, and finished it in the Cassady’s attic in May 1952. He wrote most of the book after having written On the Road, which, although it is a book with a freewheeling style, is hardly as experimental as Visions of Cody. Even so, Kerouac found no publisher willing to touch On the Road, including his friend Robert Giroux, who rejected On the Road out of hand. Most writers would have taken that as a message to restrain their style. Kerouac saw such rejection as liberating. If On the Road, a book that he knew was great, would never be published, then he may as well write for himself and write in as pure a form as he could imagine. This new form was spontaneous prose. Spontaneous prose can be seen as the literary equivalent of the improvisational jazz solos of Lester Young and Charlie Parker or the “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock. Kerouac would throw out all of the rules about form and create a literature that substituted images for plot—a breakthrough that would have a profound influence not only on Ginsberg (whose poems, he admits, were influenced deeply by Visions of Cody) but also on William S. Burroughs (who by the mid-1950s had come to the same conclusion about images versus plot as had Kerouac). A comparison of “A Supermarket in California,” “howl,” and the later “road” poems in The fall of america to the prose of Visions of Cody, and the dash-style punctuation of Burroughs’s prose in Naked Lunch and the cutup trilogy to Visions of Cody make it clear how influential Kerouac’s book was on the writing of his two friends. Both read it in 1952. Ginsberg worked as an agent for the book (unsuccessfully), and Kerouac typed the manuscript while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952.
   The book is divided into three parts. The first part contains Kerouac’s “sketches” of New York City in November 1951 with references to Cody Pomeray’s (based on Cassady) childhood mixed in. Part Two recounts Cody’s childhood and early pool-hall days; it also describes Kerouac’s trip West to visit Cody and Evelyn (based on carolyn cassady) in December 1951. Part Three is a transcript of several days of tape-recorded conversations between Cody, Jack Duluoz (based on Kerouac), and Evelyn at Cody and Evelyn’s house in San Francisco. It also includes Kerouac’s imitation of the tape in spontaneous prose, along with spontaneous-prose sketches, including a description of Cody. Part of the book was published by New Directions in 1959. The entire book was published posthumously in 1972 when it was issued with an afterword by Ginsberg entitled “The Visions of The Great Rememberer,” one of the best readings of Kerouac’s prose by any critic. Kerouac was friends with a Columbia architecture student named Ed White (the model for Ed Gray in Visions of Cody), who was an old Denver friend of Cassady’s. In October 1951 White showed Kerouac some of his sketches on a notepad and, as White says, “suggested that he could do the same with notes.” White says Kerouac could write extremely quickly, and he saw him carrying around pocket notebooks after their conversation. In a letter to Cassady, Kerouac calls these sketches “everything I sense as it stands in front of me and activates all around, in portable breast shirtpocket notebooks slapping.”
   The “sketches” of New York recorded in Part One of Visions of Cody were made by Kerouac in November 1951. The sketches include the men’s room in the Third Avenue El railway station, reflections in the window of a bakery in Jamaica, Queens, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Throughout, comparisons are made to the perceptions of the hero of this book, Cody. For example, the sketch of Hector’s Cafeteria was an important setting in Cody’s first visit to New York in 1946. The overall connection between the “sketching” style and the storyline of the book is that unlike On the Road, this book will be the “complete Cody,” with few details left out.
   Kerouac says that in “the Autumn of 1951 I began thinking of Cody,” and we know that Kerouac had been receiving letters from Neal and Carolyn Cassady asking him—even pleading with him—to come visit them, offering Kerouac their attic as a writing space. As Carolyn describes in off tHe road, she and Neal had come to the conclusion that Kerouac was an essential part of their life and was a necessary element in their marriage. Kerouac’s attempts to travel West to see the Cassadys were slowed by his impulsive (and shortlived) marriage to Joan Haverty and by returning bouts of thrombophlebitis, which led to his hospitalization in September and early October 1951. Part One ends with what in many ways is a love letter from Duluoz to Cody. Duluoz believes that only Cody understands him and that he is “haunted” by Cody. They have wasted too much time, and he almost lost everything by going to Mexico with Julien Love (based on Lucien Carr), a reference to Ginsberg and Carr’s trip to Mexico in August 1951, just a few weeks before Joan Burroughs was accidentally shot by William Burroughs in a game of “William Tell.” He adds a postscript to Evelyn assuring her that he is “Cody’s friend, not his devil,” for in the past Duluoz’s arrival has signaled domestic chaos.
   In summer 1949, financed by his $1,000 advance on The town and tHe city, Kerouac moved himself and his mother to Westwood in the foothills of Denver. His mother did not like Denver and left almost immediately, but Kerouac stayed and took the opportunity to visit the old haunts of Cassady and his pool-hall gang. In fall 1950, while staying with his mother and his sister in Richmond Hill, Kerouac wrote these experiences. Before sitting down at the kitchen table to write, he would sneak into the bathroom and smoke several joints which rolled were from marijuana that he had smuggled back from Mexico on the trip with Cassady that is described at the end of On the Road. The marijuana-inspired style of these passages—which constitute much of Part II of Visions of Cody—were a breakthrough, Kerouac felt. Ginsberg and Cassady disagreed, saying that the marijuana was obscuring Kerouac’s judgment. Certainly, the marijuana allowed Kerouac to focus on details to a level that he had never done before. He wrote 20,000 words alone about the day when Cassady first met his friend Jim Holmes in Peterson’s Pool Hall in Denver. In Visions of Cody, Kerouac refers to this section as “where in North Carolina tea dreams I also saw Cody and tried to write a ‘story’ about it.”
   Cody’s history as its retold in Visions of Cody has at least two sources. Readers of Cassady’s incomplete memoir The first tHird will find considerable overlap between Kerouac’s account and Cassady’s. Kerouac probably saw the beginnings of The First Third when he stayed with Neal and Carolyn in 1950 and 1951. Cassady’s letters to Kerouac also contain a good deal of the information-and also approximate the spontaneous style—in the first part of Book II of Cody. In fact, it was Cassady who apparently taught Kerouac to smoke marijuana and take Benzedrine to write nonstop, free-flowing prose.
   The principal characters in Kerouac’s history of Cody are Tom Watson (based on Jim Holmes), Slim Buckle (based on Al Hinkle), and Earl Johnson (based on Bill Tomson). Holmes remained in Denver his entire life, playing pool and betting on the horses. Hinkle is the basis for the character Ed Dunkel in On the Road, and his wife Helen (the model for the character Helen Buckle) is the basis of a character Galatea Dunkel in On The Road and is an important friend to Carolyn Cassady as is described in Off the Road. Tomson, who was dating Carolyn, introduced her to Neal.
   A quarter of the way into the book, Kerouac begins a new section that is unrelated to Cody’s past. Here, Duluoz develops his own story about himself and how he came to be heading West again to be with Cody. He recounts writing the opening section of book two and of his days at the hospital recuperating from thrombophlebitis. Increasingly the book becomes Duluoz’s rather than Cody’s story. Duluoz feels himself to be at the height of his powers as a writer because not only is he the “maddest liver in the world” but he is also the “best watcher and that’s no sneezing thing.” He tells us that the book will resemble Proust’s great work, but he will not have the luxury of writing it in bed; instead he will write it on the fly. It will be “the most complete record in the world,” a description that reveals Kerouac’s immense ambitions as a writer in 1951. Kerouac is writing with such confidence of the immortality of his work in progress that he even refers cryptically to passages of his unpublished novel On the Road—as if any reader could know the source. Still, he seems to know that one day all of his works will be in print and that readers will be able to put the entire thing together. To visit Cody, Duluoz plans to ship out of New Jersey on the President Adams. Deni Bleu (based on Henri Cru) already has a place on board, and they will travel together. However, Duluoz is unable to get a position on the ship and watches it leave without him. Deni tells him to travel overland and to meet the ship when it arrives in Port at San Pedro, south of Los Angeles. Duluoz borrows $70 for the trip, procures a supply of Benzedrine and Dexedrine, and hits the road. He arrives in San Francisco, and he, Slim Buckle, and Cody hit the saloons on Mission Street. Facing the ocean at San Pedro at the end of Part II, Duluoz listens to Deni lecture him about how Duluoz does not love anyone but himself. In Part I, however, Duluoz has written to Cody that he does love him, and it is to Cody that Duluoz returns.
   Kerouac and Cassady had long discussed using a tape recorder as opposed to a typewriter or pencil and paper to capture in the raw spontaneity of their marathon discussions and monologues. Cassady bought an Ekotape recorder, and when Kerouac visited in December 1951, they let it run as they sat around in the kitchen of Neal and Carolyn’s apartment smoking marijuana, drinking wine, playing records and musical instruments, and getting high on Benzedrine. Part III of Visions of Cody is a transcript of five such nights in early 1952.
   Most critics find this section more interesting as an idea than as a written text. Ginsberg admits that the tape is “hung up and boring” at times, but he says that the “art lies in the consciousness of doing the thing, in the attention to the happening in the sacramentalization of everyday reality, the God-worship in the present conversation, no matter what.” The tape, he says, is thus a very direct application of Kerouac’s theories of spontaneous prosody: “It’s art because at that point in progress of Jack’s art he began transcribing first thoughts of true mind in American speech.” Kerouac himself was self-conscious about the ultimate failure of the tape experiment, but maybe that was the point. “You’re not going to get hardly any of this recorded, you know,” says Cody to Duluoz, and Duluoz replies, “Well, that’s the sadness of it all.” Inarguably, though “Frisco: The Tape” is, in terms of its content, an extremely valuable document. For the transcript, Kerouac presciently selected topics of discussion that fill in some of the gaps in the early history of the Beats. Many biographers of the Beats seem to have overlooked the material here, for many of the stories that are buried in the 150 pages of often drunken and stoned conversation have not found their way into the narratives of the lives of Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, in particular.
   Duluoz has never heard from Cody about his experiences on Hubbard’s (based on Burroughs) ranch in East Texas in 1948. He has only heard Irwin Garden’s (based on Ginsberg) side of the story. Cody is evasive about what Ginsberg identifies in the notes at the end of Visions of Cody as their “Green Automobile Vow”—a vow of love, for Ginsberg but not for Cassady, evidently, that they made in the middle of a road in Oklahoma as they hitchhiked to East Texas. Cody tells the story of the bed that Huck (based on herbert huncke) and Irwin make for Cody and Irwin to sleep in, a famous Beat legend also recounted in Huncke’s memoir The eveninG sun turned crimson. Another part of the transcription documents the culture of marijuana smoking that would become widespread in America 15 years later. The Beats were a direct link between the drug culture and the drug language of the jazz artists of the 1930s and the 1940s and the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Already, in this transcript, the reader can see that a very specific ritual has emerged. Cody talks the majority of the time in these tapes, but Duluoz tells the story of his first meeting of Julien and Hubbard and June (based on Joan Burroughs). He also discusses the relationship between Julien and Stroheim (Dave Kammerer).
   Carr’s murder of Kammerer is a key part of Beat history. There are also details about Duluoz’s early days around Huck and Phil Blackman (based on Phil White) and, in particular, the real-life Vicki Russell that are not available in any other Beat book. For example, Duluoz is quite candid about the fact that they all knew that Blackman was a murderer. In this unexpurgated account of the Times Square/Columbia scene of the early and mid-1940s, it is clear that Duluoz, Garden, and Hubbard kept company with fairly hardened criminals. Other highlights of these pages include Duluoz’s memories of New Year’s Eve 1947 in the company of Vicki and Julien and also of Cody’s thoughts on the deaths of Finistra (based on Bill Cannastra) and June.
   Cody takes the tape back and at Duluoz’s urging tells about how he met his Denver “gang” in the early 1940s. They talk about their mutual friend Ed Gray, and Cody tells about meeting Tom Watson. He tells Duluoz of the breaks that he was given by Justin Mannerly (based on Justin Brierly), who helped him get a job out of reform school recapping tires. On the tire job, he met Val Hayes (based on Hal Chase), with whom he began to have deep conversations about poetry and philosophy. Ginsberg believed that Chase convinced Cassady that poetry was more important than philosophy. This fact convinced Cassady to go to New York and meet Chase’s poet friends, including Ginsberg and Kerouac.
   Evelyn has been in and out of the conversation, but she joins them after coming home from her nighttime job as a photographer in the nightclubs that are located in the old Barbary Coast district of San Francisco. Carolyn Cassady writes about this job and those days in Off the Road. Both accounts reflect Carolyn’s view that these were some of the happiest times that Kerouac, Neal, and she spent together.
   Duluoz becomes drunk and drops out of the conversation, giving Cody the floor with Evelyn. These pages capture Cody’s natural storytelling style as well as any in Beat literature. Cody tells Evelyn about his days in Los Angeles before he met her, the only such account available in Beat literature. Such stories are made safe for Evelyn. Cody has to be careful not to discuss parts of his life when he knew Evelyn but which did not include her. For example, earlier she asks about when he, Slim, and Duluoz were all together in New Orleans, but the subject is quickly dropped because the story includes another woman. Cody and Duluoz discuss June’s death and Hubbard’s fascination with guns. They then speculate about how Irwin and Hubbard might die. Significantly, they do not speculate about their own deaths, although later in the book Cody says that he will die on a railroad track (Neal actually did). Another section of the transcription fills in a key part of the history of Hubbard and June. Burroughs moved to South Texas in late 1946 but returned almost immediately to New York when he heard that Joan had been institutionalized. Cody tells the story of Hubbard’s return. This part of Burroughs’s history (as it intersects with Cassady’s) is not available in any other Beat book. Though Cassady seems to have confused this time with a later return to New York by Burroughs when he and Cassady drove Burroughs’s jeep from East Texas to New York and attempted to sell the marijuana that Burroughs had raised on his New Waverly farm.
   In the “Imitation of the Tape” section of the book, Duluoz breaks in at one point and makes one of his most memorable statements about why he is a writer: “I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die—In the loneliness of my life . . . my heart broke open in the general despair and opened up inwards to the Lord, I made a supplication in this dream.” The book has been written out of the loneliness following his extended farewell to Cody. “Adios, King,” he ends the novel. Still, although he loves Cody, he resents how Cody has come to be the very eyes through which he sees the world. Cody also has become increasingly unperceptive about life in general. As Ginsberg says in his notes to the book, part of their problem was that with Cody married and with two children, he and Duluoz simply did not have anything to do together. “The Imitation of the Tape” is meant to be a tribute to Cody that is more complete than On the Road, but it is also meant to purge Cassady from the pages of Kerouac’s future books.
   Kerouac tries on all kinds of styles in this section and adopts dozens of voices. He adopts Cody’s voice and even his thoughts. There are whole sections written in the style of Shakespeare, for at the time Kerouac, Neal, and Carolyn liked to perform Shakespeare’s plays in the living room at night. The stream of consciousness that runs throughout led Kerouac to question if “in the morning, if there is a way of abstracting the interesting paragraphs of material in all this running consciousness stream that can be used as the progressing lightning chapters of a great essay about the wonders of the world as it continually flashes up in retrospect.” He even reverts to the style of The Town and the City for a while and imitates his own voice in On the Road. A major influence on the style of Visions of Cody is jazz. Kerouac always wanted to write a jazz novel, and parts of Visions of Cody are as close to jazz as he ever came. Says Duluoz parenthetically, “this is all like bop, we’re getting to it indirectly and too late but completely from every angle except the angle we all don’t know.” As is true of the solos of the great jazz musicians whom Kerouac and Cassady admired, Kerouac never repeats himself even when writing the same story. He often repeats stories from On the Road, but they are told differently, leading the thorough reader of Kerouac to the conclusion that he truly could have spontaneously written these books in any number of ways, all of them successful “solos.”
   Part of Visions of Cody corresponds to On the Road when Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac) stays in Denver in spring/summer 1949. The Denver gang is all elsewhere, so, left on his own, he visits Cody’s old haunts and walks through Denver’s African-American neighborhoods, wishing he were a “Negro.” Kerouac has been accused of romanticizing African-Americans in this passage in On the Road; however, in Visions of Cody, he interviews “one poor Negro soldier” about “Denver niggertown,” and when the soldier does not know about it or will not tell him, Duluoz shows self-awareness by realizing that the soldier could not possibly be “involved in a white man’s preoccupation about what colored life must be.” The Visions of Cody version is also notable for its inclusion of a section on Robert Giroux (the “mysterious Boisvert”) in Denver. Giroux, Kerouac’s editor on The Town and the City, was attracted to Kerouac and followed him to Denver, but Kerouac was ultimately depressed by Giroux’s “successful young executive” mentality. Visions of Cody also describes Duluoz, Cody, and Joanna Dawson’s (based on LuAnne Henderson) on the road trip through the deserts of West Texas in 1949. Kerouac describes Marylou (based on Henderson) in On the Road applying cold cream to Sal and Dean’s naked bodies as they drove. He is much more explicit in Cody: Joanna “applied cold cream to our organs.” Henderson’s far less erotic account (she says they had no cold cream although she would have loved to have some lotion in the dry heat) can be found in her interview with Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee in Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (1978). The ménage à trois suggested by Cassady is covered in On the Road. Another passage that corresponds to a section of On the Road involves Cassady and a homosexual. In On the Road Dean tricks the homosexual into giving him money for sexual favors, which he promises but on which he reneges. In Visions of Cody, Duluoz cowers in a motel bathroom as Cody performs “slambanging big sodomies that made me sick”—and the homosexual never gives Cody his money. In his notes to Visions of Cody, Ginsberg asserts that Kerouac would have been a lot happier if he had simply joined the sex party.
   Visions of Cody, just as On the Road, describes a version of Kerouac and Cassady’s destruction of a Cadillac by driving it from Denver to Chicago in 17 hours. In On the Road, Kerouac leaves out a side trip that the two made to Detroit, where Kerouac tried to revive his relationship with his first wife, Edie Parker. She sends him away curtly. In Visions of Cody, Kerouac also describes Cassady’s first meeting with Diana Hansen in New York: “She was a raving fucking beauty the first moment we saw her walk in.”
   The section “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog” is one of Kerouac’s most popular and most frequently anthologized pieces. While living with Neal and Carolyn in San Francisco in winter 1952, he took a walk one night, and just a few blocks from the Cassady’s apartment he encountered a Hollywood crew shooting a Joan Crawford film called Sudden Fear. He rushed back to the Cassadys to tell them, but they were not impressed, and Kerouac went back alone with his notebook. Kerouac’s description of the Hollywood shoot needs to be seen in the context of his theory of spontaneous art. The “vastly planned action” of the scene that Crawford repeatedly rehearses is the opposite of how Kerouac believes that the best art is created. “Blow, baby, blow!” he says he yelled at Crawford, urging her to cut loose with an unrehearsed moment of true living in the same way that a jazz artist “blows” a solo or that a writer such as Kerouac “blows” long, spontaneously written works such as “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog.” He says “the movies have nothing now but great technique to show,” a comment that could apply equally well to technically proficient fiction and poetry of the type that are valued by most of the critics of his age. By contrast, the kind of film that he loves reflects the “wild form” that he told john clellon holmes he was seeking in fiction. The Three Stooges captured that wild form early in their career, he says, but in their “baroque period” they were repeating themselves, a falling-off in inspiration that was reflected in the more violent style of the later Stooge films. Similarly, Crawford’s faking of emotion contrasts greatly with the self-consciousness of Cody, who dislikes telling stories that he has told before because he remembers the way he told it and thus has lost his fresh perspective. Through passages such as “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog,” Kerouac reveals that his ideas about spontaneous writing are not just about technique but embody an entire philosophy of life.
   In both Visions of Cody and On the Road, Kerouac describes the characters that are based on Cassady as having simply talked themselves out. In Visions of Cody, not only has Cody talked himself out but also Kerouac apparently has finally written himself out about Cassady. His next book, doctor sax (which begins to surface in several references at the end of Visions of Cody), will be his most personal book, one about the imaginary, mythic landscape of his childhood.
 Bibliography
■ Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
■ Hunt, Tim. Kerouac’s Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1981.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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