Cassady, Neal

(1926–1968)
   One might be tempted to say that if Neal Cassady had not existed, jack kerouac would have had to invent him. But for many students of the Beat Generation, Kerouac did invent Cassady. It is the rare Beat aficionado who knows much about Cassady beyond what Kerouac conveys in on tHe road. Casual readers often assume that the character of Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s fictional portrayal based on Cassady, is one and the same with Cassady. Never mind that Kerouac’s Cody Pomeray in visions of cody presents a very different portrait of Cassady, and never mind that john clellon holmes’s Go, carolyn cassady’s off tHe road, and Neal’s own autobiography The first tHird (1971, rev. 1981) also conjure up someone quite distinct from the so-called Holy Goof of On the Road. Dean Moriarty, that “Western kinsman of the sun,” remains the version of Cassady with which all other versions must compete. This was true for much of Cassady’s life and remains true today. The son of an itinerant barber and former housemaid, Neal Leon Cassady was born on February 8, 1926, in Salt Lake City, Utah. His early childhood was singularly unpromising, as he makes clear in The First Third. His alcoholic father, also named Neal, could not hold a job for long, and the family, including two of Neal’s seven half-siblings, scraped by for only a couple of years in Hollywood, California, where the elder Neal had his own barber shop. Their subsequent move to Denver introduced young Neal to the city that he would call home for the rest of his childhood. When the Cassadys’ marriage failed, father and son decamped for the Metropolitan, a tenement hotel that catered to bums.
   Horrified and fascinated by the likes of Shorty, their legless roommate, six-year-old Neal traveled back and forth between the squalor of his new home and the orderliness of his elementary school. Both realms appealed to him. Since his half-brothers liked to beat him up, leaving home was something of a blessing. He could handle his father’s consorts, drunkards one and all, and like a little businessman with a challenging commute, he loved his complicated walk across town to school. In another life in another age, he might have been a class star.
   But that path in life was not meant to be his. As a young boy, Neal traveled to California by freight train with his father, a journey that both wearied and invigorated him. There was no forgetting either the color or the torpor of life on the road, as Neal experienced the beat circumstances that would give gritty dimension to the later Beat movement. Back in Denver, he lived primarily with his mother and siblings until his mother’s death in 1936. For the next several years, he stayed with a much older halfbrother before rejoining his father in 1939.
   Shuffled from home to home with so little continuity in his life, Neal began to steal cars at age 14. A master of joyriding, he supposedly stole more than 500 cars between 1940 and 1944. His Neal Cassady watching out for the cops, Oakland, 1966. Photographer Larry Keenan: “While waiting for Ken Kesey to arrive, Cassady kept a lookout for the cops. Kesey was a fugitive at the time. Cassady asked me, ‘What’s the heat like around here, man?’ Thinking he was talking about the weather, I said, ‘Pretty nice.’ ” hobby landed him in the Mullen Home for Boys, and later scrapes with the law earned him short stints in a California juvenile forestry camp (1943) and the Colorado State Reformatory (1944–45). In his down time, he pored over Dostoyevsky and other challenging authors whose works he found in the camp or prison library.
   Cassady thus styled himself as an autodidact as well as an auto thief. He hungered for knowledge and aimed high when given a choice of reading materials. Like herbert huncke and gregory corso, fellow Beats whose criminal activities did not prevent them from reading widely and deeply, Cassady was not destined to graduate from high school. His radiant, ruthless intelligence was nevertheless central to his character and to his hold on the intellectuals he would soon meet. Justin Brierly, a Denver teacher and lawyer, was an important early friend and mentor. In his letters to Brierly from the Colorado State Reformatory, he maintains a rather lofty demeanor, evidently aware of the older man’s attraction to him. In a wide-ranging letter dated October 23, 1944, he tells Brierly to pay a small debt for him at a Denver restaurant and then switches to literary matters: “They have the Harvard Classics up here, the five foot shelf of books; I’ve read about 2 feet of it, very nice, I especially enjoy Voltaire & Bacon (Francis).” From there it’s on to prison sports and finally an appalling revelation: a farm accident at the reformatory has left Cassady in danger of losing the sight in his left eye. To this, Brierly evidently responded with great concern in letters to both Neal and a prison warden. In a letter posted a week later, Cassady reports that his vision is on the mend and chastises Brierly for not having known that the former warden had been killed in a car accident and a new one is on duty.
   The whole exchange is very much of a piece with Neal’s later correspondence with friends and lovers. Though often mired in difficulties of his own making, he held the people around him to high standards of accountability. His own flaws and foibles did not mean that he would cut anyone else any slack. This inconsistency, the stroke of a career con artist, beguiled more people than it alienated. Hailed by one girlfriend late in his life as “the best lay in the U.S.A.,” Cassady would probably be labeled a sex addict nowadays. His appetite for women, occasional men, and masturbation seemed to know no bounds. Compact, muscular, and radiating great physical warmth (according to Huncke), he racked up conquests the same way he stole cars. For him, both acts were akin to an art form that required frequent practice and deserved notice when done with great skill. His other favored activities also combined athletic prowess with a desire for acclaim. He was proud, for instance, of his ability to skip a rock across water an impressive 20 times. As Cassady biographer William Plummer points out in The Holy Goof (1981), such a feat “was perhaps the first of his obsessively attained, hyperkinetic and unmarketable skills, the most famous of which—his virtual emblem in later years—was hammer flipping.”
   His sexual prowess—the hyperkinetic skill that most defined him—was marketable, however. Jumpy and compulsively charming, he seemed always on the brink of orgasm. Just so everyone would know what he was up to, he made a habit of strutting around naked, a detail Kerouac admiringly records in On the Road. His occasional forays into hustling did not lead to a career, but such activity contributed to his mystique in the eyes of his writer friends in New York City. Without his virile charisma and impressive sexual history, he would not have attracted the attention of Kerouac, who wanted to (and did) make a hero out of him, or of Ginsberg, who wanted to (and did) make love to him. When Cassady and Kerouac met in New York City in 1946 through Columbia University student Hal Chase, also of Denver, they took to one another eagerly and obsessively. Kerouac needed to see someone like Cassady to make sense of his own life, and Cassady desperately needed to be seen. It is the story of their mutually needy friendship, of course, that animates On the Road. By transforming his buddy into Dean Moriarty, a cartoonish version of the real Cassady, Kerouac established the pattern that was to shape his best books. He would tell the story of a companion—a friend, a brother, or a sweetheart—while simultaneously recording a chapter of his own spiritual autobiography, what he called the Duluoz Legend.
   Cassady’s parallel friendship with Ginsberg was complicated by Ginsberg’s passionate yearning for the Denver roughneck. The two traveled together to the East Texas farm where William S. Burroughs, Joan Burroughs, and Huncke were living in 1947. To Ginsberg’s mortification, Huncke set about building a bed that Ginsberg and Cassady could share. The letters in As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady (1977) show Ginsberg weighing his desires against a nagging suspicion that Cassady was beneath him intellectually. Realizing this, Cassady made a point of working erudite references into his letters. In 1948 he writes to Allen, “Let us stop corresponding—I’m not the N.C. you knew I’m not N.C. anymore. I more closely resemble Baudelaire.” Such claims kept Ginsberg interested.
   Ginsberg apparently wanted Cassady to develop into a writer—to become, in effect, his equal if not the new Baudelaire. In a letter to Allen written in August 1948, Cassady reports that he is coming out of his depression and making another stab at writing: “I can, once again, walk into a hip joint, smell hip things, touch hip minds—without crying. As for self-improvement: I’m starting music lessons soon; I’m all set, if necessary, to get psychoanalysis, . . . but, perhaps, more interesting to you—I am writing daily; poorly done, poorly executed, woefully weak ice words I string together for what I try to say, maybe, only one paragraph, maybe different subjects each day, maybe, crazy to try (for I seem to get only further embroiled in style) but, I am trying.” Neal Cassady shaving at Ginsberg’s, San Francisco, 1965. Photographer Larry Keenan: “Allen Ginsberg did not have a bathroom in his apartment, so Neal Cassady is shaving in Ginsberg’s kitchen in this photograph. Cassady had a hard time trying to get some lather from the old bar soap. He had cut his face. When Cassady was introduced to people, he was always introduced with, ‘meet Neal Cassady, who is Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road.’ I had been looking for a way to illustrate this dual role. While he was shaving, I suddenly realized, there they both were.”
   While juggling wives, lovers, and an expanding brood of children and trying to write an autobiography at the behest of his author friends, Cassady still managed to earn a living, usually as a California-based railroad brakeman and to maintain regular contact with both Kerouac and Ginsberg through the mid-1950s. If he did not respect his marriage vows—and his two legitimate wives LuAnne Henderson and Carolyn Robinson and his bigamous wife Diana Hansen could attest to that—he was nevertheless so articulate and convincing on the subject of relationships that his intimates routinely forgave him his infidelities and indiscretions even as they suffered dearly from his callous treatment.
   When he seemed to hand over Carolyn to Kerouac in 1952, the ensuing affair had much to do with Neal and very little to do with any real bond between Carolyn and Jack. Because Neal liked complications and diversions, the coupling of his wife and best friend was a welcome novelty, especially since Carolyn clearly still preferred him. She writes about the affair with amused affection in Off the Road, portraying herself as a sort of R-rated Lucille Ball caroming between rival suitors. For much of her marriage, she was game for nearly anything that would keep Neal interested and in check. His multiple affairs, the apparent suicide of his lover Natalie Jackson, his gambling away of their nest egg, and his two years in San Quentin prison on a trumped-up marijuana charge—none of this ended their marriage. When they finally divorced in 1963, the breakup was anticlimactic and long overdue.
   It is a common misperception that fame destroyed Kerouac, when in fact his decline had begun long before he published On the Road, but it seems that notoriety, if not true fame, helped Death track down Cassady during his last days on a trip to Mexico. For the first half of his life, he was nothing if not a survivor, a street kid whose fierce hold on life awed everyone he met. But after joining forces with the lawless ken kesey and posing as a so-called Merry Prankster—a dancing elephant of the hippie brigade—he became a parody of his old ebullient self. No longer exhilaratingly brash, joyously profane, and hooked on life, he was just dull, drugged, and headed toward disaster. But even then, he still managed to inspire Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.
   His death of exposure alongside railroad tracks in Mexico on February 4, 1968, a few days short of his 42nd birthday, was poetic justice at its cruelest. Overexposed in so many ways, terminally headed down the wrong track, this tragicomic American clown took his final pratfall in a country where only a handful would know who he was or why his story mattered.
   The First Third and his Collected Letters, 1944-1967 (2004) reveal that Cassady was both more and less than the countless literary images propagated in his name. (The movie The Last Time I Committed Suicide [1997] directed by Stephen T. Kay and starring Thomas Jane, Keanu Reeves, Adrien Brody, John Doe, and Claire Forlani is based on the famous “Joan Anderson” letter Cassady wrote to Kerouac in December 1950.) Putting her finger on the paradox of Neal’s double life as man and muse, Carolyn Cassady candidly admits in the introduction to the letters, “I find I am as guilty as anyone else of promoting myths about him.”
 Bibliography
■ Cassady, Carolyn. Introduction. Collected Letters, 19441967, by Neal Cassady, edited by Dave Moore, xv– xvii. New York: Penguin, 2004.
■ ———. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New York: William Morrow, 1990.
■ Cassady, Neal. Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967. Edited by Dave Moore. New York: Penguin, 2004.
■ ———. The First Third and Other Writings. San Francisco: City Lights, 1981.
■ Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin, 1991.
■ Plummer, William. The Holy Goof: A Biography of Neal Cassady. New York: Paragon House, 1981.
   Hilary Holladay

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Neal Cassady — Neal Cassady, left, with Jack Kerouac in 1952. Photograph by Carolyn Cassady. Born February 8, 1926(1926 02 08) Salt Lake City, Utah …   Wikipedia

  • Neal Cassady — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Cassady. Neal Cassady (Salt Lake City, 8 février 1926 San Miguel de Allende au Mexique, 4 février 1968) est une personnalité américaine, célèbre pour avoir inspiré le personnage de Dean… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Neal Cassady — (* 8. Februar 1926 in Salt Lake City; † 4. Februar 1968 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexiko) gehörte zur literarischen Gruppe der Beat Generation, weniger als Autor denn als Quelle der Inspiration. Leben Geboren in Salt Lake City und teils von… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Neal Cassady — (nacido el 8 de febrero de 1926 4 de febrero de 1968) fue un icono de la Generación Beat de la década del 50 y del movimiento psicodélico de la década del 1960, conocido principalmente por ser retratado, bajo el nombre de Dean Moriarty, en la… …   Wikipedia Español

  • Cassady — ist der Name folgender Personen: Carolyn Cassady (* 1923), Schriftstellerin, Malerin und Muse der Beat Generation Neal Cassady (1926–1968), gehörte mit zu der Gruppe der Beats Siehe auch: Casady …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Cassady, Carolyn — (1923– )    Married to the whirlwind, larger than life Beat muse neal cassady, Carolyn Cassady became a central figure in the lives of Cassady, jack kerouac, and allen ginsberg, as well as an important Beat memoirist with the publication of her… …   Encyclopedia of Beat Literature

  • Cassady —  Cette page d’homonymie répertorie des personnes (réelles ou fictives) partageant un même patronyme. Neal Cassady, une personnalité américaine (1926 1968). Carolyn Cassady, un écrivain américain (1923). Catégorie : Homonymie de patronyme …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Neal and Jack and Me — Song infobox Name = Neal and Jack and Me Artist = King Crimson Album = Beat Released = June 18 1982 track no = 1 Recorded = 1981 Genre = Progressive rock Length = 4:22 Label = EG Records Producer = Rhett Davies prev = None prev no = None next =… …   Wikipedia

  • Cassady — n. family name; Neal Cassady (1926 1968) American poet, member of the Beat Generation …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Neal Cassady — n. (1926 1968) American poet, member of the Beat Generation …   English contemporary dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.