First Third, The

by Neal Cassady
(1971)
   This autobiography is one of the least discussed books to come out of the Beat movement. This is not without irony since its author, neal cassady, was the human bonfire before which Beat leaders jack kerouac and allen ginsberg warmed their eager hands. In the early, heady years of their association, Kerouac and Ginsberg could not get enough of this all-American oddball. They thrilled to their new friend’s antic behavior and virile charisma.
   In a 1952 letter to Ginsberg, Kerouac went so far as to include the reform school alumnus–car thief–inveterate womanizer–railroad brakeman in the “genuine literary movement” at hand. Although he would go on to make Cassady famous as the basis for the fast-talking Dean Moriarty in on tHe road, Kerouac believed that Cassady was much more than a muse; he thought that his beloved friend was a real writer who just needed to sit down and get to work. But the mere act of sitting down did not come easily to the frenetic Cassady, and writing was not his calling, as it was for Kerouac.
   Still, Cassady set to work on an autobiography in 1948. According to carolyn cassady, the most enduring of his several wives, he wrote The First Third sporadically in a period of six years. In the second edition of The First Third (City Lights, 1981), she explains that her husband’s “last concentrated efforts to rewrite” occurred in 1954 when he was laid up with work-related injuries. Ginsberg and City Lights publisher lawrence ferlinghetti were urging him to finish the book and get it into print, and Carolyn was glad to help out: “We worked together on it from the beginning, but I made as few suggestions as possible to guarantee the book would reflect his thinking and his style exclusively, for better or for worse.” City Lights finally published The First Third in 1971, three years after Cassady had died a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.
   It seems that he had originally intended to write a more complete autobiography, but his preoccupation with detail created a major hindrance. The revised text in the second edition, which incorporates Cassady’s annotations and additions discovered after his death, stands at 138 pages. The prologue recounting his ancestry and his parents’ failed marriage takes up roughly a third of the narrative. The remaining three chapters cover Cassady’s childhood travails in the company of his father, an alcoholic bum. At the end of the book, Cassady has reached the ripe age of seven. Cassady had barely made a dent in his life story when he set it aside for good.
   The First Third is an undeniably flawed book. For starters, the title is a misnomer since the book covers only the first sixth of the author’s sadly truncated life. More important, the story lacks the spontaneous ebullience that Kerouac admired in Cassady’s letters, and it is short on introspection, opting instead for a relentless cataloguing of occurrences. Yet it is also undeniably interesting, even apart from the author’s fame and famous connections, and deserves consideration as a true Beat text. Reading it, one senses what made Cassady a legendary monologuist. His recollections of Denver’s streets in the 1930s are photographic in detail, and his depictions of Depression-era bums are unsentimental without being cruel. Like herbert huncke, another Beat-movement raconteur and icon, Cassady had a vast fund of unusual experience on which to draw. When he was six, his father took him away from the household where they had both been beaten up regularly by Cassady’s bullying half-brothers. Fleeing to a flophouse called the Metropolitan felt like a step up at the time. “Yes, without a doubt, I had a matchless edification in observing the scum right from the start,” Cassady writes with cheerful cynicism. “Of course, being with brow-beaten men, surly as they sometimes were, I gained certain unorthodox freedoms not ordinarily to be had by American boys of six. Also, my usually-drunk father (or on his way to that condition) was of necessity a bit lax in his discipline. Still, I didn’t often take advantage of him, since I really loved the old boy.”
   Young Cassady and his father shared a top-floor room at the Metropolitan with “Shorty,” a double amputee who slept on a three-foot shelf and supported his alcoholism by begging. Although Shorty “stank of body smell and was very ugly, with a noforehead face full of a grinning rubber mouth that showed black stubbed teeth,” he did not prey on Cassady. But Cassady did encounter child molesters, and sex with little girls was part of his early experience as well. Cassady does not gloss over these encounters, though they do not seem to have been of great importance to him. Instead, it is the relationship with his father to which he returns repeatedly. On one occasion, father and son had become separated on a freight train hurdling east from California. Imagining that he had lost his father forever, Cassady was beside himself with fear and misery, only to discover belatedly that his father had hopped aboard another car on the same train. None of the other bums in Cassady’s car had thought to suggest this possibility, nor had the elder Cassady attempted to yell out reassurances. The frightening episode left Cassady emotionally bruised but wiser. As a very young boy, he realized that he had more intelligence and foresight than his father and his father’s kind.
   The question that The First Third implicitly asks is, what would young Cassady do with his keen mind and insatiable curiosity about the world? This sliver of an autobiography points accurately toward a life of hardship and adventuresome scrappiness. Though he eventually moved back in with his mother and his siblings, his primary bond was with his father, a bond that Kerouac commemorated in the elegiac allusion to “old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found” at the end of On the Road. Given the family history recounted in such detail in the prologue, perhaps The First Third is more accurately seen as a memoir about the elder Neal Cassady rather than an autobiography. Indecisive and inadequate in so many ways, “the old boy” was still the great love of his son’s difficult life.
   Hilary Holladay

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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