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HISTORY AS LITERATURE Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac Excerpts from two of these letters appear in Carolyn Cassady's excellent account of her Ufe with Neal, Offthe Road. Thanks to Ms. Cassady for making these letters avaUable to us. Other books that we have relied upon for footnotes and inspiration include: Kerouac, Ann Charters, Straight Arrow Press, 1973; Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, Gerald Nicosia, Penguin, 1983; Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1973, Viking, 1995; Jack Kerouac, King ofthe Beats: A Portrait, Barry Miles, Henry Holt and Company, 1998; Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life ofJack Kerouac, ElUs Amburn, St. Martin's Press, 1998. THE LETTERS OF NEAL CASSADY TO JACK KEROUAC INTRODUCTION As a teenager, Neal Cassady was an aU-American boy in some ways— handsome, energetic, resourceful, smart, crazy about girls and cars. However, he had a tendency to take everything to an extreme. His love of cars got him in trouble when he fell into the habit of stealing them— by his own count some five hundred of them, joyriding his way into the juvenile slammer three times in the early 1940s. Neal's sex drive was ravenous, too, and he liked boys as weU as girls, not something to brag about in midcentury America. After meeting Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their friends in New York, he began to get into drugs, primarily marijuana and Benzedrine, which soonbecame another excessive habit. According to many who knew him, he was a con artist or, as one acquaintance said, a "pure psychopath" without maUce, just the habit of manipulating people for his immediate goals. One might wonder why Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a serious effort to understand Cassady's character, became a generation-defining novel. He was in four of Jack's other autobiographical novels and was the "secret hero" of Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Howl." Fictional versions of Neal also figured in a good deal of other Beat-generation writing and at least six mostly bad movies. As if being the mythic hero/antihero of one generation wasn't enough, Cassady was the real-life driver of Ken Kesey's bus in the mid '60s when the Merry Pranksters took off across country to spread the gospel of acid, a journey immortaUzed in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. As his old friend Jack declined into alcoholism and bitterness, Neal Cassady thus served as the crazy uncle of a succeeding generation of rebels. Unlike the several who wrote about him, he never financially benefited from his many appearances as a character. The celebrity status of such a figure might be marked off as proof of the mere anarchy and rebelliousness of the counterculture if it weren't for other aspects of his personality. This "pure psychopath" was also Jack Kerouac's lifelong best friend and loving supporter of his work, a fact amply demonstrated in their correspondence. His support ofJack was particularly important in the early '50s when the novelist was The Missouri Review · 93 floundering. Several years later, after the novel was published in which Kerouac both extolled him and nailed his faults, Cassady remained his best friend. Arrested in the fall of 1957 for involvement in a small marijuana purchase, Neal was sentenced to two to five years in San Quentin. The officers involved in this "undercover operation" did not make the arrest for months, and when they did, they were fully aware that Cassady was the hero of On the Road. It is possible that his notoriety at the time contributed to their decision to pursue the charges. In many ways, the man Neal Cassady didn't entirely fit the casual myths about him. Despite his baroque sex Ufe, Neal ended up loving and being loved by one woman, Carolyn Robinson Cassady (fictionalized as "Camille" in On the Road). Their three children, for whatever reasons, grew into admirable adults, contrary to the stereotype of the "wounded" children of celebrities. This philosopher of the carefree life hated being idle. Not having a job made him antsy. (The kind of jobs he chose were humble—working as a railroad brakeman or slinging tires in retread shops.) While his metier was...


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