American Muse

Neal Cassady, “American Muse and Holy Fool”

Neal Cassady, “American Muse and Holy Fool”

He was the real hero of the Beat Generation. Variously called Dean Moriarty and Cody Pomeray by Jack Kerouac, Hart Kennedy by John Clellon Holmes, and in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955), “N.C, secret hero of these poems.” It is almost as if the whole Beat moment were mainly about Neal Cassady (1926-1968), a petty criminal who served time in prison for car theft, shoplifting, and fencing of stolen goods. Although he never published a word during his lifetime, it was Neal who acted as a catalyst for his friends. As Jack Kerouac wrote in On The Road:

He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him…. Somewhere along the line, I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me.

Kerouac described his friend’s influence on his writing style “as in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation.” You can see some of this in this YouTube interview at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco between Cassady and Allen Ginsberg:

In a 1953 letter to his friend Jack, he wrote:

Well it’s about time you wrote, I was fearing you farted out on top that mean mountain or slid under while pissing in Pismo, beach of flowers, food and foolishness, but I knew the fear was ill-founded for balancing it in my thoughts of you, much stronger and valid if you weren’t dead, was a realization of the experiences you would be having down there, rail, home, and the most important, climate, by a remembrance of my own feelings and thoughts (former low, or more exactly, nostalgic and unreal; latter hi) as, for example, I too seemed to spend time looking out upper floor windows at sparse, especially nighttimes, traffic in females—old or young.

It is not so much a well-constructed unit of thought as an onrush, barely keeping on the rails.

And, in the end, it was the rails that did him in. He was in San Miguel Allende in Mexico in 1968 when he drank too much alcohol and took Seconal, then went walking along the rails on his way to the next town. That’s where he was found, unresponsive, dying in the local hospital. He could have died of an overdose or of renal failure or of “exposure.”