Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, died forty years ago today, on February 4, 1968. There was recently much celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road, and it provides a sad perspective to put these anniversaries together and realize that On The Road gave Neal Cassady exactly one decade of literary “fame” before he died at the age of 42.
This anniversary seemed like a good occasion for me to email Carolyn Cassady a few wide-ranging questions, which she was kind enough to answer from her home in London:
Levi: So much has changed in the world since February 4th, 1968. Or has it? If Neal has been looking down on us all for all these years, what do you think he would say about the state of the world in 2008?
Carolyn: If Neal were watching us since the time he departed this planet, I think he would feel as I do that it is in a very sad state. He was such a loving person, and there is so little evidence of that in the affairs of the world. Acquiring money and/or power at any cost appears to be the religion and goal. Every time there’s an “improvement” in products, they’re much worse. Selfishness.
Levi: I know that you and Neal were interested together in the teachings of spiritual leader Edgar Cayce (by the way, I had a piano teacher as a kid who was a Caycean, so I know a little about it). Have you remained involved with this movement, and what do you think about it today?
Carolyn:Neal and I used the Cayce connection as the springboard for further studies in occult lore. We didn’t continue after the first few years with just that. We explored all the scriptures from early Eastern systems, the Theosophists, Max Heindel, etc etc., and I became interested in Astrology. I am poor at interpretation, but I get a little. Otherwise, the teachings of that accumulated search and the present-day Truth movements, like Unity satisfy my needs nicely, and I try to live by the wisdom of the ages as best I can.
Levi: How do you feel about today’s literature? What books have you recently enjoyed reading, and are there any newer writers you like, or any newer or older writers you can’t stand?
Carolyn: I’m not an authority on today’s literature. I read very few novels; I like biographies, documentaries and maybe historical novels. I have read more English writers since moving here, and I havaen’t read any more American ones. I have enjoyed Julian Barnes, Jude Morgan, Roddy Doyle, Peter Ackroyd to name a few. I do read reviews in literary magazines so remain interested in trends.
Levi: Can you think of any surprising truth or fact about Neal Cassady (or about the times you spent with Neal and Jack Kerouac and the rest of the gang) that the world does not yet know?
Carolyn: My dear, my book is full of surprising truths about the lads, but not enough people read it or read it carefully. So there are still masses of myths and misinformation everywhere.
Levi: Is the date of February 4, 2008 going to be an especially significant one for you and your children? And do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this 40th anniversary?
Carolyn: I remember February 4 with affection both for Neal and for Anne Murphy, who’s birthday it is. I understand the Beat Museum in San Francisco is celebrating Neal’s birthday on the 8th, but I am not included in that in any way — except Neal’s children will be there. I always think of Neal with gratitude for teaching me so much wisdom about life; I feel privileged to have known him, and I miss him always. He was a unique individual in spades.
Carolyn also told me: “You know how tired I am of living in the past, but I guess it’s what makes the present.” I don’t like living in the past either, but I’ll make an exception for Neal Cassady, because he has always been one of my very favorite Beat Generation figures. Some of the very first articles published on Literary Kicks were about the connected careers of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey, and probably the very first exciting and impressive thing that happened to me after launching LitKicks was that I was put into contact with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who had circulated a short article about the origin of the Grateful Dead song “Cassidy” online. I asked if I could give the piece a home on LitKicks, he happily agreed, and you can still read his excellent piece about “Cassidy” and Cassady here.
The following year I got a chance to interview John Allen Cassady, Neal’s son, which was a very special event because John had not spoken out in public about his experiences as a child among Neal, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat crowd before. This interview meant a lot to me (and also helped put LitKicks “on the map”, which I appreciated very much). I always sensed a deep, earthy warmth emanating from the members of Neal Cassady’s family (and if you’ve ever dealt with literary estates or families, you know that deep, earthy warmth is not often what emanates from these sources). This seemed to speak, as did many other indicators, for an essential simple human goodness at the heart of Neal Cassady’s legacy in this world.
“Did You Hear Neal Cassady Died?”
— The Washington Squares
Did you hear Neal Cassady died?
Lying on the tracks down in Mexico
Did you hear Neal Cassady died, last night?
Can you see Neal Cassady drive?
An old car and a girl in heaven alive
Can you see Neal Cassady drive, last night?
He was a-lying on the tracks down in Mexico
What a sad, sad, lonely way to go
for the king of the hipster daddy-0’s …
Two years after On The Road became a smash success, Neal was arrested and convicted for selling a small amount of marijuana and spent two years separated from Carolyn and his children as a prisoner in San Quentin. Jack Kerouac never stopped blaming himself for ruining a hard-working family man’s life by making him a celebrity lawbreaker and a target for law enforcement. After returning home following two years in jail, Neal juggled his job and large family precariously along with his crazy wanderings among Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and various crazy hipsters coalescing around the growing San Francisco music scene.
Neal was found dead by the side of a railroad track in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where he’d been staying with friends. According to Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road, he had walked a quarter mile south towards the nearby town of Celaya when he seemed to have stopped walking. The manner of his death has always seemed significant — of what? I’m not sure. But I tried to estimate where exactly this might have been on Google Maps, and this satellite image may show the spot:
Best wishes to the Cassady family. Of course, the spirit lives on.