Cassady Day

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.

15 Responses

  1. I once had a copy of the
    I once had a copy of the Prankster’s home movie of the famous bus trip on Further. Like all home movies, it is interesting at times, dull at times, and full of inside jokes. But there is one scene that is absolutely worth watching the video to see. Neal Cassady of course drove the bus. At one point he gets to a flat, straight stretch of road. He gets up from the drivers seat, and starts walking around the bus, with the bus still going. The Pranksters at first say “hi Neal”, then freak, “who’s driving the bus?”

  2. Levi, dahlink–Neal didn’t
    Levi, dahlink–Neal didn’t SELL the three joints; he GAVE them to the narcs.

    The only exact facts known about his death can be found in my book OFF THE ROAD.

    Thanks for the tribute.

    Bless ya, Carolyn

  3. Well, this has to be said.
    Well, this has to be said. Ok, it doesn’t – but I’ll say it anyway.

    I’ve been a huge fan of Neal, Jack, and the beats since the late 50s. There was always something in the back of my mind about Neal that bothered me; I never tried to pin it down until I read the latest Neal bio and it hit me in the face:

    It appears to me that, with the exception of writing a few interesting letters and inspiring Kerouac, Neal Cassady was just a destructive sociopath who shit on everybody with whom he came in contact.

    I say this in sadness. Clearly, Carolyn Cassady and others think differently, and they knew him, so there has to be more to his story than appears in the bios and fictional accounts. And, Carolyn, since you’re reading this blog, I mean no disrespect to you and your family; I’m just giving my opinion and asking for others’.

  4. Dan, I can’t agree with “a
    Dan, I can’t agree with “a destructive sociopath who shit on everybody” (and though I’m happy to include your comment here, I don’t want it to be the last word)!

    I just don’t see it. I’ve spoken to so many people who’ve known him, and so many more who’ve been inspired by him. I’m sure Neal wasn’t perfect, but it seems to me his main flaw was a whole lot of joie d’vivre. It’s always my experience that the most joyless people around us, not the most joyful ones, are the most destructive.

  5. Levi-

    Clearly, this is a

    Clearly, this is a conclusion that I resisted for years, and I may be the victim of ‘selective biography’. (Consider the late bio of Kerouac that tried to prove he was gay!) I’d love to be shown to be wrong on this one.

    And thanks for showing your fairness in posting an unpopular view!

  6. It’s often said, but perhaps
    It’s often said, but perhaps never fully appreciated that Neal Cassady, in effect, created the Beats through his existence, being so alive, his joie d’vivre, as Levi puts it. Without that, there is no ‘On the Road’ and perhaps no ‘Howl.’ It is a curious juxtapose, Neal Cassady wanted to write like Kerouac, and Kerouac wanted to live like Cassady.

    Also, Dogmatika’s Susan Tomaselli did a nice review of Carolyn Cassady’s book not so long ago. I suggested she contact Levi Asher for further info. Wonder if they ever got in touch.

  7. Carolyn Cassady, I really
    Carolyn Cassady, I really liked your book and still have it tucked away in a book box. Maybe it is time I got it out and read for the third time. I saw “the Magic Bus, ‘Furthur'” at the outskirts of the New York World’s Fair near the go-cart track many years ago. I waved at Neal Cassady ,Ken Kesey and their friends and they waved back. I didn’t know what to think. I wish now that I’d engaged them in more conversation. I was on my way to the go cart track and back to the Fair. Somewhere there is a picture of their group near the Fair which was the destination of their trip at that time. I like to remember them the way I first saw them–
    still fairly young and vibrant and full of vigor.
    Even we, who met them and were teenagers back in the sixties are now getting older. Hard to believe. Time wounds all heals and heals some wounds and sometimes a bit of both. Onward!

  8. Thank you Levi, and thank you
    Thank you Levi, and thank you Carolyn. I never met the man but will forever wish that I would have.

    I doubt that Neal created the beats, although I believe he helped Kerouac drop-kick some of his literary pretensions into the ditch along the road. And made a braver man out of Allen in a time and place where gays had to duck their heads.

    Perhaps the persistent hunger of those born under-privileged is a close cousin to the sociopath, save for the joi de vivre.

    A persistent vision on this very early west coast morning is one of Jack’s seeing Neal on the street corner, his bandaged infected broken thumb coming unraveled, as the man wonders where to go next while the gathered acquaintences disavow their connection to the man while looking squint-wise at him out of the corner of their eyes wondering what he will do next.

  9. To call a person like Neal a
    To call a person like Neal a sociopath seems ridiculous. A true sociopath in Neal’s position would never have tried to hang onto a job, or become a writer.

  10. Everyone is made up of good
    Everyone is made up of good and bad. Who can stand before the light unblemished?

    I tell you that the human spirit can soar beyond good & evil, beyond gay or straight, beyond time and space. Sooner or later, of course, the wings give out. How could it not?

    That doesn’t mean we never soared. Remember love. Remember.

  11. After reading Carolyn
    After reading Carolyn Cassiday’s book, Off The Road, I am acutely aware of the pain and disappointment that she and her children suffered as a result of the many escapades of Neal. However, there was a lot of love in their family. The lives of the “Beat” writers is the “romanticism” that keeps readers intrigued. If these men and women had lived what our society considers “normal”; in housing communities with what Kerouac describes as “prison lawns” (Desolation Angels), going to nine to five jobs, then their’s are not unique stories and there would be no cult following. Regardless of the many negative opinions about their behavior, these men had above average intelligence and the courage to flounder in pursuit their passions and the meaning of life. I agree that Neal had “Joie d’vivre” and believe that is why everyone was so attracted to him and wanted to absorb his energy and love. I may not be able to live it, but I wish I could have and I love them all.

  12. A true sociopath would not
    A true sociopath would not try to hang onto a job nor try to become a writer. ??? What!?! His family clings to his “estate” because that is all they have to show/give of any popular interest or measure. Neal is their claim to fame. Neal was a sad, aging, spend-it-all kind of guy with no desire to attend to the responsibilities he did have. He abandoned his family regularly, when it suited him, when something fun and more interesting than ‘family’
    came along. And they keep his memory alive because they are otherwise just people with the last name Cassady.They had a lot of love in their family? Yeah, I’ll bet; they had to support each other as they had no father.He meanwhile was walking along the train tracks, drunk, self-absorbed in Guanaguato,Mexico.
    Neal was a selfish, immature man of fairly average intellegence and of serendipidous nature. Intellegent, dynamic friends is what he had, and admittedly an infectious, charming personality. That is quite common among sociopaths, by the way.

  13. Cassady a man consumed by a
    Cassady a man consumed by a life style that didn’t fit square pegs of it’s day. Granted flaws towards others he could have done better by, BUT sometimes the individual has no choice. Miles and Garcia were consumed by music and drugs and did not have exactly great famly lives during their time on earth. Would either have done so much with music by being different and having different priorities? I doubt it. Cassady himself did not really leave an artistic legacy as what he wrote played or filmed what ever, but he sure left a great legacy as to influenceing other’s artistic output. Obviously Cassady’s family keeps their connection to the man. Is that a bad thing? I think not. Should they deny him because of flaws or just realize he was a man with flaws like the rest of us.

  14. Its important to remember the
    Its important to remember the man. Saint? Genuis? Perhaps the most gentle man of good will . . . the world had produced in a long while.

    Its important to remember the environment that produced the man. The hardships and deprivations he suffered must be remembered for context regarding who he became. (In commentary, THIS IS MOST OFTEN FORGOTTEN.)

    Carolyn? In my humble opinion, the best “straight” writer (writing is thinking, no more no less) of the famious trio (Neal, Jack & Allen.

    Jack – wrote like Neal lived (not original I know).

    Neal – touched it all – his Dad came out of the old west, with Jack and Allen . . . the beats . . . Kesey, the Dead, etc.., the 60s . . . the world would be very different if Neal had not lived.

    Fascinating . . .

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!