What a curse a cult novel seems to be . By connecting so acutely with the zeitgeist, books like On The Road tend to seduce their readers with such emotion that any sense of objectivity is lost. The myths begin; the readers own the book.
Carolyn Cassady seems to have spent most of her life negotiating that difficult terrain between fiction and truth. Fictionalised as Camille in On The Road , married to its hero Neal Cassady (‘Dean Moriarty’ in the novel) and a lover to its author Jack Kerouac (‘Sal Paradise’), Carolyn is perhaps the most qualified person to clear up what she calls ‘all that misunderstanding’ in a subject so relentlessly stylized and distorted. ‘I am not in On The Road actually. Camille? – she just lies there and cries. And I mean black lace? I don’t think so,’ she laughs, taking a graceful drag of her cigarette.
As expected, she denies that there was any such thing as ‘The Beat Generation’. ‘As far as I’m concerned, the Beat Generation was something made up by the media and Allen Ginsberg.’ Generations, just like Sets and Movements, seem to be antiquated notions these days: they’re just too easy to unravel. She brings a much more controversial corrective to the men’s behaviour – traditionally seen as proto-rebellious. ‘They included me in everything. Contrary to popular belief, Jack and Neal were very respectful of women, always gentlemen, never swore…’ She also recovers the mindset of the times: ‘what most people don’t realise is the consciousness of the thirties and forties, which was very much influenced by Victorian values. Both of them were Catholics – Jack an immigrant . They were not wild. ‘ On multiple occasions during the interview, Allen Ginsberg – though remembered fondly – is blamed for encouraging this reputation of recklessness and abandon: as a conduit for his own literary and commercial success.
‘Jack’, she mourns, ‘got dragged into it…’ Jack Kerouac is a great example of what misrepresentation can do to a writer. He wanted to join the canon of great American writers – Jack London, Tom Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway-and the role he was cast in instead proved devastating, as Cassady explains. ‘He was called the “King of the Beats” and the “Father of the Hippies”, he told me that he was going to drink himself to death. He was so sensitive, so self-conscious, and so paranoid that he just couldn’t stand the image that had been created of him. All the hippie stuff was just so alien to what his dreams had been…it destroyed him.’ To what extent does an artist have control over how his work is perceived once it’s in the public domain? It’s a fascinating case study of an artist trying to escape his caricature. As every depth was plunged for commodity – ‘his awful poems, his awful drunken doodles, his awful play’ – Jack found the only means of escape in alcohol.
Neal Cassady faced much the same dilemma. According to Carolyn, he wished that people would not read On The Road as it undermined his desire for respectability. The problem for Neal – and, now, for his family – is that despite being the focal point for Kerouac and Ginsberg’s writing, as Carolyn puts it, ‘Jack was the recorder; Neal was the do-er’. Besides his letters, there’s very little creative output: he was doomed to always being a character, in some ways to always being fictional. It’s much easier to squabble over the legacy of someone’s words than their character. Carolyn finds herself constantly having to rectify or absolve Neal’s reputation: whether it’s the 1980 film Heart Beat starring Nick Nolte as Neal or the final images of Neal, after their divorce in 1963, driving the Merry Prankster Bus – and accelerating his drug intake. He had written to Carolyn to tell her how much he disliked this image too. Even Neal’s death is much disputed – as befits his status as a cult icon. The myth is that he died from exposure after deciding to walk back home along the railroad tracks in San Jose – a hopelessly romantic image. Carolyn says it was none of these: under ’cause’ on the death certificate, the doctor writes only ‘all systems congested.’ Carolyn is a fastiduous historian, a self-confessed ‘stickler for facts’ – a great difficulty in light of the nebulous legacy of her husband. Not just nebulous but polyvalent: Neal might well have desired to be an upstanding citizen but his wilder urges are indisputable. Carolyn does acknowledge this: she didn’t want to read On The Road because she didn’t want to know what her boys got up to when they weren’t with her. A website (nealcassady estate.com) has been set up by the family, ‘dedicated to bringing you the real Neal’ but one gets the sad sense that the Cassady family’s will continue to be a lone voice in the wind. ‘I realise now that it is the utter inadequacy of human contacts that makes us turn to art,’ wrote William Boyd in The View from Yves Hill , ‘only in fiction is everything explained.’
Carolyn Cassady (b.1923) is closely associated with the so-called ‘Beat Generation’ through her marriage to Neal Cassady and her close relationships with Jack Kerouac and Allen Gins berg. Kerouac’s On the Road is a partially autobiographical account of their time travelling across mid-century America and has been almost universally acclaimed as one of the defining novels of the 20th Century. It has also been seen as the clearest expression of the Beat Generation’s ideals, but Carolyn has a quite a different take, both on the novel and the time that it describes.