letters of prodigious length

to N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver

ImageIt’s gonna be a short one I’m afraid on account of being unplanned and I’ve been away for a while so let’s consider this a warm-up of sorts.

The day before yesterday, February 8th, was the birthday of one Neal Cassady, whose biography, by some kind of serendipity, I happened to be reading – else I would never have known.

Neal Cassady more a myth than anything. His star’s a kind of literary penumbra. In a previous post I mentioned how he was a figure who haunted. in the book, Aquarius Revisited, which I reviewed, he did not feature as one of the Seven who Created the Sixties Counter-Culture that Changed America but he haunts its pages as its muse and hero, one whose energy was so great he was the star of the show even when given a cameo role.

So this biography I just finished today, which I picked up last time I wandered down the North Laine from Sandpiper Books, a most excellent Brighton bookshop and by no coincidence the very place I happened upon Aquarius Revisited. Sandpiper sells a mix of books art, film, music and history – and a small section of literature exclusively dedicated, as far as I can tell, to American writers and literary criticism of this particular era. Which suits me fine. Now if knowledge doesn’t kill love then you’ve got something special, because it’s easy to ignore the flaws of great men like N.C. – the consequences of the joyous lives they lead, especially on the women left to clean up his mess and take care of his children. But David Sanderson & Graham Vickers’ book gives you the story as wholly as possible, clearly still sympathetic but realistic as possible, and still you’d be mad to not love him. Actually mad’s not correct; I could understand your not loving him, but would probably doubt our compatibility as human beings.

Here’s my favourite moment in the book, to illustrate – the moment that made me laugh out loud on the bus (appropriately enough) on the way to work:

“Neal directed him right into a stop sign and the bus knocked it over and shaved it clean off,” Garcia said. “Neal immediately picked it up and tried to stick it back into thehole. And down the street here come these two little old ladies on their way to church. Neal’s meanwhile walking away from the sign real fast and it hung for a minute and started to topple and just before it fell and hit the ground he caught it and put it back up. Then the ladies see him: is it a disreputable drunk or what? He isn’t talking but he decides to clean up his act and what he tries to do is hide the stop sign behind him until the ladies pass by. It was like an elegant Buster Keaton ballet. There was no point to it and it wasn’t a verbal experience. It just ended. It represents the way he moved through space. Effortless and perfect.”

Because, after all, what are we but how other people remember us? Even when we’re alive. Isn’t that we all wish we were, effortless and perfect.

The one-time and lover and icon of Allen Ginsberg, Dean Moriarty (among other names) to Jack Kerouac, and a major influence on his writing style, it transpires, and the conductor of Ken Kesey’s bus of the Merry Pranksters stoned on acid, the destination of which – Furthur – his nickname: Captain Speed Limit; and highly metaphorical (you’re either on the bus…) not to mention original white rapper – Neal Cassady’s LIVED and that was what was so important to everyone and I guess what dazzles us still, whose charisma was legendary. Like Jim Morrison, seems to be one for every generation. I can’t think who ours might be today, but we’re all so cynical how’d we ever know.

Speaking of which, of the modern day that is, Neal’s greatest literary talent was for the epistolary. The letter seemed to be the only form that would accommodate the speed of his personality, it seems appropriate for one who was such a great traveller, always boasting of his extraordinary feats of long-distance driving (you get that “Captain speed limit” refers to more than quickness in what was helping him out in this), the hero of the American road-trip.

Yet by all accounts the letter’s all but dead.

If the epistle of our age is the text or tweet how sad ’cause those things aren’t made to be saved but thrown away. They’ll be lost in the sheer multitude of their quantity. And the shortness these forms espouse necessarily can be good, makes you think makes you consider makes you condense your wit into something that’s as refined as possible (if wit’s what you aim for and it mostly is, right?); the proliferacy of these forms might even be altering the way we use language, which to me is EXCITING. But the forms lend themselves not to the prodigious digressions of, say, N.C; letters of prodigious length* of thirty thousand words or more, kind that changed even the course of American literature and indeed our own and my own life. What text or tweet will be able to make such a claim?

I not-really-very-sincerely apologise for the ramshackle nature of this. I mostly wrote it on the train. Now that I’m working I have to actually monitor and consider my language considerably; it does not aid truth-telling. In the name of authenticity, both for subject and in principle (not to mention expedience – I’ve not done a post in months and you wonder why??), speed seemed the only appropriate thing.

The book I quote is Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero by David Sanderson & Graham Vickers, published by Chicago Review Press.

*The particular letter I refer to is the one known as the Joan Anderson Letter, of which only a fragment remains, which can be read here.


2 thoughts on “letters of prodigious length

  1. Chanced upon a dog eared copy of Neal Cassady’s autobiography, The First Third, in the Banff public library many years go now. Always regret not stealing it, which is sort of sacrilegious, but have never come across it again. Last weekend, feeling under the weather, did a double Netflix movie night, starting with ‘Howl’, and ending with ‘Neal Cassidy’. Kerouac was insufferable in both, Cassady was lost and caught up in his ‘On The Road’ persona. Carolyn Cassady, who bore two of Neal’s children, largely raising them on her own, also wrote or had a large hand in a Kerouac bio which I also read, almost seemed the most sensible of them all.
    As a final note, rumour has it that portions of the soon to open, if it hasn’t already, big screen On The Road was filmed within a few blocks of where I’m currently sitting. But I’d have to see the film to confirm it.

  2. I quite agree – you should have stolen it! I’ve yet to find a copy myself, but confident I will one day.

    Not sure if you’re correct in saying Cassady was ‘caught up in his ‘On The Road’ persona’ – as I understand it that’s largely, with the occasional lapse, just how he was, and while he no doubt acted up to the Dean Moriarty fame, Moriarty was based on him not the other way around, as was Kerouac’s writing style in On The Road, much of which was directly borrowed part verbatim from letters from Cassady!

    Also Carolyn had 3 children, two girls and a boy, with Neal 😉
    I agree though that she seems the most sensible- but for that one fatal flaw of putting up with Neal so long. But then there will always be women like Carolyn who will fall in love with men like Neal and not a thing they can do about it.

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