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Muse to Kerouac and Ginsberg, Neal Cassady Profiled at The New Yorker

By Harriet Staff

Scott Staton writes about the “holy fool” Neal Cassady over at The New Yorker. With Walter Salles’s film adaptation of On the Road opening in theaters on December 21st, Staton looks at Cassady’s place in the Beat canon. He writes:

Cassady was a complicated soul whose creative energies found release through an immoderate enthusiasm for sex, automobiles, and drugs. His enduring aesthetic legacy was an incorrigibly hedonistic life that his friend Kerouac and sometime lover Allen Ginsberg transmuted into art. To them, Cassady was a revelation, the consummate hipster-savant. In his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg rhapsodized Cassady “whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too.” Appearing two years later in “On the Road,” he was celebrated by Kerouac as having “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint,” and then, toward the end of the book, diminished (with emphasis) as “the HOLY GOOF,” a wanderer incapable of fulfilling his obligations as a father and husband.

Staton goes to say that Cassady wasn’t much of a writer per se, but his prose was an inspiration that led Kerouac to his distinctive style.

While Kerouac struggled to envision his novelistic account of road-tripping with Cassady, he perceived the value of his friend’s correspondence and seized its influence. As he explained in a 1968 interview with the Paris Review, given a year before his death from cirrhosis, “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed.” Referring to a particular letter, a forty-thousand-word composition that was forever misplaced, Kerouac remarked, “It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, [Thomas] Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.” During the famous three-week-long burst of memory-typing that produced the book, Kerouac wrote of his friends using their real names, and he indiscriminately incorporated portions of Cassady’s letters into his manuscript.

Make the jump to read the rest.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, December 13th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.