Neal Cassady grew up as a quasi-homeless wayfaring boy with his alcoholic, unemployed father in the projects of Denver. His unconventional upbringing led to adolescence rife with theft, drug use, and extreme sexual awakening at a young age. Cassady grew up quite quickly and led an overexposed life, which foreshadows his death at the age of 42 of exposure, next to railroad tracks in Mexico. His life, however, seems to be regarded by many as the eighth wonder of the world. He was full of an interminable curiosity and energy, and was considered by many as the herald angel of the Beat Movement.
The oft-used term to describe Cassady, “Damaged Angel,” has its source in Cassadys childlike face and immortal physical appearance but with eyes and a soul that suggested he was somehow damaged. This man, in turn, would not suprisingly become one of the most influential individuals during the 1950s and 1960s. For a time I held a unique position: among the hundreds of isolated creatures who haunted the streets of lower downtown Denver there was not one so young as myself.
Of these dreary men who had committed themselves, each for his own good reason, to the task of finishing their days as pennyless drunkards, I alone, as the sharer of their way of life, presented a replica of childhood to which their vision could daily turn, and in being thus grafted onto them, I became the unnatural son of a few score beaten men. (Neal Cassady The First Third) With him as not only the legendary driver of On The Road but also as the driver of the bus with the Merry Pranksters in tow, the two generations were symbolically connected by this great man, this damaged angel, Neal Cassady.
His influence spanned over many different writers, artists, most notably the Grateful Dead, and prominent figures of the time. He tied the two movements together to make the fifties and sixties a time of complete revolution in America. He could be considered the bridge between the two generations, bringing the poetic and limit-pushing factors of the Beat Generation to the wild and unchained psychedelic era. Cassady was a major part of and much of the inspiration for the Beat Generation.
William Plummer characterizes the “Beats” best in his biography of Neal Cassady, “Would be hipsters out to raise the ante of sensation by way of drugs, jazz, sex, petty criminality, by way of any attitude or activity that might be parlayed into a rush of exhilaration, into proof that they were pulsatingly alive. ” (Plummer 5). Cassady epitomizes these attitudes through his lifestyle, a lifestyle of limit pushing and rule breaking. From his childhood, he had always been testing boundaries. By the time he was 18, it is estimated he had stolen over 500 cars, just for fun.
Cassady, through a close friendship beginning at age 20 with Jack Kerouac and a twisted relationship with Allen Ginsberg, provided much of the inspiration for the quintessential Beat poems and texts. Even his correspondence with the two of them is considered Beat literature, for it encapsulates the ideals and attitudes of the counterculture and the Beat Generation. Cassady appears in Kerouacs On the Road as the legendary Dean Moriarty and Cody in Visions of Cody. Cassady as Dean Moriarty in On the Road captured the spirit of Neal as the ultimate Beat.
Allen Ginsberg was introduced to Neal Cassady in 1946 in New York City and was instantly enamored. The young Jewish poet from Paterson, New Jersey saw Cassady as an ideal hero and mate. Their early sexual relationship and Cassady’s later rejection of Ginsberg both had a significant effect on Ginsberg’s writing. (Richman). Jack Kerouac (Sal) tells the story of when Dean (Neal) met Carlo (Allen Ginsberg) in On the Road, “Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat.
Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo MarxTheir energies met head onThe whole mad swirl of everything that was to become began then” (Kerouac 8). Kerouac and Cassady took many aimless, purposeless trips driving around the country. Cassady is famous for finding a purpose in all of these pointless trips. Just like Dean Moriarty taught Sal something new about life, his self or others around them in On The Road, everywhere Kerouac and Cassady went, Neal showed Jack new ways to think and live.
Neal was a supporter of the shock factor and the impromptu spontaneous ways that inspired the Beats. The immense influence that Cassady would be known to have on the Beat Generation is demonstrated simply in Allen Ginsbergs most famous poem, “Howl,” “‘N. C. , secret hero of these poems… ” His genius and his extraordinary madness was inspiration that taught the Beats how to live. Although his likeness appeared in the works of many authors, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ken Kesey were closest to Neal Cassady.
They best translated his spirit into the written word, and left the strongest record of the exploits of this modern American hero. With Ginsberg and Kerouac, Cassady explored America physically and spiritually more fully than any who went before. They were, as Kerouac said, living the ultimate beat generation lives. The divine and the imperfect merged. But at the beginning, he was just Cassady. The man and the reputation. We knew he helped found the Beat Movement, that he was best of friends with poet Allen Ginsberg, that he was the real life prototype of Dean Moriarty, the fictional hero in Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road.
That he was famous in the San Francisco Bay area for his weekend-long speed runs, his fantastic driving and his non-stop talking. What we didn’t know was that the thing we were just barely starting to explore – coming on in a dramatic, meaningful way – was the thing Cassady had been doing for years. Just to get ready for this trip. (Ken Babbs ) The “thing” Cassady had been doing for years: insisting he and those around him keep a step ahead, keep their minds a step ahead. Cassady knew how to push boundaries further than anyone did at the time, and how to keep himself a step ahead.
He seemed to be doing everything at once: shaking his head up and down, sideways, in every direction; making complex structures in the air with his hands; walking, sitting, standing, sitting again. ” (Plummer 53). When the Beat Generation faded away circa 1960, Jack Kerouac sank into alcoholism, and his wife Carolyn divorced him, Cassady wasted no time finding an activity to prove he was “pulsatingly alive. ” He befriended Ken Kesey, author and famed leader of the Merry Pranksters and joined them on their trip.
This was to be something slightly different than what the Beats were doing; yet the same spirit lied beneath it. “Where the Beatsbaited the squares while seeking furtive pleasures, the Merry Pranksters rode through America “tootling” the uninitiated: They climbed to the top of the bus, waved make-believe batons, and played the gaping public as though it were music of their composition. ” (Plummer 123) The Beats found new ways to live and kept it in coffeehouses and under the covers; the Pranksters showed the world their new ways to live in the wildest way possible.
Cassady was the symbolic leader of this new trip. In 1964, Cassady, Kesey and his band of friends and acquaintances, dubbed the “Merry Pranksters,” gathered together on an old school bus for the ride of a lifetime. Cassady, dubbed “Speed Limit,” was the driver of the bus. “The bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began. There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to Nevereverland” (‘The Other One’ The Grateful Deadi). With what seemed to be a never-ending supply of LSD, these people ranging in ag….. nd backgrounds that run the entire spectrum traveled across the country together to New York for the Worlds Fair. The concept of “Furthur,” painted on the bus, meant taking their “trip” further in their own unique way. This is similar to the way Cassady always took thoughts and his own life a little further than anyone else, through drugs, sexual experimentation or simple ideas. Neal Cassady brought the ideology of the Beats to the Pranksters, merging the two counter-cultural movements. Cassadys speed, his lust for life, added greatly to the Pranksters trip.
Cassadyis going as fast as a human can go” (Wolfe 129). Tom Wolfe tells a story of Cassady driving the bus down a steep hill, not looking at the road or holding on to the wheel, but flipping through the radio stations and talking a mile a minute to himself. At the last minute when the road curves sharply, he looks up and calmly turns the wheel to straighten the bus out. The Pranksters were attracted to Cassady for a multitude of reasons. First of all, he was Dean Moriarty, legend of On The Road. He was also in his own person, a rejection of society that found no use for his outlandish genius.
The Pranksters thought Cassady was “synched,” and that he had precognitive powers. For example, Cassady had a habit of reciting the serial number of a dollar bill when someone would pull one out. More often than not, he would get the whole 10-digit number right. He often foretold the immediate future, and the Pranksters were awestruck by him. (Plummer 127). Cassady, affected by too much amphetamine, was famous for his long-winded conversations. He would talk to many people all at once, carrying on an assortment of conversations on many different levels.
To enter into one of these conversations was like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Eventually, these conversations would come to be known as Cassadys “rap. ” “It was, in a sense, just an older Dean Moriarty “digging” out loud, patching together “gloats of knowledge” for a new generation, up a notch and with greater amplitude. ” (Plummer 129). As he sped the Pranksters around the country, he fed them bits and pieces of the knowledge he had picked up from his unconventional upbringing and his time with the Beats. This was his way of keeping the Beat generation, or at least the spirit of it, alive.
The most can be learned of Neal Cassady through his correspondence with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Kesey. The First Third, Keseys unfinished autobiography, includes the most famous of these letters, called “The Great Sex Letter,” from Cassady to Kerouac. Reading his words and manner of speech, his speed of living can be felt. He tells of bars and women and adventuring. The letters are littered with capitalized and underlined words, exclamation points and question marks. His mere style of writing speaks much of his character. He changes subjects rapidly and tells his stories in ways that make them seem almost unbelievable.
He speaks of grand plans and tells even grander stories of robberies, hitch hiking, but mostly he tells of women. Cassady was famous for being able to seduce a woman without saying a word. Just like the Beat writers and the Pranksters were uncannily drawn to him, women would fall in love with him within minutes of meeting him. In “The Great Sex Letter,” Cassady tells Kerouac from a bar in Kansas City “by 2 AM I had her swearing eternal love, complete subjectivity to me and immediate satisfaction. Knowing her supremely perfect being was completely mine” (Cassady 190).
Both the Beats and the Pranksters greatly revered sex. Much Beat poetry was centered on sex, and on the “Furthur” bus, women were passed around. Free love, and a lot of it, was a common theme in the two generations and Cassady helped to spread his feelings to both. Neal Cassady always did things a little bit differently. Because Cassady was surrounded by some of the most brilliant and odd people of his time, his individuality was respected instead of misunderstood. Ken Babbs recalls his uniqueness on the official Merry Pranksters website.
Cassady had been dropping by Kesey’s place fairly regularly. One night when he was there we turned the gain full up and stuck the microphones on our stomaches and recorded the gurgles. Cassady’s stomach was different. Ours went a -guggle, gurgle, bloop. “Hear mine? ” he crowed. “Twang-a-ding-twing-deedly-doop-deep? ” His stomach surged and splurged at twice the speed of anyone else’s; formed words he couldn’t quite make out. “That’s me! ” Cassady said gleefully. Proof that he was a singular talent with a singular mission. No one argued. (Ken Babbs)
His way of doing things differently enraptured those around him and he has since come to take on a mystical persona. Cassadys character and personality are almost above describing with simple words. He has been called a myth by many, and gave those who knew him the impression of being invincible. His “courtship of death,” as Carolyn Cassady referred to his life, inevitably had to an end. With his death, an entire generation ended. When he died next to railroad tracks at a very young age, however, it came as no surprise to those close to him.
His fast-paced lifestyle and constant drug use had caught up to him. He left a grand legacy of the inspiration of two of the largest movements of the 20th century. Both the Beat Generation and the psychedelic era were greatly affected by this man, this living legend. His complete disregard for any rules and his manic search for answers to all the questions in his head gave him a certain appeal to both groups of people. Underlying both generations lie the same ideals, the ones Cassady lived by. The Beats loved Cassadys free spirit as equally as the Pranksters did.
For a period in the late forties, both Kerouac and Ginsberg trailed Cassady around with their notebooks open, their pens at ready, charting not just his doings and sayings but their own sensations and progress in breaking free of middle class hang-ups about sex, work, morality itself. ” (Plummer 8). Cassady strove in all ways to break free of his hang-ups, and in the process, showed an innumerable amount of people how to do the same thing. The two generations he affected are perhaps the most influential movements to come from Americans. Their message is clear and simple: Push limits.
Live wildly. Break rules. Most importantly, be yourselves at all costs. Neal Cassadys life taught many people these lessons and he continues today to be an inspiration to those who are discontent with normal life. By bridging the two generations, he strengthened each of them. He became an accidental hero, for through setting himself free, he showed two different generations and an entire culture how to do the same. The theme of both generations is timeless and their significance today is greatly due to the strange and twisted enigma that was Neal Cassady.