The real genius behind the Beat movement in literature never published a book during his life. He appeared as a main character in many books, though, from ‘Go’ by John Clellon Holmes to ‘On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac to ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ by Tom Wolfe. His free-flowing letter writing style inspired the young Kerouac to break his ties to the sentimental style he’d picked up from Thomas Wolfe and invent his notion of ‘spontaneous prose.’ Without Neal Cassady, the Beat Generation would never have happened.
Neal Cassady was raised by an alcoholic father in the skid row hotels of Denver’s Larimer Street. A car thief with a unique ability to charm strangers, he spent time in reform schools and juvenile prisons and developed the suave instincts of a con artist, although he never seemed to want to con anybody out of more than a ten-dollar bill, a roll in the hay or a good conversation.
A friend named Hal Chase left Denver to enroll at Columbia University, and Cassady traveled to New York to visit him in December 1946. It was here that he met Kerouac and Ginsberg. Ginsberg immediately fell in love with him, and Cassady, who had a hustler’s instinct to be whatever the person he’s with wants him to be, began a sexual relationship with Ginsberg, balancing it with the numerous heterosexual relationships he enjoyed more. At the same time, he persuaded Kerouac to teach him how to write fiction.
Soon he and Kerouac began the series of cross-country adventures that would later become ‘On The Road’. They raced aimlessly across the U.S.A. and Mexico, with Cassady setting the agenda. Kerouac began writing about their adventures even as they were taking place, but he could not find a style that fit the content, and put the project away in frustration.
He picked the project up again later, after a series of letters from Cassady gave Kerouac the idea to write the book the way Cassady talked, in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation. It worked: ‘On The Road’ became a sensation by capturing Cassady’s voice.
Cassady married several women and fathered many children (much of this activity is discussed in ‘On The Road’). He finally settled down with Carolyn Cassady in Los Gatos, a suburb near San Jose, where he worked as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad. He remained close friends with Ginsberg, Kerouac and many others from the Beat crowd, although he never profited from their eventual success. Kerouac wrote in ‘Desolation Angels’ of the strange way he felt when Cassady dropped by his apartment after the first advance copies of ‘On The Road’ arrived:
When Cody said goodbye to all of us that day he for the first time in our lives failed to look me a goodbye in the eye but looked away shifty-like — I couldn’t understand it and still don’t — I knew something was bound to be wrong and it turned out very wrong …
In the 1960′s, as Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and early middle-age, Cassady began an entirely new series of road adventures, this time with young novelist Ken Kesey in Jack Kerouac’s place. When Kesey organized a trip to the New York World’s Fair in a psychedelic bus named ‘Furthur,’ Neal Cassady was the madman behind the wheel. This trip is chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.’
When Kesey and Cassady were in New York, a party was organized for the purpose of introducing Kerouac to Kesey. But Kerouac and Cassady had been changing in opposite directions, and the meeting did not go well, especially after Kerouac, offended by somebody’s frivolous treatment of an American flag, solemnly rescued the flag and folded it.
After a night of hard partying in Mexico in 1968, Cassady wandered onto a deserted railroad, intending to walk fifteen miles to the next town. He fell asleep on the way, wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. It was a cold rainy night, and Cassady was found beside the tracks the next morning. He was in a coma, and died in a hospital later that day. Kerouac would die a year later.
Neal’s unfinished autobiography was published as ‘The First Third’ after his death. Some of his letters, such as the one Kerouac called ‘The Great Sex Letter,’ were also published.