Neal Leon Cassady was born on this day in 1926 in Salt Lake City, Utah. His mother, Maude Jean (Scheuer), passed away when he was just ten years old, and his father, Neal Marshall Cassady, went on to raise him on the mean streets of skid row in Denver, Colorado. With an alcoholic father, Cassady soon turned to a life of crime, and was arrested when he was only fourteen years old. At nineteen years old, and fresh out of prison, Cassady married a vivacious fifteen year old by the name of LuAnne Henderson. Together they set out for New York City in 1947 to meet up with a Denver friend who had gone on to study at Columbia. It was through Hal Chase that Cassady met two other young guys who studied at Columbia: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. His life would forever change.
Returning to Denver, Cassady met Carolyn Robinson, a young teaching assistant at the theater arts department of the Denver Art Museum, whom he married, after divorcing LuAnne. By 1950 he was in a bigamous relationship with Diane Hansen. Cassady’s romances, command of a steering wheel, and zeal for life inspired Kerouac’s writing, and he became Dean Moriarty in On the Road and the title character of Visions of Cody.
What is sometimes overlooked, though, and which I want to celebrate on his birthday is Cassady’s own writing. It was Cassady’s great “Joan Anderson letter” that took Kerouac’s writing to the next level, inspiring him to become more confessional and spontaneous. Although he died in 1968, Cassady also left us with his own memoir, The First Third. Here’s how it’s described on Barnes & Noble:
Immortalized as Dean Moriarty by Jack Kerouac in his epic novel, On the Road, Neal Cassady was infamous for his unstoppable energy and his overwhelming charm, his savvy hustle and his devil-may-care attitude. A treasured friend and traveling companion of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Ken Kesey, to name just some of his cohorts on the beatnik path, Cassady lived life to the fullest, ready for inspiration at any turn.
Before he died in Mexico in 1968, just four days shy of his forty-second birthday, Cassady had written the jacket blurb for this book: “Seldom has there been a story of a man so balled up. No doubt many readers will not believe the veracity of the author, but I assure these doubting Thomases that every incident, as such, is true.”
As Ferlingetti writes in his editor’s note, Cassady was “an early prototype of the urban cowboy who a hundred years ago might have been an outlaw on the range.” Here are his autobiographical writings, the rambling American saga of a truly free individual.
For a critical analysis on the “facts” of The First Third, check out David Sandison and Graham Vickers’ Neal Cassady.
While the salacious details of his personal biography are important perhaps to understanding where he came from and his perspective on life, they should not be confused for the totality of who he is and what he offered the world. Contrary to his wild persona, his prose is tame. He methodically plots out his lineage, trying his best to adhere to some intangible idea of what it means to sound literary. Yet it’s also raw. Cassady refuses to conform to the standard rules of grammar, instead allowing his words to gush over the page.
In honor of Cassady’s birthday, read some of his work! It’s the best way to understand the man behind the myth.
What do you think of Neal Cassady’s writing style? Do you have a favorite biography about Cassady?