[Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero.]
The time between New Year’s 1956 and April 1958 was a period of general uncertainty and renewed spiritual doubt for Neal Cassady. He remained haunted by Natalie’s death. In a penitent 1958 letter to Father Harley Schmitt, Neal would write: “I became involved with a younger most sensitive girl who, when the money was gone and apparently despairing because of disappointment in me, committed suicide by leaping off the roof while I slept on in lazy indifference below.”
Suicide was an egregious sin in the eyes of Cayce’s followers, and Caycean thought was still a potent force in the Cassady household even though Neal and [Neal’s wife] Carolyn’s adherence to it marked them as eccentrics to many friends and acquaintances. Then suddenly in 1956 it seemed that, for once, Neal and Carolyn were not as alone in their belief as they thought. A much wider interest in reincarnation was stimulated by the publication, in January of that year, of The Search for Bridey Murphy. This bestselling “faction” book by hypnotist Morey Bernstein focused on Colorado housewife Virginia Tighe and her apparent hypnotic regression into a past life as a nineteenth-century Irishwoman. The same year a movie of the book cast Teresa Wright as Virginia Tighe (renamed Ruth Simmons in the screenplay) and even depicted Edgar Cayce, whose own posthumous fortunes were considerably revived by the Bridey Murphy craze (despite subsequent suspicions that Virginia Tighe had simply—if imaginatively—recycled colorful tales gleaned from an elderly Irish neighbor). Even Jack Kerouac bought into the Bridey phenomenon and for a time seemed prepared to give Cayce the benefit of the doubt. “[S]udden realization that Cayce must be right,” he wrote to the Cassadys, “and Bridey Murphy excitement, which has carried over to my sister, and she and I want you to send us Cayce’s literature address at Atlantic Beach so we can send for literature, my sister especially het up now on Astrology.”
Jack had even started to take Oral Roberts seriously. From the start, Roberts’s reputation as a miraculous healer had been offset by his equally convincing reputation as a charlatan. In his later years, when completion of his extravagant project the City of Faith Hospital complex was threatened because of lack of funds, Roberts claimed to have been visited by a 900-foot Jesus. Roberts had “only seen Jesus once before,” but “there I was, face to face with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. He reached down, put his Hands under the City of Faith, lifted it, and said to me, ‘See how easy it is for Me to lift it!’”
Jack’s leap of faith was facilitated by his discovery that “Oral Roberts is a Cherokee Indian. A real old-fashioned witchdoctor’s what he is . . . he has great compassionate heart. I don’t disbelieve him.” Carolyn insists that this last sentence was a joke for Neal’s benefit.
In any event, the Cassadys continued to pursue the Cayce doctrine, and at the 1956 Cayce spring conference the featured speaker was none other than Starr Daily, author of Release. Neal immediately turned to him for answers. Ex-con Daily certainly looked like Cassady’s sort of man, a bullish and rugged religious convert who would surely give appropriate advice. But this was not the case. With some degree of irony for Catholic-raised Cassady, Caycean Starr Daily seemed more like the kind of tough Irish priest that featured regularly in the gangster movies of the 1930s—morally inflexible but still capable of slugging a sinner if the need arose. His advice to Neal amounted to little more than “pray like the devil and discipline yourself,” whereas what Neal was probably hoping for was an epiphany followed by a fast-track route to enlightenment and salvation.
Carolyn put it differently, saying that Neal simply could not accept that divinity lay in him and that he ought to celebrate the God within: “Neal could not surrender his feelings of guilt and unworthiness; his prayers were the apologies and supplications not of a God-filled vessel affirming his divinity, but of a miserable worm.”
Meanwhile Jack was making unexpected literary progress. In mid-March he had written Carolyn excitedly to say that he had made arrangements with Viking Press to finish modifying On the Road at Stanford University with respected Viking editor Malcolm Cowley. This would bring him back west again. At Cowley’s suggestion, Kerouac would edit the manuscript to make it more acceptable to the publishers. The length was reduced, everyone was given pseudonyms, and a passage reflecting Neal Cassady’s interest in an underage girl was excised.
Then he wrote to her even more enthusiastically saying that he had secured a job in the Pacific Northwest as a ranger in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. This prompted the daydream: “It will be my life work, in my hut there, and city apartment in Mex. City, and in transit twice a year I can knock on yore door and pester you for a meal, a few weeks at a crack with my charming tired presence and roaring fires and priceless comments at television and if you want a camping trip to the Sierra with the kids we can do it whenever you’re ready. Know just the place, just the trail, just the beautiful lake.”
After a brief stopover in California, Jack went north to his mountains for the summer of 1956, staying at the fire watchers’ station at Desolation Peak where he stopped writing letters and started writing a journal about his experiences there. These would eventually form the basis of his book Desolation Angels, a novel whose mystical and romantic tone did not really reflect his personal reaction to the mountain wilderness, which in truth left him feeling bored and lonely. He was back in the San Francisco area by September, and he never returned to the ranger job.
Also in San Francisco at this time was another recently published young poet basking in the afterglow of the poetry boom that had been kick-started by the famous Six Gallery poetry reading of the previous year. Gregory Corso, born in 1930 in New York City, had a lawless childhood and adolescence; he had begun to read literature and write poetry in prison. After his release, he met Allen Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bar in 1950. Allen subsequently showed Corso’s prison poems to Mark Van Doren, a Columbia English professor and distinguished poet, in an effort to encourage Corso.
Corso had also provided Jack Kerouac with a plotline for The Subterraneans when he seduced Jack’s girlfriend Alene Lee (Mardou in the novel) in the summer of 1953. Now Corso was in San Francisco, but Jack’s attempts to induce a friendship between Neal and Corso did not work out. A disagreement at the racetrack was followed by a weekend at the Cassadys’ home that similarly failed to impress Corso. Neal did not live up to his legendary reputation as a charismatic life force, especially when he insisted they watch Oral Roberts on TV. Later Corso softened, and that same summer he wrote to Neal from Amsterdam to apologize for his surliness when they met. “As I write this letter I am happy to remember that you were kind to me and liked me . . . I love you—Gregory.”
In the late fall of 1956 Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso were passing through Los Angeles on their way to Mexico City where they planned to meet Jack to plan a European trip. Carolyn wrote to Allen in Los Angeles on November 1 to tell him that Neal had just suffered another railroad accident, this time cutting his other foot badly on a trackside metal marker as his train sped past. It was a simple accident that Neal persisted in viewing as a karmic demonstration of some sort (there had been recent semi-serious speculation from Neal about staging another accident to earn another big payoff). Since this accident was for real and he could not collect a cent in compensation (technically he was off duty when it happened), he was happy to see his misadventure as part of some divine scheme.
The accident put him in plaster again and meant more time laid off from work. Also—although no one was aware of it at the time—it effectively marked the beginning of the end for Jack, Allen, and Neal as a close trio. They would all meet again over the next ten years, but Neal’s latest plaster cast seemed like an emblem of the newly static nature of both his life and his literary ambitions.
In contrast Jack Kerouac would become an overnight sensation when On the Road was finally published in September 1957. Neal Cassady, whose The First Third was now looking like a rudderless enterprise, inhabited Kerouac’s celebrated novel, in spirit, deed, and literal word.
Allen Ginsberg had also found fame and notoriety following the fall trial of the City Lights for the publication of his epic poem “Howl.” Full of language likely to be considered obscene, it was printed in the U.K. and made it through U.S. customs without incident. Part of a second printing was stopped by U.S. customs on March 25, 1957, after another title issuing from the same British printer had been seized. An obscenity charge was brought against Ferlinghetti, the poem’s publisher. Nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf and, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won. The court decided that the poem was of “redeeming social importance.” It contained the passage:
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 . . .
Seen in retrospect, Allen’s three-pronged dedication of Howl and Other Poems to Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady seems to take on a valedictory tinge. In it he cataloged eleven of Jack’s books as well as Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and he ended his dedication with the words: “Neal Cassady, author of The First Third, an autobiography (1949) which enlightened Buddha. All these books are published in Heaven.”
Jack and Allen had, each in his own way, captured a little of Neal’s lightning in a jar. If they would never completely understand him, they had at least managed to incorporate something of his extraordinary life-affirming presence in their work. It meant that from now on his role in their lives and careers would be subtly changed; he was no longer a complete mystery, but part of a myth.