Today in fiction
On Feb. 4, 1882, Ivan Ilyich dies.
— “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886)
By Leo Tolstoy
From “The Book of Fictional Days”
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1968 Neal Cassady died, at the age of 41. Cassady was not only Jack Kerouac’s wheelman on the cross-country trips that inspired “On the Road” but a direct influence on Kerouac’s style. His rambling, benzedrine-and-booze letters to Kerouac aimed for “a continuous chain of undisciplined thought,” and invited his friend to “fall into a spontaneous groove” with him by mail. Only after getting this advice (and his own pile of bennies and his 120-foot roll of paper) did Kerouac move beyond the “phony architectures” (i.e., traditional prose) of his rough draft into “innocent go-ahead confession, the discipline of making the mind the slave of the tongue.”
By the early ’60s Kerouac was famous, heading fast for alcoholism and his last, right-wing years. Cassady was an ex-con (drug convictions), now wheelman for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, in the bus that had FURTHUR as its destination sign. His death seems to have come from a cumulative running out of gas: He was found unconscious in the Mexican mountains, from a pulque and speed overdose, while on a 15-mile walk along the train tracks to retrieve his “magic bag” (this included his Bible and his old letters from Ginsberg and Kerouac) and to count the ties between stations (legend has it that he not only got to 64,928 but that these were his dying words). The two had rarely spoken for years, but when Kerouac got the phone call that Cassady had died, he talked about how “there’s nothing more to say or do” now that the man who “inspired every word I wrote” was gone.
The anecdotes and memoirs from others who were friendly with, or married to, or driven by, or audience for, Cassady all say that “Sir Speed Limit” (aka “Fastestmanalive”) talked as he drove — at overwhelming rates and to uncertain places:
Jerry Garcia: “Neal was an authority on subjects that hadn’t been invented yet.”
John Clellon Holmes (this from “Go,” 1952): “… ‘keep a step ahead, keep your mind ahead’ — (I heard his insistent voice) — ‘don’t butt your dumb head against their walls, man! — look for doors, and then GO — Just leave them snarled up in their worries, their motives — it’s their kick man, it’s their dreary high — But, listen — never knock the way the other cat swings.’”
Mountain Girl: “Neal felt when he was at the wheel of a car that his eyes were registering events ahead of the car at a certain rate and he was perceiving them at a certain rate and it takes a certain number of microseconds for the impulses to travel from the eyes to the brain and get processed and get down to the hand to turn the wheel. He was very sensitive to those tiny fragments of time. He was intimate with time.”
Cassady’s unfinished autobiography has been published — “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 …” — but he is more remembered as a talker. Some of the talk is commercially available — raps recorded while driving FURTHUR, or delivered to the Acid Test crowds while the Grateful Dead play in the background. The last lines of “On the Road” present the mythic view — Cassady heading out across America again, Kerouac staying in New York to reflect that when
“… the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”
– Steve King
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