Kerouac and the West – Part 4

So far we have looked at Kerouac’s early life: the area in which he grew up, his somewhat pathalogical relationship to his mother and his first, and perhaps defining impressions, of America. These can be read or re-read through the following links: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

In this chapter we look at Neal Cassady, Jack’s good friend and inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

We have in the previous chapters established Kerouac’s admiration of the impossible, his fascination with the West as an ideal and legend, got a sense of his artistic rebellion in Spontaneous Prose, and his alienation from the America portrayed and promised by the Industrial Revolution. These conclusions have been drawn by studying his life and his surroundings. We’ve looked at his childhood influences, but what of those as an adult?

Neal Cassady was a part of the cultural movement as described by Kerouac as the fellaheen: a kind of wandering spirit in tune with his surroundings and one with the earth and himself. Or, as Clive Bush eloquently puts it, “a sense of cross-cultural global solidarity with oppressed and deprived peoples who could be romanticised as being without nationality, as primitive, instinctual, cunning and in tune with the ‘cosmos’”. Although a fellaheen is described as one without nationality, Kerouac in On the Road portrays Dean as ‘a young Gene Autry…a side-burned hero of the snowy West’ (Kerouac, 1955: 8) which links Cassady firmly with the image of America that has been described and discussed up until this point: the pastoral ideal.However, almost in the same breath Kerouac describes him as ‘a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him. He was conning me and I knew it…’ (Kerouac, 1955: 10)

Jack and Neal (pictured left)

If we accept Dean Moriarty as an image of Kerouac’s idealised America then surely this description of him mirrors Kerouac’s own feelings towards the Gene Autry’s of this world? On the one hand he seems to accept the failings and the set-backs that are all too apparent in casting Dean is the archetypal ‘cowboy buddy’, but he labels him as such anyway. It is as though he is happy to trick himself into believing the cowboy myth still exists or perhaps it is Kerouac’s initial doubts about the promise of the pearl (see Kerouac and the West – Part 1) creeping in. What is striking however is his justification of Dean’s con tricks; although Dean is a conman in Kerouac’s eyes, he is instantly forgiven because his conning is actually linked to an ideal Jack wants to subscribe to. Is Kerouac saying that order to discover the untouched, innocent West, one must first trick yourself that it actually exists and surround yourself with those who purport and strengthen the myth? This ambivalence that infuses the opening pages of On the Road is brought somewhat to climax when Sal casts his eyes on his goal:

Big crowds of businessmen, fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their heft wives in cowgirl attire bustled and whooped on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne…Blank guns went off…I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen… (Kerouac, 1955: 34)

Here Kerouac talks about The West as though he is already familiar with it, although nothing up until this point indicates that he has been there before. This could perhaps show just how much the image and ideal have imprinted themselves upon him. He already feels like he knows what The West is like without ever having been there. He talks in the above passage like an old man returning to his hometown only to find billboards, neon lights and all the other trappings of a modern society. Moreover, it also raises, or maybe reaffirms the earlier point about Kerouac’s love/hate relationship with The West that I have inferred stems from his mother (see Kerouac and The West – Part 2).

Jack experiences The West and is bitterly disappointed, but then continues on his travels anyway. It as though he is so intent on finding what he is looking for, he simply won’t believe it doesn’t exist. Like with his mother: he so desperately wants to make her happy and keep her close, yet she never has been happy and although physically close, judging what Ginsberg and Johnson have to say on the matter, she wasn’t the kind of woman to express it. So this I feel adequately explains Kerouac’s first impressions of The West. He sees it as home but at the same time home is filled with all the disappointments of his life there. He wants it to be special, he wants it to be idyllic and he’ll continue his search regardless of the results.

His friendship with Neal Cassady is as complicated as Kerouac himself. Cassady embodies all of Kerouac’s mixed emotions and ideas about The West. He is an archetypal American, yet has no nationality and Kerouac is allowing himself to be conned into accepting this image of The West that he so wants to believe in.

In part 4 we look at the name Sal Paradise and see if that too fits in our Kerouac character profile.

Thanks to for the cover image.

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