Kerouac and the West – Part 5, End of Chapter 1

Part 4 looked at Neal Cassady and how he represented Kerouac’s conflicting, almost love/hate, relationship with the pastoral ideal. Neal represented an idea, one that Kerouac was willing to give himself up to, although he could never quite convince himself.

The following chapter continues and concludes these ideas.

In case you’ve just jumped on board, here are parts one, two and three.

Jack Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to play Dean Moriarty in a potential film adaptation of On the Road

Jack Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to play Dean Moriarty in a potential film adaptation of On the Road

Just why did Kerouac choose the name Sal Paradise? Sal is short for Salvatore which in turn means salvation. In this context his name would mean the Saviour of Paradise, a man who could clearly see this paradisiacal ideal slipping away and wanted to save it; savour it and in order to achieve this goal he must be able to see it from all sides, ‘warts an’ all’ as it were, hence the need for Dean Moriarty (see part 4 for a fuller description). So Moriarty is akin to Sal’s crutch and scratching post at the same time. He represents freedom, a cowboy or as Clive Bush puts it: his dual role as scapegoat and betrayer, unconsciously and furtively… (Lee, 1996: 146)

Kerouac seems to thrive on such an ambivalence, he accepts it, forgives it for its treachery, as it has been perhaps the most constant and dominant force in his life up until that point. It is the promise of an America that nurtures, that is free from the shackles of structured society. The America that as a child hinted at a new dawn, a new age, but only succeeded in supplementing the yearning for the old, the pure, the Natural. These images coupled together with the real world outside, the real America, the disappointment, the broken promises: the con. That was Neal Cassady. And he was as important to Jack as when you’re lying in bed, drunk after a night out and the room is spinning and you need one foot placed firmly on the floor to ground yourself and prevent sickness.

The all American Autry

The all American Autry

Cassady was the American ideal as is presented to us today: Gene Autry on the outside and a hustler on the inside: The clean, crisp, do-gooding cowboy that is just too good to be true. Cassadyhimself has been elevated by Kerouac as an impossible ideal, a myth, a pearl. Clive Bush aptly narrates: The greatest mythicisation of Cassady was of course Kerouac’s. What is at issue here is not the ‘truth’ of real life/myth opposition, but the construction of the myth within differing discourses. (Lee, 1996: 146) According to Joyce Johnson, Cassady and Kerouac were so close they even looked alike and moreover she interlinks Cassady not only with the West but also as a somewhat surrogate brother:

Thoughts of Neal stirred in him, merged with romantic images of plainsmen and pioneers. Cassady loomed in Jack’s mind as archetypal, both his long-lost brother and the very spirit of the West in his rootlessness and energy. (Johnson, 1983: 23)

So Cassady’s role in Kerouac’s search for the pearl (see part 1) is crucial as it is he who is the embodiment of it. All the girls, visions, everything were Cassady. He was the cowboy. He was America.

This concludes the first of two sections looking at Kerouac’s motivations to go out west. I looked at his early life, his relationship with his mother, the importance of his friends and the role of the urban, industrialised Lowell, Massachusetts. By way of conclusion, I would say that Kerouac’s quest for the ‘pearl’ – his pastoral paradise – is intrinsically linked to his family life of being a drifter and constantly striving to impress an insufferable mother. In his adult life he befriended Cassady who, as described above, represented his vision of a broken promise he wanted to believe would be kept.

In the next chapter, I compare Kerouac to the early colonial historian Robert Beverly who famously decided to rewrite history of America back in the early 1700s.

Hold on to your hats. It’s going to be quite a ride!


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