Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road

Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg is an autobiographical piece that chronicles Carolyn Cassady’s 15-year marriage to beat icon, Neal Cassady. The account describes her efforts to create a stable home for her husband and their three children. Off the Road challenges the masculine voices that dominated beat generation literature, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as she chronicles the realization of her own potential in circumstances that questioned the attitudes and values of Middle America in the 1950’s. 

Cassady had a conventional middle class upbringing that mirrors the experiences of Joyce Johnson, author of the novel Minor Characters that chronicles Johnson’s relationship with Jack Kerouac. Cassady described her parents as the following, “My parents were strict in Victorian values and English customs; physical contact was discouraged after infancy and approval given without enthusiasm.” (Cassady, 12). While her conservative upbringing provides a level of context to her perspectives on men and marriage at the beginning of Off the Road, the argument can be made that her childhood family dynamics  make her rejection of traditional nuclear values later on more substantial. 

The literature associated with the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road specifically, often follows a male-dominated narrative where with each new city, there is a woman who is loved and left while the male partner remains a loyal travel companion. These narratives have led to a perspective that expressed “…a moral panic was constructed through and about a threat to women, home, and domesticity by male tramps” (Cresswell).  However, a reading that looks beyond simple male-female dualisms and takes the autobiographies and perspectives of beat women into account can provide a perspective that points towards something more complex. Cassady provides the insight that humanizes the fathers of the beat generation and allows for the reader to recognize that, 

Beat generation literature was not simply a rejection of family or a celebration of mobility for its own sake; it constitutes part of a conscious and complex intellectual revolt which took as its reference points many alternative ways of seeing (Rycroft).

Cassady is an example of the women that contributed to this intellectual revolt with her approach to her marriage with Neal. Where the nuclear family saw a male head-of-household, Cassady embraced the trials and responsibilities dealt to her by Neal’s inconsistencies. In this embrace, she created a version of home that would serve as a place of refuge and importance to Neil and company.  The Cassady home often served as a meeting place for beat individuals to exchange ideas and collaborate. Even following the divorce between Carolyn and Neil, “the beats…consistently returned to the ‘version’ of home that she provided” (McDowell).  Off the Road provides the insight necessary for the reader to recognize the significance of the home space and that, “The defining characteristics of these spaces was that of an intellectual, spiritual, and poetic revolt which sought to redefine the cultural politics of everyday life” (Rycroft).

Important moments for the beat generation did not always take place on America’s highways. Off the Road challenges the necessity of mobility as a means of resistance. Cassady chronicles the amount of time that Neal and company spent at home and working steady jobs, which leads to the idea that “This rejection was only partial as the beats spent substantial periods not only at home but also in waged labor.” (McDowell). 

While the travel habits of beat individuals were often characterized as spontaneous and fueled by a quarter in their pocket, the opportunity for travel as not as readily available as the story of On the Road may suggest, “For the majority of those who labelled themselves ‘beat’ in the 1950s, mobility was not an option; postwar affluence did not reach all equally” (Rycroft). Cassady presents a nontraditional domestic sphere and argues for the value of it against the nuclear ideals of the time as well as highlighting the disappointment often associated with long periods of the men’s mobility. While many readers of On the Road romanticized the travel experiences, Cassady challenges the interpretation and acknowledges the mens failure to find inner fulfillment on America’s highways and provides insight into the significance of the time spent at home.  

 Off the Road presents the argument that “There were ways of rejecting the hegemonic version of living that did not necessarily involve mobility but neither did it involve an embrace of the growing consumerism of a privatized home life” (McDowell). Cassady remembers using orange crates instead of proper furniture and tells of her struggle to work and care for the children in Neil’s absences. The dynamic of the Cassady family is in almost perfect contrast to the nuclear family ideals of the time and plays an important role in establishing the beat generation resistance of those ideals. Although Cassady did not champion the idea of perpetual mobility, she often challenged gender roles of the time by asserting her independence in regards to her family and her marriage,

  A number of women associated with the ‘beat generation’ led highly unconventional lifestyles with as many sexual partners as the men- the difference, for the most part, is that the women did not have the choice to take to the road (Cresswell).

Although Cassady often lacked the ability to search for nirvana on the highway, she found alternate ways of resistance by challenging gender roles of the time when asserting her dominance and control over the dynamics of the family as a whole.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that the role of beat women was often diminished in the male narratives of beat literature. One observation is that, “From reading On the Road it is hard to see the women of Kerouac’s world as anything other than caricatures.” (Cresswell). The perspective granted by On the Road labels women as needy, dependent, and difficult to comprehend. It’s important to note the influence of this perspective on reader’s desire to explore the feminine perspective further,

 The ‘reality’ of the role of women in the beat movement is not there in the text of On the Road and I think it is fair to assume that only a few of us have bothered to read the biographies and autobiographies of women associated with the beat movement…While it may be true that the reality of the beat women’s lives was one of strength in the face of adversity, it is hard to see them in Kerouac’s words as anything other than the ‘minor characters’ that Johnson finds hard to recognize. (Cresswell)

However, those that have read the autobiographies of beat women, such as Off the Road, have come to challenge the masculine voices that dominated beat literature. Cassady refused to remain a ‘minor character’ in her own story and spent the vast majority of her marriage to Neal focusing on the construction of a fulfilling life despite his disappointing behavior. Her efforts were important to Neal’s well-being and played a huge part in helping to establish his sense of self-worth. Cassady describes Neal’s downfall as being in direct response to the failure of his role in the workplace and in his family,

The two pillars of his support were the railroad job and his family. His imprisonment cost him his job and removed that pillar, and when I divorced him he lost the other means of support. In five years he was dead (Cassady, 386).

To downplay the influence of the women at home would be a mistake. Cassady provides the perspective that even though she was often ‘left behind’, she would find joy in the responsibilities of home weighing on her shoulders. It’s important to acknowledge and recognize the dynamic that Cassady manifests in taking on these responsibilities. She finds herself feeling empowered and emboldened by her ability to run a successful home and begins to search for ways to improve her standing. Contrary to the stereotypical feminine ideals of the time, “Carolyn was more than a put-upon wife…To improve her life, Carolyn deliberately seduced Kerouac” (McDowell). Although Neal encouraged the affair initially, Carolyn managed to use the threesome to her advantage. The new family dynamic between Neal, Carolyn, and Kerouac left Carolyn feeling included, valued, and in a position of power as the two men fought for her attention. She alluded to the concept that the two men put together created the perfect partner for her, which was an idea that would be considered incredibly taboo for the time. Although her marriage to Neal and affair with Kerouac were nontraditional, Cassady argues for the benefits of the relationship while chronicling success at home for beat men. 
Although the threesome was short lived, Cassady still made an argument for the success of a household headed by a woman. The story she tells is not purely positive. By fully acknowledging her financial and marital struggles, she provides a level of authenticity and strength to her message. Cassady’s coping with the shortcomings of beat men was described as the following,

While her male peers, including her husband, celebrated the freedoms of sex, drugs, literature and the open road, Ms. Cassady was by turns an eager participant and a dissenting adult, the one who kept the utilities on, raised the children and watched with dismay as the next generation of young men emulated the self-destructive impulses of the last (Leland).

Cassady’s story in Off the Road challenges the male voice associated with beat literature by expressing her strength, ability, and dedication to her marriage to Neal. Cassady revealed the importance of respect to Neal in her account. Respect was something Neal would perpetually aspire to and he expressed his discomfort with his portrayal in Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Recognizing these need to feel valid and productive, Carolyn expressed the following: “I gave him a respectable home in a respectable neighborhood, and even learned enough about economics to handle things like taxes and insurance” (Cassady, 386). 

One of the greatest examples of Cassady recognizing her own potential lies in her divorce to Neal. Despite divorce being labeled as something to be avoided in the face of 1950’s America, Cassady pursued what was in the best interest for herself and for her family. When the Merry Pranksters showed up at her door and destroyed her home, she put a long-standing realization into words by saying, “This is my home, not Neals…I have a job and go to work every day, not because I like it, but because I want what it provides, like this house, a car, and food. I don’t expect anyone else’s labor to furnish these things for me” (Cassady, 405). This passage plays a vital role in establishing Cassady’s independence by summing up the strength she gained from her marriage to Neal. Beyond that, this passage marks the first and only instance where Cassady directly declines the presence of Neal and his company in her own home. 

Carolyn Cassady’s autobiography, Off the Road, makes a strong argument for the strength behind the woman that was often viewed as being simply left behind by the men of the beat generation. Cassady pursues a journey of discovering her own self-worth and creates a narrative that challenges traditional concepts of masculinity while validating the experience and resistance of beat women. 

Works Cited

Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: Twenty Years Spent With Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. E-Book, The Overlook Press, 2008. 

Cresswell, Tim. “Writing, Reading, and the Problem of Resistance: A Reply to McDowell”.      JSTOR, https://www-jstor-org.capital.ohionet.org/stable/622492?. Accessed 27 November 2019.

McDowell, Linda. “Off the Road: Alternative Views of Rebellion, Resistance, and ‘The Beats’”.  JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/622491?. Accessed 19 November 2019.

Rycroft, Simon. “Changing Lanes: Textuality On and Off the Road”. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/622493?. Accessed 27 November 2019. 

Cresswell, Tim. “Embodiment, Power, and the Politics of Female Mobility: The Case of Female Tramps and Hobos”. Institute of British Geographers- Wiley Online, https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.0020-2754.1999.00175.x.

Accessed 29 November 2019.

Leland, John. “Carolyn Cassady, Beat Writer and Muse, Dies at 90”. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/books/carolyn-cassady-beat-generation-writer-dies-at-90.html. Accessed 29 November 2019. 

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