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Beatnik Masculinity: Jack Kerouac the Father and Neal Cassady the Hero

Like masculinity as a concept, the definition of Beatnik at its inception was rife with contradictions and dualities. While Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, is credited with developing the term and bringing the movements ideas to the masses a close inspection of Kerouacs actual life reveals a man filled with jealousy, social awkwardness and a masculinity in stark contrast with the type he envisioned as the male Beatnik ideal. To see true Beatnik masculinity one need look not at Kerouac, the father of the movement, but Neal Cassady, its hero. This paper will examine the specific gender attributes expressed in Jack Kerouacs real life then reveal through his literary figures meant to represent real-life friend Neal Cassady the ideal traits of a Beatnik. Kerouacs real-life shyness and proclivity to observe and record life over taking charge and leading it (and the inherent softness or femininity of these traits) will be revealed as a foil to his hero archetype, the boisterous, exuberant, no-holds-barred Neal Cassady, a character who exemplifies masculinity in everything he does. Through a step-by-step analysis of specific gender traits and their relation to American perceptions of masculinity, this essay will reveal the man Kerouac wanted to be (masculine, his literary ideal presented in his works), and the man he really was (a tortured man with personal issues with gender). To Kerouac, a Beatnik was hip to life, religion, and mysticism.i To him the whole beat generation is, if its anything, prophets howling against a crazy civilization.ii A Beatnik defied contemporary social conventions by tossing away the career and family prototype of the American Dream. Instead, with nothing to lose and not far to falliii the original Beatniks,

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Kerouac, Cassady and a few other male friends, worked odd jobs, travelled across the country and met people and included them temporarily on their journeys looking for something inside themselves, a religious experience, it.iv The world was too small and too civilized to contain [their] vast, violent energies.v A true Beatnik doesnt know what will happen next and doesnt seem to care.vi Yet the Beatnik of today is far removed from that envisioned by the movements founder. Even after only a decade had transpired from Kerouacs publishing of On the Road the definition of Beatnik had already changed, according to Kerouac. Credited with inventing the movement after the initial success of the book Kerouac spent the rest of his life trying to explain his original intentions after its definition spun out of his control. Do you know what a beatnik is?... They write a line of poetry, type it up in a great big expensive five dollar binding book, put it under their arm, put on sandals, grow a little goatee, walk down the street and say theyre poets. Its just a kind of fad. It was invented by the press. Listen, Im a railroad brakeman, merchant marine deckhand in war time. Beatniks dont do those things. They dont want to work. They dont want to get jobs.vii When interpreting Kerouacs real-life masculinity and that of his hero Cassady one should work hard to divorce modern connotations of the hipster or beatnik from the actions and conceptions truly revealed in the life and work of Kerouac remembering that he invented the term to describe guys like Moriarty [Cassady] who run around the country in cars looking for odd jobs, girlfriends, kicks. It was thereafter turned into... all that nonsense.viii While Jack Kerouac was certainly a man biologically, the way in which his gender revealed itself in his actions left Kerouac wishing he were different. Growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of working class parents, Jack was an intellectual and an athlete. Excelling at football, even earning a scholarship to Columbia University, in physical appearance

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Jack was imposing, clean-cut and physically fit.ix He also spent a stint in the merchant marines, sailing the world.x Yet despite these ideal masculine physical traits, the personality of Jack was anything but traditionally masculine. In fact, despite his physical strength Kerouac never once used it in a masculine way to intimidate or fight another man. As he told one interviewer, [I] never hit anybody in my life.xi If anything these physical traits, strength and athleticism, essentially going to waste, not used to intimidate or conquer on the athletic field, reveal another issue with Kerouacs masculinity. Yet Kerouac was more than a physical presence. Deeply intelligent, Kerouac was an avid reader and spent much of his time thinking, writing or in the library. Apparently this intellectual side of Jack was readily visible to his friends and cohorts, as Allen Ginsberg recalls I remember being awed by him and amazed by him, because Id never met a jock who was sensitive and intelligent about poetry.xii However, these soft qualities are not traditionally associated with masculinity. Despite this correlation with femininity these thinking and feeling personality characteristics were a strong part of who Jack Kerouac was and he did little to hide them; after all, he did choose writing as a profession. Perhaps the strongest way to describe Jacks dearth of masculine characteristics is to show his desire to live through others. Socially awkward in all settings, leading to an introverted, often lonesome, existence, Jack was always more of a shy observer than a bold doer. He was also never as interesting as the characters who intrigued him, and he knew this. Yet he really did live the Beatnik life, travelling across the continent. Kerouac lived the adventures and wrote most of the books for which hes now famous. He moved among the bohemian circles in New York and San Francisco; he listened to the bop musicians in jazz clubs; he lived on a rooftop in Mexico City; he climbed a California mountain with poet Gary Snyder; he spent a solitary summer as a

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mountain-top fire lookout in Washington; and all the while he travelled on freight trains or buses, hitchhiked, or rode shotgun while Neal Cassady sped through the American night, unspooling his continuous rap.xiii However, while Kerouac was present on these travels he was far from the protagonist. This observance about Kerouacs life reveals an interesting duality found in his masculinity: while Kerouac was truly adventurous, pursuing spontaneous journeys across the continent not caring what may happen and living for the moment, hard, manly characteristics at the same time while on these adventures his main goal was to observe and remember what others, like Cassady, were doing, focusing far more on their exploits, feats and promiscuity than himself. One scholar has even suggested he may have been more of a tourist than a true traveller.xiv Shy with both strangers and acquaintancesxv Kerouac was present with his companions but in reality was more like a camcorder something that is present on the journey but is interested solely in recording and capturing everything that goes on. For the decade or so which Kerouac spent on the road he participated in Beat activities with friends, drinking, carousing, etc., but continually returned to his mother for food and care. As Kerouac admitted himself his mother supported me by working in shoe factories while I wrote most of my books years ago. Shes my friend as well as my mother. When I go on the road I always have a quiet, clean home to come back to.xvi While Kerouac certainly worked odd jobs at times he consistently relied upon his mother for financial support, not something a manly breadwinner would ever admit to. In addition to financial support Kerouac relied upon his mother for significant physical and emotional care.xvii While every married man relies upon his spouse for some of these needs ones masculinity is questioned when a grown man relies upon his mother, instead of a spouse, for such things. While Kerouac was married three times

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throughout his life he depended far more upon his mother than his wives for both financial and emotional support.xviii Kerouacs dependence upon his mother for care and support also mirrors his view towards the other women in his life. As seen through the character representing him in On the Road, Sal Paradise, Kerouac desired a woman for a relationship and civilizing influence, not merely as a sexual object All these years I was looking for the woman I wanted to marry. I couldnt meet a girl without saying to myself, What kind of wife would she make?xix As Theado points out, much of On the Road plays off the tension between Sals [Kerouac] sentimental notion of a woman as nurturing wife and Deans [Cassady] image of a woman as sexual object.xx While Kerouac indulged in numerous short trysts with women each was short lived and occurred when he was not in a marital relationship. If anything his three marriages reveal a man desiring some sort of committed relationship with a woman. This desire of a stable, monogamous relationship, perhaps influenced by his lifelong generally conservative Catholic beliefs, mixed with some mysticism and Buddhism of course, is anything but a masculine, Beatnik ideal. This lifelong view held by Kerouac is more soft than that of a hard masculine man who sees women more as sexual objects or conquests. Related to women was Kerouacs family life. As already described, Kerouac spent much of his adult life, and childhood, living with his mother. Some was also spent with his three wives, each of whom did not stick around very long. After Kerouac was married twice he said, Thats enough for me. One wife put on too much pressure. Get up and mow the lawn. The other wife, all I could feed her was mayonnaise sandwiches. She went home. She was hungry.xxi However, Kerouac must have changed his mind about being done with marriage when he met Stella as she

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became his third wife not long after he made this statement. Obviously Kerouac was selfcentered, certainly avoiding chores at home or carrying his end of the duties, yet he yearned for a solid home life. Unfortunately all he ended up with was a child he rarely saw, two ex-wives, a mother he could never free himself from, an itinerant lifestyle followed by a reclusive existence and financial dependence upon his mother, despite the success of several of his books; another set of failures and masculinity issues for Kerouac the man. Kerouacs life is not a heroic tale either. He never rode off into the sunset, never conquered any foe, nor did he live a long, valiant life. Instead, ironically, the masculinity of Kerouac the man was about as mousey and shy as his personality. While Kerouac imagined he was working towards creating a legend of his life in his writingxxii which when finished would add up to one enormous comedy which he referred to as the Duluoz Legendxxiii instead after a glory decade of publishing in the 1950s Kerouac became entrenched in his home, never again travelling the roads. I tried, in 1960, and I couldnt get a ride. Cars going by, kids eating ice cream, people with hats with long visors driving, and, in the backseat, suits and dresses hanging. No room for a bum with a rucksack.xxiv In fact Kerouac was such a follower he couldnt even go out and explore the world on his own in a car he never learned how to drive, ever. xxv Without the exploits of Cassady to write about anymore Kerouac became essentially a recluse, living with his mother and third wife, Stella, and dying an alcoholics death at the young age of forty-seven. When considering the masculinity of the final years of his life one sees not a man steeped in success, nor even a proud man. Instead, one sees a man who finished his life shamefully, defeated by an addiction and serious inability to handle life. Yet Kerouac the man was never the Beatnik ideal. In each of Kerouacs books the

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character meant to represent Jack was never the protagonist, that role was filled by Kerouacs hero, Neal Cassady. Appearing in On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Big Sur, Book of Dreams and Visions of Cody, Neal Cassady is portrayed in each of these works as the epitome of Beatnik masculinity. A quick glance from Kerouacs two most critically acclaimed works On the Road and Visions of Cody provide the basis for what Kerouac exemplified. According to the character of Dean Moriarty, the surname for Cassady in On the Road, Cassady was a man who threw himself into adventures without regard for his own security; he moved with the moment.xxvi The antithesis of Kerouac, Cassady was a natural man, comfortable and genuine in a way that [Kerouac] admires and envies.xxvii Cassady, not Kerouac is the more real man, really living his life, not someone elses and moving in rhythm from moment to moment, admonishing his friends to forgive and forget, to understand that, in his often repeated motto, Everything is always all right!xxviii The masculine Beatnik ideal believed in experience over conformityxxix and would stop at nothing to keep searching for the next great one. Cassady is a new kind of American hero, a representative of what Kerouac saw as the vanishing glory years of America. He was a mans man, full of energy and a true zest for life. Representing a sunlit future, a positive force, a chance to be a man in the great western sense of cowboys and frontiersmen,xxx Cassady inspired other men, like Kerouac, to go out and be adventurous, to feed their hedonistic desires and live life to the fullest. Those near him could sense his addictive enthusiasm for life and, like Kerouacs character Sal in On the Road, soon succumbed. Sensing in Cassady the chance to see things they had read about, adventure, newness and an opportunity to live life outside of the ordinary Cassady not only exhibited masculinity he

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also led people to it out from their soft lives in the city trapped in consumerism and social mores. Cassady, a man who just raced in society, eager for bread [food] and love [sex]... didnt care one way or the other, supposedly did not put up with quiet, ruminating or sour people.xxxi He simply didnt have time for them as he chased food, sex and pleasure. Throughout On the Road and the other works he appears in his character is obsessed with jovial, loud people who are out for a good time. Always looking for people with interesting lives with whom he could share his zest and spark for life his association with Sal Paradise and the other characters representing Kerouac is puzzling. Why would a boisterous, masculine man hang out with a quiet, shy character? Perhaps the best explanation is that every leader or inspirational figure needs acolytes. Shy followers such as Kerouac provide perfect fodder to turn into devoted, excited travellers on journeys. Hence Cassady also displays masculinity by leading other men to the promised land of the road. In addition to these characteristics Cassady also had model Beatnik intelligence. He was not an imbecile, but neither was he a brooding, snobby intellectual. Instead Cassadys intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness.xxxii This natural intelligence, combined with Cassadys energetic curiosity depicts a man who is smart, cool, and confident enough in his intelligence that he does not have to show it off or constantly prove it to others, instead it is revealed as required. He could engage in all-night talkfests with Carlo [poet Allen Ginsberg]xxxiii and the others in the gang, keeping up with anyone and everyone, or speak with common folk without offending them when on his adventures, helping everyone to feel at ease. The Beatnik ideal is thus one whos intelligence was gleaned from spending a third of his time in the poolhall, a third in jail, and a third in the

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public library,xxxiv an ideal Kerouac could only lay claim to a third of. Although women were involved in the exploits of Neal Cassady they were never front and center. Refusing to ever truly commit to a relationship with merely one woman Cassady represents a portrait of masculinity in which women are neither nurturing nor fellow Beatniks. Instead women are seen by Cassady merely as sexual objects, not equals. To Cassady sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to make a living and so on.xxxv While in On the Road Cassady is presented in the beginning as married to a woman named Marylou the marriage is short lived and appears more as something for Cassady to become free from than a positive influence upon his life. Treating women as objects for a mans use (either for care giving or sex)xxxvi, rather than a partner in life, represents a vision of manhood where the limitations of social constraints are subsumed by bodily desire and the senses.xxxvii Yet the sexuality of Cassady is not as cut and dry as his relations with women may make it appear. Instead, On the Road and some of Kerouacs similar books have been read as subtextual gay love stories.xxxviii Cassady, a bisexual hustler, con-artist, and raconteurxxxix appears less so in the commonly published version of On the Road, yet his ambivalent sexuality is much more apparent in the unedited original scroll version of the book recently released. In the version typed by Kerouac Cassady is depicted as engaging not only in relations with women but also a night of passion with Ginsberg and hustling a gay traveller on the road for sex in an effort to obtain cash.xl Although it appears Kerouac and Cassady never consummated their relationship many readers have noted a strong subtext of mutual attraction between them that could also be called love.xli What this ambiguous view towards gender and sexual relations means for Beatnik

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masculinity is not easy to determine. While traditional views of masculinity would regard Cassadys openness to bisexuality as soft and feminine perhaps this is not a problem for Kerouac and Beatnik masculinity. Beatniks like Kerouac and Cassady clearly place pleasure and hedonism over social conventions or constructions so accordingly Cassadys Beatnik hero character is a man who displays his masculinity by taking whatever seems pleasing to him, in essence remaining the dominant, and hence traditionally masculine, figure. Not a hulking physical presence Cassady still managed to exude masculinity in his manner and appearance. Looking like a young Gene Autry trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent a sideburned hero of the snowy Westxlii Cassady exuded his manhood in the nature of a western cowboy. Adding to this physical appearance was the legend of the real Neal Cassady. As was told, and believed by many, Cassady had, by the age of eighteen, stolen five hundred cars and slept with five hundred women.xliii The fast cars and loose women lifestyle implied by this aura following the real man surely influenced Kerouacs depiction of him in written works. The real-life car heists performed by Cassady were very much a part of the heroic image of manhood illustrated by Cassady, that of a man who balanced danger and criminal activity with fun, never quite becoming a hardened criminal or gangster. Somehow Cassady managed to toe the line and break the law while still appearing like an acceptable man. Though interested in the underground scene, lured by the most evil and intelligent buncha bastards and shits in Americaxliv Cassady simply excised the positive manly characteristics of crime, such as daring, courage, living on the edge, cunning and the thrill of breaking the law, and left the negative traits for someone else. His criminality was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains,


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something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides).xlv Although Cassady had to earn money to stay alive, since apparently he did not steal to earn money, he clearly was a man who worked to live, not lived to work. This Beatnik hero was not tied down to a career or needless education, instead he worked when he felt like it or when he needed the money. He was not defined by his occupation, he was bigger than that. Cassadys masculinity was also youthful. Like the recent movie, the Beatnik life was no country for old men. The story of Cassady and Kerouac was a story of two young men travel[ling] the American continent looking outwardly for kicks and inwardly for salvation.xlvi The idea of Cassady and the Beatnik hero was all about growing up and establishing oneself as a man I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.xlvii Throughout Kerouacs novels Neal Cassady develops from an exuberant youth in On the Road to a full grown man in later books. He is a man who exudes masculinity in everything he does. From his rugged, cowboy appearance to his flippant, devil-may-care attitude and constant bravery Cassady seems to always be showing his manhood while never needing to prove it. Kerouac, on the other hand, appears as a man constantly aware of his lack of masculinity. Tagging along on trips and engaging in the activities of a Beatnik, yet constantly returning home to his mother, Kerouac seems like a tortured soul, yearning for a family and home life, yet seeking freedom and adventure with jovial personalities like Cassady, never able to have both at the same time. Seemingly unhappy that he himself was not more like his protg Cassady the fact that Kerouac the man spent so much of his life documenting and wiring about his adventures can be read almost as a way of dealing with the personality he had writing about adventures and travels gave Kerouac the prestige of being a Beatnik and gave his life meaning. If he could


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not prove himself as a man through traditional means, or even those of Cassady, he could prove himself through his writing. In this way he is forever enshrined as the father of the Beatniks and glorified by millions, even if we rarely look past Cassady to see Kerouac. In the end there are no answers, there is just the moment we are in, and the people around us.xlviii

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Bill, Roger (2010). Traveller or tourist? Jack Kerouac and the commodification of culture. Dialect Anthropol, 34, 395-417.

Cassady, Carolyn (1990). Off the road: My years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Collum, Danny Duncan (2010). Americas rebel artist. Sojourners, no. 2, 39.

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Kerouac, Jack (1968). Vanity of Duluoz: An adventurous education. New York: Coward-McCann.

Maher, Paul, Jr. (2005). Empty phantoms: Interviews and encounters with Jack Kerouac. New York: Thunders Mouth Press.

McClintock, Jack (1970). This is how the ride ends. Esquire, 138-139, 188-189.

Mikelli, Eftychia (2010). A postcolonial beat: Projections of race and gender in Jack Kerouacs The Subterraneans. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies, 32, 27-42.

Scharff, Virginia (2002). Book Review: Across the Great Divide: Cultures ofManhood in the American West. The Journal of American History, 89, 648-649.

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Theado, Matt (2000). Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Hayes, Kevin (2005). Conversations with Jack Kerouac. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Interview with Mike Wallace, 1958. (p 3-4) ii Hayes. Interview with Val Duncan, 1959. (p 39) iii Kerouac, Jack (2005). Beat generation. New York: Thunders Mouth Press. (p vi) iv Kerouac, Jack. (1957). On the road. New York: Penguin Books. (p 120-121) v Scharff, Virginia (2002). Book Review: Across the Great Divide: Cultures ofManhood in the American West. The Journal of American History, 89, 648-649. (p 649) vi Hayes. Interview with Val Duncan. (p 50) vii Theado, Matt (2000). Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. Interview with New York Herald Tribune. (p 25) viii Berrigan, Ted (1968). Jack Kerouac, the art of fiction no. 41. The Paris Review, no. 43, Summer, 201. (p 570) ix Theado. (p 12) x Theado. xi Maher, Paul, Jr. (2005). Empty phantoms: Interviews and encounters with Jack Kerouac. New York: Thunders Mouth Press. Interview with Val Duncan, 1964. (p 255) xii Grifford, Barry and Lee, Lawrence (2005). Jacks Book: An Oral Biography of Jack. Jackson: Da Capo Press. (p 34-35) xiii Theado. (p 20-21) xiv Bill, Roger (2010). Traveller or tourist? Jack Kerouac and the commodification of culture. Dialect


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Anthropol, 34, 395-417. (p 398) xv Theado. (p 21) xvi Hayes. (p 45) xvii Theado. (p 21) xviii Hayes (p 45) xix Kerouac. On the Road. (p 116-117) xx Theado, (p 59) xxi Hayes. (p 38) xxii Theado, p2. xxiii Theado. (p 8) xxiv McClintock, Jack (1970). This is how the ride ends. Esquire, 138-139, 188-189. xxv McClintock. xxvi Theado. (p 19) xxvii Theado. (p 61) xxviii Theado. (p 63) xxix Swartz, Omar (1999). The view from on the road. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. (p 18) xxx Theado. (p 61) xxxi Theado. xxxii Kerouac. On the Road. (p 7) xxxiii Kerouac. On the Road. (p 5) xxxiv Kerouac. On the Road. (p 5) xxxv Kerouac. On the Road. (p 2) xxxvi Swartz. (p17) xxxvii Swartz. (p 18) xxxviii Kelly, Gretchen (2008). Jack Kerouacs long and winding road trip. Outtraveler, Summer, 34-35. xxxix Kelly. xl Kelly. xli Kelly. xlii Kerouac. On the Road. (p 2) xliii Theado. (p 19) xliv Kerouac, Jack (1968). Vanity of Duluoz: An adventurous education. New York: Coward-McCann. (p 201) xlv Kerouac. On the Road. (p 7-8) xlvi Theado. (p 58) xlvii Kerouac. On the Road. (p 15) xlviii Kerouac, Jack (2005). Beat generation. New York: Thunders Mouth Press. (introduction)


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