An Apology to Carolyn Cassady, 1923-2013

Carolyn Cassady

When I was 15, my English teacher told me to read On The Road and it changed my life. I became obsessed with all things Beat, reading voraciously and writing terrible poetry. Terrible, terrible poetry. At a time when my peers were swooning over your Josh Hartnetts or Paul Walkers, I was mooning over Jack Kerouac (with Chipper Jones as a close runner-up). To be sure, I wasn’t immune from the Hartnett-Walker whirlwind, but I prayed at a different altar.

Two years later it was time to go to college, and I was San Francisco bound. I arrived in our fair City with the naiveté to expect an entrenched Beatitude that was gone, beaten out by the first Tech Boom. I eagerly visited North Beach only to find a few bars that looked the part but were off-limits to an underager, and a mess of tourist traps. In the middle of this was and still is City Lights–the Ferlinghetti shop that time forgot–and this became the epicenter for my growing pains. I took to the City in spite of our initial misunderstanding, and even gave an obnoxious interview to the Golden Gate Express in which I pompously trash my childhood home in praise of the North in 2007. What can I say: there is no remedy for the arrogance of youth except to age, and the internet remembers it all.

I give you this background to note my attachment to the men of the Beat Generation: first Kerouac, in my teenage lust, then Ginsberg as I grew, and now–over a quarter century at my heels–a fan of Ferlinghetti. Beat women, however, never garnered much of my attention as they also did not from the media at large. This is because Beat literature marginalizes them as play-things and homemakers–or both in the case of Carolyn Cassady. They were plot points to be plotted, not characters at the wheel. Without my feminist footing, I unconsciously viewed them as the same. I only paid lip service to Diane DiPrima and never read works by Carolyn because, from my high horse, I assumed her books were the profiteering of a mediocre writer who benefited from liaisons with famous men. But I didn’t know anything about Carolyn save for the sound bytes I’d been fed from the fictionalized spoon of Kerouacian “history.” I knew she was beautiful and admired by mythical men, and in my youth that was enough to pantomime–but that is a very shallow well.

Carolyn Cassady died on September 20th at a hospital near her home in England, and obituaries which have run in reputable publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times note the passing of this woman but barely mention her work. Instead, they marginalize her yet again as a Beat punctuation and devote more time to describing the men in her life than they do to her own accomplishments. The kinder ones tag her as a writer first, and the former wife of Neal Cassady second. If truth were told Carolyn Robinson, her maiden name, was an artist–an educated painter who excelled at set design. Carolyn Cassady became a writer of necessity to inject a dose of reality into the mythologized narrative of her own life; she wrote to add her own voice to her own biography. Her version, however, was not the one people wanted to hear. So, instead she’s remembered as the woman shared by Kerouac and Cassady (or not remembered at all), not as the conservatively raised artist who fell in love with a man marked by madness and did all she could to keep her marriage intact. After all, it was the 1950s and she was not as bohemian as the world had painted her.

Carolyn Robinson Cassady was a remarkable woman with impenetrable strength, and I am a remarkable ass for not realizing that sooner. In light of this, Ms. Robinson, I offer an apology. I am sorry that your story was told but not heard. I am sorry that those men failed you, repeatedly. I am sorry. Now, rest in peace.