Dead Bennington Alumni: Carolyn Cassidy (April 28, 1923 – September 20, 2013)
This is the first in a series of stories on Dead Bennington Alumni.
by Kyle Keymaram ‘14
It is with great remorse that I inform you that Carolyn Cassady, writer and second wife of the highly sexualized Beatnik icon Neal Cassady, died on Friday.
Allow me to begin by saying that cult novels are curses, especially semi-autobiographical ones. Once the book is written, myths are bound to proliferate and people are bound to get hurt. I often wonder whether On the Road did more harm than it did good. Can you imagine the subsequent guilt Kerouac must have felt when thousands of teenage kids dropped out of high school and hit the road after reading his novel? Do we really think that this is what he wanted? Trust me, the man was mortified. When Nabokov warns readers to “not make the fatal error of looking for so-called ‘real life’ in novels,” I am convinced that he does so with sound reason. Novels are dangerous, and so is the zeitgeist.
Carolyn Cassady, who was fictionalized as Camille in On the Road, has published two of her own books: Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal and Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Although both of these books set out to dispel many of the misconceptions surrounding the Beat Movement, one wonders if they will ever reach a wider audience. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Carolyn stated, “I’ve tried to share my memories, but people just don’t seem to want to hear. They prefer to believe the other version.” These words are like a knife to the heart. It is deeply disturbing to realize that Carolyn surrendered to this truth only months before her death.
What I find just as mortifying as Carolyn’s final capitulation is that fact that her books show a great sign of promise. Take this pleasant little droplet of insight to prove the point:
“Neal was a hero, like Othello, whose praises needed singing, and Bill (William Burroughs) assumed the role of passionate disciple. He told me of daring escapades in cars, brushes with the law, deep intellectual and musical safaris.”
There are clear signs of potential here. The prose is written from a unique perspective and the language is highly energetic, even contagious. There are clear echoes of Kerouac’s style in her writing, but it is as if she absorbed all the good qualities – the pathos, the rhythm – and left the bad – the forced sentimentality, the self-absorbed bullocks – to rot.
Not much is known about Carolyn’s experience at Bennington College. However, we do know that she was lucky enough to study with the likes of Martha Graham, Erich Fromm, and Theodore Roethke. From this impressive list we may gather that Carolyn was not afraid to study with the top dogs. She obtained her BA in Stanislavsky Drama (go figure) and graduated in 1944.
The shade of Carolyn now haunts the Bennington campus. Go find it.
In honor of her memory, I will be burning a copy of On the Road at the end of the world at twelve tonight. Be there or be square.
Ed Note: The original photograph posted with this article was not actually Carolyn and Neal Cassady with Jack Kerouac but of a production of Visions of Kerouac.