On The Road: Kerouac’s Grand Slam and The Missing Man

Hello. I am sorry it’s been so long. Nothing drains you quite like A-Levels. I finally got around to reading On The Road (The Original Scroll) last night, and this was the product of it. All names of the writers were kept as I did not read the modified version. 

In the three hundred page or so span that is Jack Kerouac’s magnitudinous novel On The Road, Lucien Carr is mentioned only four times. His name is cited briefly, dispersed amongst others, and for those readers without knowledge of the Columbia clique, it will have no significance. Those who are aware of the formation of the Beat Generation – those East Coast literary rebels that rose to prominence in 1950s Manhattan, the group of drug fuelled artists driven mad by their desperation to break the mould – will notice the way Lucien’s name juts out from the prose. The way in which Kerouac writes about him is surprising: either due to his brevity or the fact that the name is mentioned at all.

On The Road was written in three weeks by Kerouac as he recounts the way he and his friends travelled across America – from East to West, circling backwards to Denver and New York. It is a celebration of freedom, American youth, and of his friendship with fellow Beat author Neal Cassidy – “it was remarkable how Neal could go mad and then suddenly the next day just calmly and sanely continue with his soul – which I think is wrapped in a fast car, with a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road.” Kerouac finds himself in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg, and thinking of William S Burroughs in Texas when he realises that he has found ‘the perfect bar.’ On The Road, along with Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, has been revered as a pillar of non-conformity, sexual deviation and brutal honesty. Aside from the first edition of Howl, Lucien Carr’s name is mysteriously absent from the works of the Beat authors. In Kerouac’s novel, he is first mentioned when discussing a previous event – “I took a straight picture that made me look, as Lucien said, like a 30 year old Italian who’d kill anybody who said anything against his Mother.” Unlike the others, Lucien is not introduced, and he is not included in Kerouac’s raw portrayal of America. We are informed that he is from Missouri, and he is later to be found on a boat with the Beat group, but there is no interaction: “he came to see other people. He didn’t know we were there.” In a work that often feels like a love letter to the American landscape, Lucien Carr feels in absentia from the “long raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the west coast.” His startling absence from the pages of On The Road would only puzzle those who are aware that it was this Delphic delinquent who was the kernel of the Beat Generation, that it was Lucien Carr who was responsible for pulling lost Columbia undergraduates into his world of narcotics and turbulence, that he led the writers of the 1950s into the underworld of Times Square and the streets of Greenwich Village that would both corrupt and inspire them.

It was Kerouac who introduced the name of “Beat Generation” to the group, a name first conceived by Herbert Huncke, and later discussed with John Clellon Holmes. Kerouac altered the connotations from the meaning of the underworld, and the group’s ongoing battle with non-conformity, to a phrase which was associated with being upbeat, and more musically ‘on the beat, which showed contemporary significance. The pages of On The Road are filled with financial and romantic instability; friendships and romances break on the road, divorces occur – Kerouac has a liason with a six foot ginger named Bea who is married – but happiness flows through the book, the feeling of disconnection from troubles left in New York. It is as if Kerouac’s 1949 work captures the Beats at their finest: Ginsberg falling in love and composing Howl, a hotbed of ideas, laughing and drinking and a plethora of women. Whilst the Beat generation threatened to flicker out at the close of Lucien’s committal of homicide, On The Road proves that the flame is still burning – albeit without the man that pulled them all together.

It was Lucien Carr, the ‘fallen angel of Beat mythology’, who introduced Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Hal Chase and later Kerouac, through his then girlfriend Edie Parker. Columbia University served as a backdrop for one of the most defiant literary movements in History – with Lucien and Allen attending as English students and Jack Kerouac on a sports scholarship. Fascinated by Arthur Rimbaud, Carr sought to break the literary mould in the way of Joyce, Woolf and Beckett, and this was the force that pulled the group together. David Kammerer, a lifelong friend of William Burroughs, had been Lucien’s mentor since he was young, and had become madly infatuated with his androgynous beauty. Kammerer followed Carr across the states, ending up in New York whilst he attended Columbia. It is thought that David was madly in love with Lucien; a determined infatuation that far outweighed anything Ginsberg may have felt. Although Lucien had a girlfriend at the time, Celine, and had no sexual interest in David, the latter made death threats and maintained his obsessive behaviour even in the face of rejection. Breaking point was reached on the evening of August 13, 1944. David pushed Lucien too hard, causing him to stab his admirer with a boy scout knife. After pushing Kammerer’s body into the Hudson, a terrified Lucien Carr went to Burroughs for help, who gave him some money and advised him to confess. Dissatisfied, Lucien Carr went to Jack Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the glasses and the knife. Kerouac would later address the turn of events in The Town and The City and Vanity of Duluoz. It was this event that almost caused the Beat Generation to crumble, and sent Carr on his quest for normalcy. Without the murder, Lucien Carr may not have slipped through the net of the Beat Generation; his name could be as recognisable as Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s. Was this murder the reason that Lucien’s name is so absent from the 125,000 word scroll of On The Road? When Ginsberg wrote in Howl that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” he was almost certainly talking about the corruption of Lucien Carr, and the homicide that drove him to seek reclusion. Was the murder the reason why Lucien Carr never produced a body of work? Or was he an inspirer rather than a writer?

Carr was no longer in the Beat group by the time that Neal Cassidy was introduced in 1947. He was instead serving two years for second degree murder. Cassidy’s effect on the Beats cannot be disputed; he became Allen Ginsberg’s mentor after a brief affair which Kerouac addresses in On The Road: “Now there’s something started but I don’t want anything to do with it.” He had a profound effect on Kerouac himself, as it is Neal who features most prominently in the book, often painted with admiration as a free-spirited bisexual who always seemed to find himself on the road. Their friendship is not a stable one: Kerouac lusts after Cassidy’s first wife and has an affair with his second, but in a book which follows the temporary lifestyle of moving from state to state, the friendship between the two is a mark of permanence. Written in just three weeks with a madness fuelled by Benzedrine and coffee, On The Road forms a tribute to the car-stealing criminal that was Neal Cassidy. It celebrates losing yourself on the road and then finding yourself several times over; low budget roadtrips with no knowledge of future plans. On The Road is a novel that has meant something to every generation; it is a cornerstone of American literature that marks the transition between, as Kerouac writes “the East of my youth and the West of my future.” Never has the book meant more to a generation than the generation of the Beats, those who understood the thrill of the jazz music, the Levis, the narcotic experimentation, and the haunting call of the open road to leave everything behind and to live purely in the moment. This was what Neal Cassidy had taught Kerouac: that life is to be enjoyed, that people are temporary and that commitment is a wasted experience. On The Road is rushed, badly punctuated and written in a drug filled haze, but it brings with it an adolescent whirlwind, a testament to friendship and the fact that “nobody knows what is going to happen to anybody beside the forlorn rags of growing old.” The novel ends with a growing betrayal, a lingering promise that is broken by Kerouac as he marries and conforms to social convention. Neal Cassidy returns to the road, and the reader is left feeling that On The Road, although written by Kerouac, was never as truly about him as it was about Cassidy.

It becomes obvious that Neal Cassidy redefined the term ‘beat’ for Kerouac, for Ginsberg, and for the generation that grew around them. He was a free spirit, someone who was willing to go as far as it took to unravel convention and fulfill the vision that bound the Beats so closely together. “[Both] Jack and Allen were blown away by him” elaborated his second wife, Carolyn Cassidy. “His restless energy, his love of life, the way he talked, the way he lived purely for the moment.” On The Road appears to be a dedication to Neal above anything else, and this is reflected in Kerouac’s final paragraph. “I think of Neal Cassidy, I even think of old Neal Cassidy the Father we never found, I think of Neal Cassidy, I think of Neal Cassidy.” Neal Cassidy embodied the Beat philosophy; he altered Kerouac’s perspective and without him, it is unlikely that On The Road would ever have been written. However, amidst the stream of text, those who have come to understand the formation of the Beats will recognise the missing man: Lucien Carr, without whom the Beats would never have been formed, the man whose act of homicide redefined the group and what they stood for. When I think of the Beat Generation, and of 1950s America, I think of Lucien Carr. I even think of Lucien Carr, the father that he inevitably became, and the writer that he never was. I think of Lucien Carr.