For the week of February 10, 1999  thru February 16, 1999  

Kerouac, Cassady, Kesey

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


Today I saw a dog tied to a tree by a 20-foot length of rope.

The dog howled in loneliness for whoever had tied him there, an irony probably lost on them both; and the dog howled in frustration because he could not break free of his bond, the way his owner had.

A dog tied up in a public place is not uncommon in small mountain towns, but it is still a sight that disturbs at some instinctive level where freedom is something more than a cerebral concept, a political buzzword or, as Kris Kristofferson put it, "just another word for nothing left to lose."

The dog tied to a tree today reminded me (of all people) of Jack Kerouac, the American author and cultural icon. A quote from Kerouac is on the jacket of a book I keep by my bed. The quote is, "If you don’t heed the cries of a dog on a chain, how do you expect God to heed your cries?"

How indeed?

Much of Kerouac’s large body of work, and, for that matter, much of his life itself, was an exploration of freedom, an effort to break free of the bonds of his circumstances in life, the limitations of the written word, the repressions of the Puritan heritage that underlies American social mores, and, it might be argued, the very physical and spiritual boundaries of the human condition. Sort of like the cries of a dog on a chain, cries worth heeding.

Kerouac is a major figure of a certain American cultural/literary tradition that strives to expand the accepted strictures of both. That tradition is not limited to America, but none of any nationality cried with more exuberance or fought against his limitations harder than Jack Kerouac.

Though he was inspired by the rousing sentimental rants of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, both his life and work had more in common with those of Walt Whitman and Henry Miller. He was profoundly influenced by the person and the unpretentious and improvisational prose of the letters of his comrade Neal Cassady.

Kerouac emulated and turned Cassady into the visionary hero of his best known novel "On the Road." In both fiction and fact, Cassady was know for his driving skills and spiritual drive as he piloted Kerouac and his other friends back and forth across America in a series of Hudsons and Cadillacs and whatever other vehicle was at hand.

Neal Cassady has been called "the real genius behind the Beat movement in literature," though he never published a book during his life. (His posthumously published letters are a good read.) He appeared as a main character in many books, including "Go" by John Clellon Holmes, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe and other Kerouac novels. Allen Ginsberg, the late American poet and social activist, referred to Cassady as the "secret hero of these poems." A Grateful Dead song, "The Other One," contains the lines:

The bus came by and I got on, and that’s when it all began

There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to Neverneverland

The bus referred to, of course, is the school bus covered with psychedelic paintings which novelist Ken Kesey and a group of friends, with Neal at the wheel, drove around America. The name of the bus was "Further."

Kesey wrote two distinguished novels well worth reading, "One Flew Over The Coocoo’s Nest" and "Sometimes A Great Notion." The latter is a stunning demonstration of Kesey’s mastery of language and the writer’s craft, and it would be my nomination for the great American novel.

He also wrote quite a lot of interesting bits and pieces that add up to literary and cultural memorabilia for veterans and scholars of the psychedelic experience. He also wrote a less well crafted, trippy allegorical novel, "Sailor Song." It’s good reading, but one reading suffices.

Kesey borrowed heavily and successfully from Kerouac in both life and writing style. He even borrowed Cassady to drive Further around the country, a flesh and blood and action symbol that, taken in context of Kesey and Kerouac’s places in American literature and what they represent to the culture, is too apparent to pass by.

Mainstream American culture and media tend to view people like Kerouac, Cassady and Kesey as rebellious mavericks in conflict with the prevailing values of civilized life. There is a shallow truth to this perspective, but at a deeper level they have much in common with such Americans as Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in that they were highly intelligent people who cherished freedom above security, and they could both think and articulate their thoughts with clarity and style.

They all were unafraid to walk the walk their talk set out for them, and that walk is at the core of what we mean by the word ‘freedom.’

There is always the impetus to security, and the impetus to freedom. There is all too much emphasis on security in America without enough warning that selling out freedoms for the sake of security is, in the end, a bad bargain. This is especially so in the case of economic security in whose name the environment of the world is being destroyed.

That dog I saw tied to a tree was secure, but his security is a bad bargain and his cries are to be heeded.

Kerouac drank himself to death at the age of 47 in 1969. Cassady speeded himself to death at the age of 42 in 1968. Ken Kesey is still with us, holed up on an Oregon farm, making a few public appearances from time to time, and working, one hopes, on something of the standard of "Sometimes A Great Notion."

Each of them pursued their own concept of the American dream of freedom with a verve and panache that would serve any of us well. I’m grateful to them for their work and for their example.

And I’m glad I saw that dog tied to the tree. May his cries be heeded.

 

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