Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Heart Beat

I just finished reading Carolyn Cassady’s first memoir, Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal, which is undeniably trashy. It seems appropriate that the book was turned into a movie starring Nick Nolte, John Heard, and Sissy Spacek. I only found out about the movie because the cover of the Pocket Books edition that I read, courtesy of Tufts University Library, features pictures of the three actors and the typical “Now a major motion picture” tagline. It was not on my agenda to investigate movies (or video recordings of poetry readings, speeches, etc.) as a type of source for this project, so I’ll obviously have to remedy that. Heart Beat is about the love affair between Jack Kerouac and Carolyn Cassady during the period in which Kerouac lived with the Cassady family in San Francisco (1951-1953?). Carolyn Cassady builds a loving portrait of Kerouac through some sweet and funny episodes without delving into any real emotional territory. In the end, her observations just lack self-awareness and insight. So I’ll be interested to tackle her second memoir, Off the Road, published a full fourteen years later (1990), to see if time and distance produce a more balanced and deeper account of the time. From what I can tell, the entire text of Heart Beat makes up a few chapters in Off the Road, with some revisions. In fact, the copyright page of Heart Beat refers to that book as a work-in-progress tentatively entitled The Third Word. I am guessing that The Third Word became Off the Road, but I can’t be certain just yet.

To give Carolyn Cassady credit: while Heart Beat lacks a feminist awareness, she does offer a perceptive take on masculinity near the end of the book. Speaking of Jack Kerouac:

"I'd never known a man with such a tender heart, so much sweetness...Sometimes he put on a show of bravado and coarseness, and it never failed to embarrass me, it was so obviously phony. Like On the Road: that wasn't Jack, just an imitation based on Neal's behavior. I remembered in the beginning when I first met him how he used to brag about getting into fist fights if some guy cast aspersions on his toughness...But I had to admit that was the type society presented as the criterion of a "real" man. Of course, he had to be drunk to act that way, which was probably why he was never far from a bottle of wine." (pp. 117-118).

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