EXCERPT

‘The Greatest Piece of Writing I Ever Saw’

Pages of Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter.”
Emory University
Pages of Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter.”
Jack Kerouac called Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter” “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw.”

Jack Kerouac called Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter” “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw.” Written in 1950, it became the inspiration for “On The Road.” One highlight of the letter was a colorful account of a wild afternoon in a Denver flophouse in December 1945. Cassady was staying there with his girlfriend, Joan Anderson, and her friend Mary Lou, who had picked up a sailor as a lover. Feeling pressured by the relationship with Joan, Cassady impulsively decided to break things off. But when he broke the news to her, she didn’t take it well, to say the least.

I called my love aside and out of the blue told her I’d been thinking it over and maybe it would be better if she went to Fort Collins alone when the rent came due tomorrow. Straight off her complection (sic) changed, pale lips quivered, then grimaced as tears sprung. From out incredulous eyes came stricken disbelief.

I decided to take a bath. I had barely gotten in the hot tub when Mary Lou stormed along the short hallway and pounded on the bathroom door, yelling to be let in at once. I opened to her and without preamble she tore into me at a furious rate. “Joan just told me you were leaving her and she’s sittin’ in there crying fit to die. You son-of-a-bitch. I knew you had a dirty look in your eye when you called her out in the hall. You goddamn bastard, get up out of that tub and go in there and tell her you didn’t mean it, you lousy cock-sucking prick, or else I’ll beat the shit out of you, and if I can’t do it I’ll get my boyfriend in there to help me and we’ll pound your face in together, you motherfuckin’ cheapskate.”

She went on and on, getting hotter every minute and coming up with a really fine collection of words, a string of names for me poured from her angry red mouth that still tingle the brain. … She pounced on me. Standing in the slippery tub, I had difficulty holding her off right away. As she scratched my nude body while struggling to get her hands free from my grip, I kept worrying that she would take it in her head to give me the knee. … Finally she tired and I said I’d let her go if she promised to sit down and talk sensibly. …

Well, you can wager your ass I talked fast. I cloud (that’s a quaint misspelling) could could could see my ittzy-bittzy lovespat might begin to assume monsterous (sic) proportions, not only would M.L. and her sailorboy be happy to give me a workingover, but it could even happen that I’d be kicked out in the cold Denver night. Foolish boy that I was, these were the simple fears in my mind as I dressed and returned to the room with Mary Lou to put out the fire. Little did I guess that the night was to gallop from this small flareup onward until at the darkest hour we would all be engulfed in hellfire and when dim dawn first declared itself, singed (I say, bud, that’s singe with a d, you understand) to doom, I was to be scourged by nightmares of my clinker soul.

Joan seemed too easy to placate. I was suspicious and tho nothing but romance had passed between us before, thus giving me no previous ground upon which to base a judgement of her natural reaction to harshness, my rebuttal had hurt her too much for the present calm to be genuine. Before I began blurting a mealy-mouthed apology, before, in fact, I had hardly open my blubber-blabbers she stopped me with, “it’s alright, honey, I’ve forgotten everything already.” I did, however, mumble through [a]nice cozy job of “forgive me.” The whole thing was too easy, as I said, and being leery of her quietude, I felt further explosions beneath her outward composure. …

Joan urged me to go back and finish my bath and I did. While washing I realized even more fully how I’d put my foot in it and dreaded to face her when I returned to the room. But she came to face me, that is, as I was dressing after the bath she knocked on the door. Her haggard features were in strained repose as she entered and I saw that she was about to break down again. She began quietly enough, asking what I was going to do now and if I’d come to Fort Collins and see her sometime. I protested that I’d go there with her, or whatever she wanted, but it was no good, she read the lie in my eye. Slowly she wept, deeply she wept, long lashes could not contain the eyes’ lament. Even were I nice enough to stay with her, she told me, she knew why I didn’t love her. I was too good for her and she wasn’t good enough for me. …

I was stunned, even shocked! I knew she must be joshing, but I saw no joke in her eye. “What?” I said, “you’re kidding, you don’t know what you’re saying, I’m a full bastard not a half-breed. Where are your eyes? your mind? can’t you guess what a filthy rat I am? Don’t be silly, look at yourself, you’re wonderful, perfect and so good it amounts to dumbness. Stop this hogwash, sheer nonsense, why, a hundred of you couldn’t hold a candle to my evil.”

You get the idea, Jackieboy, I put it on thick because I was really surprised. It all did no good, she clung with stubborn perversity to the “no good” theme in one form or the other. Becoming more deadly serious, as more than an hour steamed by in that overheated bath, her intensity at last gave me the clue for which I had been groping since she’d first uttered that emotionbacked statement. I’d obviously disregarded all preceding hints by her embarrassed and retiring manner as simply the ordinary guilt suffered by an introverted girl experiencing her first wrong. …

As she droned on, almost oblivious to me now, I stared into her soul. My Joan would never know peace again, the germ of the present insurmountable preoccupation with self-debasement planted in her by unwitting parents had blossomed into the bloom that splits the mind. I bemoaned the loss of this child.

Abruptly, Joan said, “I love you, Neal, goodbye” and dashed out the bathrm. I stayed in my stooled position, cramped with a vision of unnecessary waste. Absorbed in vacantheaded digestion of the sad sickness in her mind, I failed, at first, to hear the scream. Then I heard two anguished wails, “Neal, Neal.” I jumped up and opened the door with real terror encased in my bowels.

It was Mary Lou, tears gushing down her cherry chipmunk cheeks smeared her horribly thick face powder. I saw the ghastly stain of death shoot out from stricken sockets, puffed lids enclosed beady eyes of accusation. “What have you done to her? Why did you do it? What did you say, what did you say?” She raved on, standing there in the hall, her unbelievably blownup face now bent into the quivering palms of dirtblack hands. She was all in a lump and slobbering in hysterical panic. … For a minute or two I [was] able to get no coherency from her, she threw herself on the filthy floor carpet all in pieces. As I dropped her and started for the room she rose up to screech, “She’s dead, she’s dead, and you killed her,” then fell back to her sobbing.

I didn’t hurry, there seemed no need to. Walking the short corridor my thought was, “why aren’t there any people? With all this noise there should be heads out every door making a hellofa racket themselves just finding out what the fuss is about.”

So Joan has killed herself; I opened the door calmly. There was the sailor, leaning out the window, breathing hard. No words were spoken, I started toward him and then saw he had Joan’s feet in his hands. I hurried to help and together we pulled her back into the room, her dress was over her head and I looked at her damp crotch, so dark and tempting, as I tugged on her delicious legs. The sailor stared, too, but was somewhat embarrassed I do believe. We laid her on the bed and smoothed her garments. Green foam was on her lips, her eyes were closed, she was lying motionless.

Now, as I told you earlier, Mr. JLK, the blonde Mary Lou was that way only by regular dousing with bleach. The sailor (no name) said that my raven-haired Joan, really most deeply black, had come into the room and evidenced an interest in MLB’s bleach bottles, reading the labels, asking if they were indeed poisonous, etc. There were two bottles, one, hydrogen peroxide, and the other, spirits of Ammonia. They both, naturally, were ones of danger, and altho she gulped of both bottles, she drank mostly of the Ammonia.

Gasping from the effects of her stark cocktail, and already vomiting out her stomach’s contents, she pretended to let the sailor and Mary Lou help her. As soon as Joan was seated Mary Lou had rushed out to announce her death. Taking advantage of this momentary diverting of the sailor’s attention, Joan had jumped up and scrambled for the window determined to throw herself out. Needless to say the sailor seized her number sevens, lucky size, as they were disappearing from view and managed to hold on until I arrived. By the narrowest of margins he had saved her, by the merest of coincidences he was in the room at all, and now by the slightest of signs I watched her return to life. She stirred, moaned, and was soon puking again, all over the bed, herself and the floor. …

Joan was very sick; the weak angel muttered constantly and was not entirely conscious. We debated getting her to a hospital, but didn’t, we argued over giving her an antidote, but didn’t; we discussed how badly ammonia poisoning might affect one who had survived more than an hour and were optimistic that she had been regurgitating steadily. Never having heard of anyone dying from consuming “more than half a qt. bottle” (as Mary claimed) of spirits of A., I talked us all into a more hopeful idea that she would just be sickashell for a while; placing much emphasis on the fine puke job Joan was doing.

So happy did they become, except, of course, my stupored Joan, that the quiet sailor said he may as well go out and get another bottle of whiskey. … This was my best chance of breaking away from the hasslebeat Mary Lou. I reasoned Joan wouldn’t be good for anything the rest of the night and if I felt it was necessary I could always come back later to help her get treatment at DGHosp. So I told the sailor I’d accompany him on his errand, since I needed some air. He said OK, Mary Lou didn’t seem to mind, and so I left my limp lover laid low.