“One and Only: The Untold Story of ‘On The Road’”
by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos
Cultural and literary studies of the 1950s tend to focus on two things: conformity, and its breakdown. Which is really one thing, of course, in different phases. Along with Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley, in the ethnocentric, superficial examination of this cultural stasis that everybody was supposed to be frozen in, the Beat writers and poets are generally credited with shaking the citizenry loose and leading them to the cultural revolution of the Sixties. That’s too shallow, too convenient and too easily-rubbished a theory, but I’m happy to go with it when I’m not feeling pedantic and ready for an argument.
For a long time, how you felt about cultural revolution defined how you felt about the Beats, at least if you were a casual reader or an interested but unaffiliated poet/ novelist in your own right. If you liked rock and roll, cars, drugs, hair, peace and sex – if you were sceptical towards institutional authority – you probably liked the Beats. And if you didn’t like those things, you probably hated the Beats. From the start the Academics had their own snobbish put-down agenda, based on who knows what (the sheer impudence?) and most of the hoary young-old bastards still do. It must drive them nuts that nobody except other Academics or people who wanted to be Academics ever listened to them. You can, after all, get a copy of “On The Road” in almost any decent-sized bookshop in the Western world (not that that’s much of a measure of quality, when I think about it).
But since the Seventies a type of criticism has been developing that Beat aficionados can’t ignore, and that’s the one analysing Beat writing and culture as rooted in deliberate or inadvertent misogyny. The university in my own town, Northampton, teaches to this day that Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, in the journeys back and forth across America that make up the narrative of “On The Road”, were partaking of a freedom that the women of the time couldn’t; any woman who accompanied them – like Lu Anne Henderson - was brought along as some sort of victim of their terrible sexual machinations, and would be maligned by society as a teenage whore. Jack’s was a boy gang, as the blurb for Joyce Johnson’s 1983 memoir about, among other things, her time as Kerouac’s girlfriend. Women were minor characters at best.
“One and Only: The Untold Story of ‘On The Road’” is a very important book, in that it turns the current critical wisdom about the role of women and the Beat Generation upside down by presenting, at length, the largely unmediated testimony of the one woman who hasn’t really been heard, and – you might argue – the one woman who really saw the Beats up close. The woman is Lu Anne Henderson herself, known to all who’ve read “On The Road” as Dean’s “beautiful little sharp chick Marylou” (Kerouac 4). Lu Anne, who’d been Cassady’s wife and travelled by car and bus across country with him in 1946 when he was heading for New York to fulfil his dream of going to Columbia and learning how to write. Lu Anne, who’d met Kerouac and helped Neal and the reticent Jack form a friendship that would ultimately give birth to the novel. Lu Anne, who in 1948, despite their annulment and Neal’s marriage to Carolyn Robinson, travelled back across
with Cassady and then Kerouac at a later stage of the journey. Lu Anne, who smoked opium with Cassady, Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to celebrate New Year’s Eve 1948 and then went with Jack and Neal to America to take their friend Helen Hinkle away from the house of William S. Burroughs, where she’d been living on the charity of the man who’d write “Naked Lunch” one day and had finally outstayed her welcome. Algiers, Louisiana
I could go on for three more paragraphs about Lu Anne’s counter-cultural adventures, as described so beautifully in her own words in the book from the transcriptions of two interviews Gerald Nicosia did with her in 1978 when he was researching his monumental Kerouac biography Memory Babe; but I think the point is well made. Lu Anne didn’t stay at home in a nice little suburban house venturing out only for Tupperware parties and baby showers and making sure that her husband always had his dinner on the table when he came home from work. That’s one of those Time magazine clichés about Fifties womanhood that have taken hold in the minds of Academics because in the postmodernist age intellectuals can’t tell the difference between the real world and media representations of it. Lu Anne didn’t stay home when her old man, or someone else’s old man, took off across country for a trip either. She went with him. It’s like she says on page 122 of the book: I went on that trip solely as an adventure. […] I loved to go anyway; I was always ready. I was like Neal in that respect – it didn't take very much to move me.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how inconvenient a view that is of a woman when there are still, thankfully, a few people left in the world who admire such carefree behaviour in a man. Why do male and female commentators (feminist writers have charged the Beats with misogyny for years) prefer to think that the women who travelled and the women who stayed at home in their phoney historical construct weren’t equally responsible for their own decisions? Lu Anne is clear throughout the transcript that she was responsible for hers at every point along the wild, dangerous, thrilling road she travelled. She wasn’t manipulated by anybody; she didn’t miss out on anything – except perhaps the intimate love she might have shared with Jack and Neal at different times, although she saw deeply enough into the souls of both to understand why it never happened – and she definitely wasn’t the loose-moraled “slob” she felt she had been portrayed as by Carolyn Cassady in her book “Off The Road” and in the movie “Heart Beat”. What was so wrong with three people who loved each other sharing a bed at the same time? Lu Anne asks in “One and Only” ( Heart Beat, a rather average movie as I remember, shows Carolyn discovering Lu Anne in bed with Neal and Allen Ginsberg.) Indeed, what is wrong with that? I wouldn’t want to do it myself, but what?
The majority of the narrative in Lu Anne’s interview recalls in detail the same events Kerouac describes it “On The Road”. It’s like the same novel, but from the point of view of Marylou; and she is a wonderful storyteller, with a memory for detail and a gift for the evocation of scene that might have made her a great novelist, if she’d ever attempted to tell her story on the printed page. But we have her great gift memorialised now, thanks to Nicosia, and the form in which it’s presented to us and to Time (that of the interview instead of the novel) doesn’t matter; gas station attendants can be poets, as Bob Dylan says. Or was that farmers?
Later sections of the interview reflect on the precipitate decline of Kerouac when fame arrived – too late for a man already exhausted and disappointed by life, she says. Lu Anne privileges us also with a last glimpse of a weary Neal, with whom she had maintained irregular contact right to the end, heading down to
on that last, fateful trip. “Where do we go from here, babe?” Neal asks her ( Mexico in Henderson 157). It was clear that the answer, for Neal, was nowhere. The railroad tracks in San Miguel de Allende, and a lonely death from exposure, awaited. Nicosia
“One and Only” concludes with an unsent letter from Lu Anne to Neal, dated 1957, a consideration of her role as an important facilitator of the Beat movement, a biographical section about Al Hinkle, Ed Dunkel in “On The Road” and lifelong friend to Lu Anne, and lastly, a lovely, intimate and very moving 31 page account of her mother’s life by Lu Anne’s daughter Anne Marie Santos. I don’t know whether it was the cumulative impact of the book, or just the post-Christmas mood I was in, or whether Anne Marie’s story had got me thinking unconsciously about my own mother, also gone now and dearly loved, but by the time I reached the last page of her account I was in such a state of heightened emotion I cried. I genuinely can’t think of the last time I cried at a book, other than in the case of Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho”,when I cried in anguish because it was so boring.
My feelings about “One and Only” should be clear by now, after the long weeks we’ve shared together dissecting it. I think it’s a beautifully conceived, edited, and written book, and for the reasons I’ve already outlined, I’m convinced it is the most important addition to Beat scholarship since
’s “Memory Babe”. Bookshops may not carry it so you could find yourself doing a little work to track it down, but it’s worth it. Failing anything else, or perhaps as your first stop, try visiting the publisher’s website at http://www.vivaeditions.com/. Then come back to BEATNIK and let me know what you think. Nicosia
Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters.
: Picador, 1983. London
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road.
: Andre Deutsch, 1973. London