From Jack Kerouac’s Benzedrine benders to Allen Ginsberg’s sexual subversion, the Beatniks radically changed American literature and culture in the mid 20th century, turning post-war America from what they believed was a culture restrained by antiseptic propriety to one that contemplated the defiance of taboos and censorship. While these two figures are most notable for their prolific writing careers, they were inspired by an éminence grise, a man too busy living the life that Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote about to write about it himself — Neal Cassady.
The Beats were transient after meeting in New York City and substantially launching the movement in San Francisco, but Cassady made his home in Denver, which was a mountainous desert compared with the booming post-war coastal cities. Cassady appears in several of Kerouac’s works as a character with a pseudonym, but a few of his biggest fans in Denver feel that he’s been lost, relegated to the footnotes of history, where he’s cast as a mere Beatnik groupie. They want to present the city of Denver with a gift to educate locals and visitors on the impactful American figure who spent much of his life in their city.
Mark Bliesener is one of the Denverites behind the effort to build a statue of Neal Cassady and gift it to the city. When speaking with Bliesener, I immediately gather from the elation and energy in his voice that this initiative isn’t just a professional project for him. After traveling the world, he’s met countless foreigners who, on learning that he’s from Denver, react with awe and fascination, immediately associating the city with Cassady. He realized that non-Americans viewed Cassady as a patently American icon but that many Coloradans didn’t. After these experiences, the project idea became a personal one, too. He even started the annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash a decade ago in honor of the famed Beatnik.
“What Neal brought to everything was an unbridled sense of freedom,” Bliesener says. “It’s time to finally honor this guy, especially when there are so many people trying to find cool and trying to manufacture it, whether it’s a kale smoothie or whatever else is new, but we have this incredibly cool character who’s a denizen of western America, and I feel he should be honored.”
Cassady moved to Denver at a young age with his father, an itinerant barber, and ended up not graduating high school — he was almost entirely self-educated. He met a few Denver natives who later went to Columbia University on the GI bill after serving in the Second World War, and Cassady kept in contact with them, sending them letters that would reach over a dozen pages in length, entirely in his prosaic, stream-of-conscious style that was unheard of at the time. His friends passed the letters around, impressed and intrigued by the man writing them, and soon enough, Cassady would visit them in New York City. Cassady was the catalyst for an iconoclastic literary movement.
People “might think that New York City had the most impact, but there was impactful stuff happening in Denver even though it was a cow town when Cassady was growing up,” Bliesener remarks. “When Kerouac and Ginsberg came out to visit Denver, they were enthralled with Neal’s lifestyle and the West. New York City was the capital of the universe, the modern art world was exploding there, and they still chose to come to Denver, which was the boonies at that point. What they wanted was Neal.”
Kerouac’s writing style, Bliesener says, was largely inspired by Cassady — his seminal work On the Road was informed by Cassady’s writing style and in his irreverent, free-wheeling spirit. He calls Neal the “original Beat writer.”
Sutton Betti is the sculptor tasked with creating the physical project — he says it would be life-sized, featuring both Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac embracing, based off the famous photo taken by Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s wife, and cast in bronze. Betti and Bliesener want it to be interactive, or “instagrammable,” as the latter describes it. The hope is that making the sculpture approachable will be conducive to reviving the spirit of Cassady in Denver — an “optimistic big-sky attitude,” as he calls it, that’s quintessentially American.
Betti’s work, mostly of military and historical figures, is featured across the country. The Neal Cassady project, however, allows him to channel his interest in the 1950s and ’60s into a project of his. “I’m interested in honoring and remembering historical figures that were larger than life,” he tells me. “Although I didn’t personally know Jack or Neal, I’m confident that the sculpture will convey elements of their personality and will be immediately recognized as a tribute to the pioneers of the Beat Generation. There’s no other place besides Denver that this could go.”
Currently, the directors of the project are uncertain as to when it’ll get its wheels turning — first, they need the funding from those willing to donate. Then, they’ll need to find a place in Denver to put it. Betti and Bleisener add that it’ll likely take a while — perhaps over year — once everything is said and done, but they’re committed to the project and are confident that they’ll bring Cassady to Colorado.
While Cassady’s life was certainly marked by his debauchery, which consumed his time so much that he never was able to finish writing any cohesive, published books, his magnetism created Lewis and Clarks out of East Coast Beatniks who found their muse in the endless possibilities of the trans-American road. “To know the future, you have to know the past,” Bliesener says. And in Denver, a city that’s become obsessed with the next trend, honoring the American icon who is Neal Cassady could be a testament of the city’s rootedness in a “cool” that’s timeless.