Speeding Toward Death
Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker, and Escape in the 1950s
© 1998, Jennifer Hartt
Leave it to Beaver. McDonald's. Automated dishwashers. Levittown.
Heroin. Bebop. Speed. Madness. Freedom.
A movement arose among the artists of 1950s America as a reaction to the
time's prevailing conformity and affluence whose members attempted to extract
all they could from life, often in a strikingly self-destructive way.
Specifically, the Beat writers and jazz musicians of the era found escape from
society in drugs and fast living. But what exactly led so many to this
dangerous path? Why did they choose drugs and speed to implement their
rebellion? A preliminary look at the contradictions that prevailed in 1950s
American society may give some insight into these artists' world.
At the end of World War II, American culture experienced an overhaul that
ushered in a period of complacency beneath which paranoia seethed. A generation
that had lived through the privations of the Depression and the horrors of
world war was now presented with large suburban homes, convenient and
impressive appliances, and pre-packaged entertainment. Such wonders so soon
after extended hard times were greeted enthusiastically and even treated with a
sense of awe. They may have encouraged few distinctions among the middle class
-- the houses in a suburb were generally as identical as hamburgers at
McDonald's -- but they represented a wealth to which few had before enjoyed
access. Life became automated, with dishwashers cleaning up after dinner and
air conditioning easing mid-summer heat. The new conveniences left more time
for families to absorb the new mass culture presented through television,
records, and Spillane novels. Excitement over the new conveniences and
entertainment led America to increasingly become an acquiring society. To my
parents' generation, childhood in the 50s was a time when people were generally
pleased with themselves and with the status quo, though there was a perpetual
desire to possess a bit more. Like the wife in The Man in the Gray Flannel
Suit, suburbanites always wanted a larger house, a larger car, and a better
refrigerator, constantly aspiring to even greater material wealth. Times were
conducive to materialism and few seemed eager to change anything about their
society. As Halberstam pointed out, it could be dangerous to alter a system
that was "working so well" (xi).
Fear of change, as well as fear of a sudden atomic death, led to anxiety
within the superficially satisfied culture. This nebulous fear of change, which
needed to be directed at some enemy, found sanctuary in vehement anti-Communism
(McNally 95), most extremely manifested in Senator McCarthy's witch hunts in
the 1950s. Anxiety focused on Russia; as Allen Ginsberg facetiously wrote in
"America," "The Russia wants to eat us alive" (43). The Cold War indirectly
resulting from this anxiety brought with it the constant threat of
annihilation. The fearsome power of nuclear weaponry had been demonstrated
against Japan and could at any time be turned against the United States, whose
citizens would then serve as sitting ducks for their own destruction. As
tensions mounted, preparations of sorts were made for nuclear war.
Schoolchildren crawled under their desks during air raids, probably knowing at
some level that they could not hide from a bomb. A shelter was set up in rural
West Virginia to which those deemed important to rebuilding the country
(including my grandfather, a Defense Department engineer) would be shuttled in
the event of nuclear war, leaving their families behind to die. Precautions
such as these and the corresponding paranoia of the time left many with a sense
of helplessness in regard to their futures. Some met this dismay by suppressing
it and focusing instead on the material aspects of life, while others faced it
more directly by trying to fully live, to experience all they could in what
little time might remain to them (Krim 203). It is these rebels with whom we
now concern ourselves.
The choice to reject an affluent society, especially one that seemed to have
forsaken common sense, was not a particularly difficult undertaking, especially
since spare time usually accompanies prosperity. In the 1950s, dissatisfied
young artists with time on their hands tended to see society's faults as
irreparable and consequently wanted simply to withdraw themselves from it
(Foster 90). Like James Dean in the movies, they were often "rebels without a
cause," seeking not to change the world but merely to free themselves from it
and simply be. The major movements in the arts of the time: bebop in jazz, the
Beat generation in literature, and abstract expressionism in visual art, all
served purposes related to this attitude by deviating from accepted methods of
artistic creation while asserting human individuality. Each focused on the
individual artist and his unique view of the world, yet rejected
tradition-mandated structure. The iconoclastic lifestyles of the artists
themselves also reflected this individuality. Two major figures of the time,
Charlie Parker and Neal Cassady, served as heroes to large factions of artists,
in part due to their self-directed and self-destructive lifestyles. Though they
were unique individuals whose life choices cannot be applied to those of an
artistic movement as a whole, their lifestyles were representative of the
attitudes of those movements. Much of what appealed to others about them can be
summarized in one word: speed.
Neal Cassady and the Cult of Speed
Neal Cassady did nothing slowly. Represented as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On
the Road, he possessed apparently boundless energy. Dean constantly
seemed to be doing everything at the same time. It was a shaking of the head,
up and down, sideways; jerky, vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing
the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands, rubbing his fly, hitching
his pants, looking up and saying 'Am,' and sudden slitting of the eyes to see
everywhere; and all the time he was grabbing me by the ribs and talking,
He drove like a madman from one coast to the other without rest, made love to
and married women right and left, and drank constantly. The majority of this
portrayal was apparently accurate; Cassady's life did indeed adhere to the
extremes of Dean's. Raised by an alcoholic father for whom he repeatedly
pleaded in court, he lived with his father and a legless man called Shorty in a
hotel and ate at the local mission (McNally 91). By the age of 21, his life of
sex and speed was well underway: he had stolen over 500 cars, had been arrested
ten times (a rather low ratio considering his many thefts), and had seduced
innumerable women (McNally 91). His frantic, sometimes only thinly-masked
suicidal search for experience probably stemmed from his bleak upbringing and
the self-hatred it had presumably ingrained into him. After a childhood
decidedly lacking in love and hope, he may have lost regard for himself and
hoped his energy could, by leading him to something worthwhile he failed to see
in himself, save him from living a degenerate lifestyle like that of his
To Cassady himself, the frantic pace of his life was a search for escape from
the horrors within and without, yet to many of those who knew him, his life
represented much more. Kerouac and many other Beats treated him as a hero, as a
saintly figure who embodied the antithesis of American society. To be sure, he
rejected all of America's expectations of its youth, including those of steady
employment, monogamous marriage, a college education, and submission to the
law. In accordance with these life choices, he could be said to serve as a pure
representation of the id in a culture based on the controlling superego
(Hoffman 493). Cassady acted mainly to satisfy his basic physical drives with
little regard to the consequences ("Dean just raced in society, eager for bread
and love" (Kerouac 10)), while society mandated above all else self-control.
Though a fully-functional superego (or conscience) prevented most others from
following his lead, Cassady's complete surrender to the demands of the id
displayed the freedom for which they yearned. Freud warned against the dangers
of an unchecked id and its tendency to lead to "impulsive and often dangerous"
actions (Comer 55), but these actions were exactly what the bored Beats most
craved. It appeared to them that Cassady had completely freed himself, not
merely from the confines of society, but even from those of his own
subconscious. The reason he and few others could act this way may have
originated in his unique upbringing. Deviations from the normal id/ego/superego
system of checks and balances are usually traced to improper parenting and
stressful childhood experiences, through which Cassady surely suffered.
Accordingly, his id took over, and since he could not control it, he went along
with it and sought to experience as much as he could through its dictates,
concurrently "trying to run [his life] out as fast as possible" (Knight 59).
Deprived of meaningful positive experience during his most vulnerable years, he
seemed to hope to find something that would make his life worthwhile, or die
trying. He lived, according to John Sisk, "convinced that if he [went] fast
enough and [had] enough violent experiences the great ultimate secret [would]
be laid bare to him" (Parkinson 200). Those who placed him on a pedestal seemed
to believe that his speed would indeed lead to that "ultimate secret," whatever
and wherever it might be, and that knowledge of that secret would allow them to
derive true happiness from oppressive times. However, since the nature of this
all-important secret remained unclear, the speed of Cassady and those who
emulated him had little direction, causing them to resemble "rabbits by an
airfield, ... blinded by noise and light, ...more concerned with running than
getting anywhere" (Rigney 155). One can easily imagine these rabbits scurrying
in all directions, driven by some unnamed fear, eventually either collapsing in
exhaustion or running too far and meeting horrible ends amongst the machinery
of the airfield. Such a horrible end came to Bill Cannastra, an acquaintance of
the Beats who somehow managed to live life even faster than did Cassady. A
legend among the Beats for his outrageous activities, he died by climbing
partway out of a subway window as the train left the station and quickly became
a symbol of "the extremes to which conformist America drove the rebellious
individual" (Foster 10). Though the rabbit analogy is a less than complimentary
one, it concisely describes the pointlessness and eventual destructiveness
evident in the pursuit of speed. If Cassady or any others like him had been
asked to name their ultimate goal in living as they did, it is likely they
would have failed to answer; they knew only that their "one and noble function
of the time [was to] move" (Kerouac 133). Kerouac postulated in On the Road
that what they really searched for was death. He explained that "the one thing
we yearn for in our living days ... is the remembrance of some lost bliss that
was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate
to admit it) in death" (124). When Sal explained this to Dean, Dean recognized
the desire for death but refused to have anything to do with it and continued
to speed ahead and dare death without admitting he was doing so.
This unconscious search for death within a conscious search for experience led
naturally to the use of amphetamines. When using various forms of speed,
particularly Benzedrine, the Beats could forego sleep and food and devote 24
hours a day to their experiences. Driving all day and night or writing steadily
for days and nights on end, as Kerouac was known to do, became simple tasks
with these chemical aids. If the goal was to experience as much as possible,
amphetamines were a natural means to this end, since they allowed their users
to live even faster and thereby theoretically see and do twice as much as they
could sober. Other drugs also fit logically into the experience-seeking Beat
lifestyle, though not because they accelerated the pace of life.
If Cassady and others were searching for the one experience that would open
them to some greater truth, then "all varieties of experience -- all kinds of
sexual activity, drug addiction, criminality, depravity -- [were] equally
valuable" (Hynes 559), since anything could, unpredictably, be the key for
which they searched. Marijuana, peyote, and various other hallucinogenic
substances found common usage among the Beats, since they allowed their users
to undergo all varieties of abnormal experiences and thereby open their eyes to
previously-ignored pieces of the world. Marijuana was considered a means to
more intensely perceive the present (Foster 95) and thus to get more out of
each moment, while peyote, celebrated throughout Beat literature, caused
effects such as synaesthesia and was thought to provide special sorts of
insight into the world (Parkinson 155). This insight, in turn, found its way
into literature, especially that by those, like Philip Lamantia and Michael
McClure, who believed "true poetic effects [were] best achieved through an
'ecstatic illumination' induced by... 'the heroic medicines:' heroin, opium,
mescaline, marijuana, peyote" (O'Neil 123). Writing influenced by drug use was
therefore highly valued and this esteem for drugs encouraged others to follow
established writers down the path to complete, chemically-induced experience.
The complete man and artist, to the Beats, emitted an unchecked stream of
energy and art and possessed some deep insight into life gained through
experience. The energy necessary to obtain this understanding, all too often,
led one to effectively self-destruct.
Sidenote: Jack Kerouac, Outsider
Jack Kerouac, one of the foremost Beat writers, led the movement to idolize
Neal Cassady, yet could never capture his spirit himself. A strict Catholic
upbringing and constant failure to live up to the saintly standard set by his
brother Gerard, who died of rheumatic fever, fostered in the young Jack a sense
of discontent with himself that followed him into adulthood (McNally 15). He
held a deep belief that life itself was flawed, yet agonized over always
failing to fit into it (McNally 106). This outsider quality is clearly visible
in the Kerouac character, Sal Paradise, in On the Road, who refers in
frustration to the "raggedy madness and riot" of life (254). This chaos makes
Sal, "an imperfect man in an alien world, brooding, lonely, seized by moments
of self-hatred, ...want to withdraw from the world" (Tytell 314). Kerouac
effectively faced this desire for escape by living a life of extremes. He
either took no drugs or took them steadily and in excessive quantities, he
treated alcohol as an integral part of life, and he viewed the world only in
terms of extremes: everything was either "the greatest ever" or absolutely
horrifying (McNally 7, 128). Kerouac's self-hatred and dichotomous thinking
probably led him to deify Cassady, a living package of extremes, and to
actively, though somewhat subconsciously, seek to end his life. He finally met
this goal when his long alcohol use caused his liver to give out in 1969, when
he was only 47.
Charlie Parker and Hard Bop
Another idol of rebellious 1950s artists exhibited a sort of self-destructive
madness similar to that of the Beats. Charlie Parker, a brilliant and prolific
jazz improviser and equally prolific heroin user, served as a model to jazz
musicians in particular and escape-seeking young people in general. It has been
suggested, however, that Parker's more outrageous actions were more like those
of a spoiled child than of rebellion, basically due to his largely
supervision-free childhood (Koch 5). His father was usually absent even before
his parents divorced, and circumstances forced his mother to work much of the
day and night in order to provide for herself and her son. Parker therefore had
complete control over his time and became acquainted with the Kansas City jazz
scene at a very early age. He began taking drugs as an ignorant and curious boy
rather than as a consciously self-destructive man; as he himself said, he had
not been "mature enough to know what [was] happening" (Koch 13). Unfortunately,
by the time he began to fully understand his actions, he was hooked on heroin.
Heroin had become the drug of choice for many a jazz musician, mainly because
of its isolating effects. According to one musician of the time, heroin
replaced stage fright with daring and confidence, all the while providing a
calming sort of euphoria that helped turn one's attention inward (Courtwright
234). If heroin turned musicians more into themselves, it allowed for a more
direct focus on improvisation, which was necessarily an individual art and the
very soul of the jazz of the 1950s.
Though heroin was considered in many ways an asset to jazz, Parker learned
firsthand in the course of his long addiction of the problems that also tended
to accompany its use. He had an impressive tolerance for substances, yet still
experienced many negative physical effects, from falling asleep onstage to
suffering uncontrollable muscle spasms. As time progressed, the drug took its
toll on him socially and psychologically as well: he became violent and set at
least one fire, his marriages and musical groups broke up, and he lost much of
his ability to write music (Woideck 42, 175). He was diagnosed with
schizophrenia shortly before his death; whether this caused his
self-destructive behavior or was induced by long drug use may never be known.
Still, to an onlooker, he remained a fantastic musician, one surely worth
emulating. Younger musicians looking to establish themselves in the jazz world
often mimicked Parker's style, including his choice of drugs. They tended to
see him and other famous addicts, such as Billie Holiday, as unlike the
"average addict;" they were clean, employed, and respectable (Courtwright 67).
Believing that such reputable people wouldn't commonly choose something
completely detrimental, they often allowed curiosity to lead them to drugs
until they, too, were addicted. Interestingly enough, even as others respected
Parker's heroin addiction, he tried to escape it. Unfortunately, he repeatedly
turned to excessive alcohol use to alleviate his withdrawal symptoms and always
found his way back into heroin's embrace, leading to his death at the tender
age of 35. Perhaps, integrated as he was into jazz culture, the pressures of
fitting into the scene and more physical pressures combined to impel him to
continue his drug use and fast living. The "hard bop" of the postwar era was
associated with racial anger and overall intensity, and heroin was thought to
provide a musician with a greater drive, leading one man to say, "to be a real
solid jazz musician, you had to be into something, and whiskey wasn't it"
(Courtwright 238). The true severity of drug addiction was either unknown or
ignored (many believed cocaine was not addicting in the least) while
rebelliousness was valued far above health at any rate (Peretti 105). If heroin
use had become thoroughly tied to the type of music being created at the time,
Parker and others may have found it difficult to imagine a life in jazz without
Reasons for any particular individual's choice of a self-destructive lifestyle
can be found in a set of factors unique to that individual; however, the
general trend toward self-destructive behavior in the 1950s occurred due to the
interplay of many social factors common to the generation as a whole. Persons
most susceptible to their influence, for whatever personal reasons, then tended
toward a similar dangerous path. A number of theories have been advanced to
suggest causes of the phenomenon of fast living in the 1950s, and these
postulations are most likely only the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. The
ideas tend to fall under two general points of view. Individuals may have
followed self-destructive paths out of a deep-seated and oft-repressed desire
for death fostered by society and/or their own personal failings.
Alternatively, social conditions may have led them to seek experience with no
relation to death, but in such an extreme way that destruction was sometimes an
accompanying side effect.
The 1950s, as mentioned previously, were a decade of profound anxiety masked
by material excess. Those who recognized the underlying anxiety and saw that,
as Allen Ginsberg remarked, America was "having a nervous breakdown" (Parkinson
25) often reacted with an extreme sense of pessimism regarding the future.
William S. Burroughs, like many other artists of the time, sensed a "hideous
new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting,"
and felt that the symptoms of this sickness were the controlling,
individuality-destroying features of the era (Foster 161). In such a
disintegrating, even sick, society, with the constant threat of annihilation
looming over all, artistic creation could earn respect only if it showed enough
discernment to reject American culture. Obviously, few would look smilingly
upon art that celebrated collectiveness, uniformity, and mass destruction. In
my opinion, such support within artistic circles for pessimism may have
effectively brought the artists down with their art, leading to a prevalence of
depression and self-hatred in their personal as well as professional lives. Of
course, this is merely a chicken-and-egg sort of issue; whether the internal or
external pessimism came first, it surely appeared. Associated with this
pessimism was a rejection of nearly every integral part of American life. As
Hobsbawm explained, the hipster (whether white or black), "was beyond the law,
beyond human emotion, beyond ambition, and money, beyond good and evil; he was
against the white and black status quo... but he did not know what he was for"
(183). The hipster felt negatively about many aspects of the world but harbored
no positive feelings to balance things out; the result was a sort of nihilism
that could easily have led to oblivion-seeking in the form of substance abuse
or any other form of self-destruction. As Seymour Krim remarked, the 1950s were
the Age of Suicide (12). For those not prepared to directly act to end their
lives there were always drugs, which by providing oblivion from a world their
users found no place in approximated death. Lacking anything concrete to
believe in, the artists became mere shells of human beings, what Kenneth
Rexroth referred to as "the emptied-out hipster[s]," who had been "put through
the atom smasher" by the ruling generation, leaving them with only the despair
of shipwreck victims (Parkinson 193). This desperate mood can be clearly
observed in drug use and in the pointless, feverish flight of speed. People
following this course wanted nothing to do with life in American society;
perhaps, seeing no alternatives to this society, they wanted nothing to do with
The fast-moving 1950s artists may have sought not to end their lives but
instead to find meaning in those lives before external forces acted to end
them. Again, they may have seen nothing worth supporting in American society,
but they certainly hoped something out there could provide them with the
excitement they craved. Just as Dean Moriarty rejected Sal's idea that he
ultimately sought death, they may have sought sensations while denying the
possible consequences of their actions. As mentioned before, though some of the
medical disadvantages of heroin use were known, the respectable nature of many
addicts seemed for impressionable youth to negate the drug's dangers. In
addition, drugs like Benzedrine were available over the counter in neighborhood
drugstores and so were unlikely to be regarded as hazardous. Dangers from drugs
and other forms of speed may have simply been subordinated to the importance of
experience, especially when this experience allowed a man to get in touch with
himself (Tytell 313). As Van Den Haag said, in the conformist 1950s, "one [had]
to find some proof of one's own existence" (657). Since those who followed
self-destructive paths failed to find support in the rational, suspiciously
complacent society, they transcended rationality to search for the reality by
which they could define themselves. The threat of death was simply not a
Another possibility is that they recognized that death could result from their
fast lives and drug experimentation but felt that their quest for true life was
worth the risk. As John Clellon Holmes explained, many admired the lives and
deaths of those such as Charlie Parker and James Dean because these men "went
their own uncompromising way, ... celebrating whatever they could find to
celebrate, and then willingly paying the cost in self-destruction," yet were
not martyrs because a necessary risk of "going so fast, and so far, is death"
(Krim 23). Their lives may have been short, but they contained much of what the
typical 1950s "square" missed out on in his focus on material possessions and
conformity. It is also possible, in my opinion, that death had been trivialized
by the long World War II era and therefore seemed a less harsh price to pay
than it would have in a time more removed from war. In addition, if they
recognized the possibility, or even probability, of death due to nuclear war,
the artists may have hoped to make the most of whatever time they had left and
worried very little if their actions hastened their demises. Norman Mailer
described the hipster of the age as a man who knew he lived with the
opportunity to die, either suddenly by the atomic bomb or slowly by stifling
conformity, and could therefore survive only by accepting his impending death
and even using it to stimulate his actions, since "in motion a man has a
chance" (Hoffman 480). This motion is clearly evident in the appeal of the
road, of rootlessness, of daringly fast music, and of chemical stimulants.
Death constantly stalked the hipster and guided many of his actions but was not
chosen; it chose him.
In 1950s America, extreme conformity and material excess drove the artistic
factions of a generation down an unhealthy road. Dissatisfied with the lives
America offered them, they searched for experiences that could define the self
and free it from the confines of society. This sensation-seeking, an
easily-recognized "mark of an overcomfortable and sterile generation" (Ciardi
12), generally involved accelerating life to an unsafe pace, often through the
use and abuse of heroin, amphetamines, and other substances. It was the drug
addict who, according to Dan Wakefield, faced head-on the "deepest questions of
existence" (94), the questions that supporters of mainstream culture could not
begin to imagine. Escape from society, by flooring the gas or obtaining
chemical oblivion, gave the freedom necessary for meaningful artistic
experience and creation.
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