I’m reading a biography of Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel ON THE ROAD. It’s called NEAL CASSADY The Fast Life of a Beat Hero by David Sandison and Graham Vickers.
There are details in it I hadn’t read anywhere before. Which is partly why I’m reading it, for those tiny satisfactions. But even if every detail in it were ones I already knew, I’d read it anyway. There are just some lives I am perennially interested in no matter how much I already know, or how repetitive the details. Why that is, is a mystery to me.
In Cassady’s case there’s some identification with his Irish ancestry, his spontaneously combustible personality, his compulsions and strivings, his wheelman skills and speed, his wandering-jones and speed-talker sex-obsessed street-philosopher energy.
Once, over breakfast in his apartment kitchen on the Lower East Side, Cassady’s part-time lover and old friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, told me I reminded him of Cassady, and all I could think of at the time, in my ego-centric cocky thirties, was fuck that diamond-in-the-rough comparison—which I’d been getting all my life—because I thought I was more like Kerouac, the ethnic Catholic mystic romantic wordsmith poet.
But even before Ginsberg told me that, I had read a lot about Cassady. And he’s not the only one. Certain people’s lives have fascinated me, right from the first time my oldest brother, a Franciscan friar, gave me a book when I was a kid on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.
But this “obsession” isn’t a general taste for biographies and autobiographies and memoirs, because only some lives keep me coming back for more.
For instance, I love Van Morrison, I never heard a recording he made that I didn’t dig. But I have no interest in his life at all. Whereas John Lennon—whose music I also love completely, with or without the Beatles—his life interests me infinitely.
It doesn’t matter if the bios or memoirs are accurate or poorly written or go against everything I believe that makes that life interesting to me, I still read it.
Here’s a list of people, about whose lives I read everything I can find:
Walt Whitman—I have read every biography or book published about him that I ever ran across in my lifetime. I always have a biography of him next to my bed, and no matter how many times I read the basic facts, the outline of his life, and whatever new take or angle or details the latest bio has, I find myself engrossed in his life again. I’m always rereading his collected poems and prose as well
Eva Hesse—the artist, whose work has been from the first time I saw it, among the art I cherish most, even if, for those who know her work, “cherish” seems like an odd choice of words
Lee Miller, the model and photographer and journalist whose work I dig and whose life continues to fascinate me
William Saroyan—the novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, playwright
Martha Gellhorn—novelist and war correspondent
Jean Rhys—novelist and short story writer
Brendan Behan—the Irish playwright and memoirist
William Carlos Williams—the doctor-poet, who also wrote fiction and memoirs
Henry Roth—whose novels barely fictionalized his life, a life that continues to engage me on every level
Blaise Cendrars—the French poet-adventurer and memoirist
Rainer Maria Rilke—the poet and fiction writer and diarist who was born in Prague and wrote in German but did not consider himself “German” or “Austrian” or anything other than an “artist”
Frank O’Hara—the Irish-American legend of "The New York School of Poetry"
Irene Nemirovsky—a recent addition after her WWII novels were discovered and published in the original French only a few years ago, and in English last year as SUITE FRANCAISE
David Smith—the sculptor
and my own, obviously