Closing in on her 88th year, Carolyn Cassady is still gracefully full-speed ahead. The wife of Neal Cassady, one-time lover and confidant of Jack Kerouac, and a somewhat reluctant Beat Generation icon herself, she’s recently returned to her home in England after a whirlwind trip to the U.S. for the production wrap-up of Walter Salles’ new film version of Kerouac’s masterpiece “On the Road,” in which she is portrayed by actress Kirsten Dunst. Her daily duties include sheaves of mail in need of reply, books to sign (her own “Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg,” a treasure in itself), the occasional visiting rock star, and interviews to grant and subsequently deliver. It isn’t odd for the BBC to call or knock requesting a quote or access to the private mementos of her storied past.
A decade after I did my undergraduate work at Marlboro College on Beat Generation writers, with focus on the women, Carolyn and I became friends through correspondence. And as one might assume a fan would, I’ve peppered her with whatever questions cross my mind. Many times, she’ll implore me back to her book. “Didn’t I cover that in ‘Off the Road’?” And of course many times I find she has, to my chagrin. But she is always welcoming, reminding me that a simple sign in her kitchen reads “Ask Carolyn.” So I do.
I’ve come to also relish the questions she asks me because I learn something of her even by the reversal of our typical pattern of inquiry. Recently, we revisited my career with NewsBank. I’d glossed over that topic in the early days of our chats, explaining I work not as a journalist but rather as a writer of teaching activity-plans based on current news and historical events. This time around however, I expanded upon the details of NewsBank’s Readex division: how we not only preserve historical newspaper archives through the digitization process, but also make said archives more easily retrievable through a search-interface. She thought that was interesting, or at least feigned so out of politeness. Whether her interest was authentic or not, I began to wonder about her ideas on newspapers, past and present. So yet again, I asked Carolyn.