Searching for Neal Cassady in San Miguel de Allende

Travel Stories: Novelist Peter Ferry hunts down the ghost of the beatnik legend who inspired Kerouac, Ginsberg and so many others

05.06.10 | 10:48 AM ET

San Miguel de Allende (Eneas via Flickr, Creative Commons)

When I first get here, the only thing I know with certainty about Neal Cassady’s time in San Miguel de Allende is that he died ignominiously just outside of town in 1968. And although that tie is admittedly tenuous, it’s curious to me that people in this artists’ colony who are surely used to outcasts and iconoclasts seem reluctant to claim him. At least at first.

One local historian says that none of the many stories about Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso in San Miguel may be true. Another fails to show up for a luncheon date. And the chair person of the local literary sala suggests that we get together the next week, but never calls.

Then there is Suzanne Ludekens, the editor of the local expat paper. She is a tall, toothy, semi-glamorous Australian of Sri Lankan birth and Dutch heritage who is given to dramatic gestures. When I ask her about Cassady, she says that she knows nothing about “all of that,” that she pays no attention to “those things.” When she seems to know nothing about and pay no attention to anything else as well, I put my pen and notebook down. OK. Maybe there’s a kind of let’s-keep-Oregon-secret thing going on here. Is it that San Miguel doesn’t want publicity? “Oh my God, no! We need all the help we can get! The recession is killing San Miguel.”

When I point out that I’m offering some exposure, she continues to stonewall, but when she turns to her assistant and begins to speak sotto voce in Spanish, I almost burst out laughing and get up to leave. She catches me outside. “Go see Lou Christine,” she says. “He knows all about San Miguel’s literary history. He’s in the Berlin Bar every Thursday night after 9. He always wears a pork pie hat.”

Oh boy, this is getting to be fun, and Cassady would have liked that. He was a great lover of fun in addition to being perhaps the most important American literary figure who never wrote much of anything. In the 1950s he was the prototypical beatnik, the restless, rootless, defiant young man in rebellion against the gray flannel conformity of his time. After drifting from place to place, including in and out of prison, he fell in with the Columbia University crowd (he was not a student) that included an ex-football player named Jack Kerouac. He influenced Kerouac to give up writing flowery, sentimental prose and to adopt a hard-edged, hard-nosed stream of consciousness style based on life experience that poured out of him onto a continuous roll of paper. (Truman Capote was later to say of the process, “That’s not writing; it’s typing.”)

And since Cassady was a large and growing part of Kerouac’s life experience, he became the model for most of Kerouac’s heroes, especially Dean Moriarty in “On the Road.” Remarkably, in the years to come Cassady was to serve as a model for characters in half a dozen other novels and movies, and everyone from Tom Wolfe to Hunter S. Thompson to Ken Kesey wrote about him. He and Allen Ginsberg were on-again off-again lovers and it was to Cassady that the poet dedicated his beat epic “Howl.”

But when other beats burned out or slowed down, Cassady kept going. He intrigued the rock lyricists of the ’70s, and The Grateful Dead, The Doobie Brothers and Tom Waits all mention him in songs. He was the driver of Kesey’s famous psychedelic bus “Further” in the long, meandering journey memorialized in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” he wandered all over Mexico with other Merry Pranksters, and he died here very suddenly. Neal Cassady had officially done almost nothing, but he had managed to fascinate and inspire some of the most interesting and creative minds of two generations. He’s a person you’d give almost anything to have spent time with. I wanted to find someone who had.

The Berlin Bar is full of smoke and Americans. Lou Christine is sitting at a table with his back to the wall so he can see the door. He reminds me of Mickey Spillane. In addition to the hat, he is with a “doll,” a very, very blond woman who he introduces as his girlfriend, and he talks in a tough guy, South Philly voice a little as if he is doing color commentary in a sports broadcast. Yes, Cassady hung out and died here, and he has heard that Ginsburg, Burroughs, Kerouac, all those guys were here, too. “Wayne Greenhaw was around in those days and knew some of them,” he says. “I’ll call him. Let’s get together Thursday at 3.”

“Oh hell yes, I knew Neal Cassady,” says Wayne Greenhaw. “Used to drink with him in the old Cucaracha Bar.” He says that Cassady was intense and introspective and liked to talk philosophy. “Course they were older, those fellas, in their 30s, and I was just a kid then.” In fact he was 19 and a student at the Instituto Allende. Now he is a handsome old man with a perfectly trimmed white mustache, a salty tongue and a wry sense of humor. He once had a class on the very spot where he, Lou Christine and I are eating lunch on the Instituto’s veranda looking up on the towering pink spires of the town’s famous Parroquia church. “Fact, one time I was in there and here comes Cassady and Kerouac and another fella circling the Jardin [the town’s central plaza] in an old green Mercedes with a naked girl in the back seat, naked girl named Sunshine,” he says. Now according to Greenhaw there was only one old Chevy cab stuck together out of spare parts in San Miguel back then, only about 12 cars all together, and none of them as exotic as that green Mercedes and none of them equipped with a naked girl.

“What year was that?”

“Well, let’s see. Sixty or ’61.”

“Little early for hippies.”

Greenhaw thinks she may have been the first one or maybe a pre-hippy “Anyway, she wanted to go in the Cucaracha like that,” he says. “Now in those days a woman could still get arrested for wearing shorts in the Jardin, and here she was without a stitch on. Someone went and got her some clothes.”

“Who was the other guy?”

“Said he was Allen Ginsberg, but he didn’t look like his picture,” he says. “Might have been Corso.” (Beat poet Gregory Corso used to pass himself off as Allen Ginsberg from time to time.)

“What brought them here?”

“Peyote and pulque, I suppose. Kerouac favored his picture, all right. I’m quite sure it was him.” Greenhaw has it on good authority: his own. A journalist who covered the civil-rights movement and knew Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, he wrote for the Alabama Journal, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and the Miami Herald. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and is a respected historian who has written 22 books, including a biography of George Wallace.

“Are you sure it was Cassady?”

“Oh my yes. Cassady was in and out of San Miguel all through the ’60s. A dozen times or more. And, of course, he was living here at the end.” Greenhaw and Lou Christine agree that Cassady rented a house at Beneficenia #17 that was later occupied by an artist named Don Reuffert. “Cassady lived there with a hippie chick from California named J.B.”

The house in which Neal Cassady lived is on a steep, narrow cobblestone street. Like many Mexican houses, it is a door in a wall. Reminiscent of the man himself, it keeps its secrets inside. I decide not to knock; it’s too early. I turn and look down the hill over the rooftops of the town to the countryside beyond. “Well,” I say to myself, “You’ve seen where he lived. Now go see where he died.”

The train station in San Miguel is on the very edge of town. It’s marked with graffiti and many of its windows are broken. The passenger trains that used to stop here don’t anymore, but on its sign you can still read the faded legend “Kilometers 941.3 a Loredo. Kilometers 549.3 a Mexico City.”

I start walking south along the tracks past a loading dock, a water-treatment plant, a squatter’s farm with a house made of scrap, a neat garden, a chicken coop, clothes on a line, a horse in a makeshift stable. In no time I am in the country. Burros graze in the pretty orchards to the west. A jagged hillside covered in mesquite trees and prickly pear cacti rises to the southeast. I zip my jacket against the cool early morning mountain air. Cassady walked these tracks that February night in 1968. He’d stumbled into a wedding party in a nearby village. The local story is that he was very drunk, but was shown hospitality, invited to join in, given food. Later he went off into the darkness.

He was found in the morning beside the tracks right around here, perhaps by farmers like the two who just passed me on bicycles. He was unconscious and was taken to the hospital where he died. An autopsy was inconclusive, but drug and alcohol poisoning were suspected and hard living was certain; the doctor wrote “general congestion of all systems.” Neal Cassady was 41 years old.

Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Old Heart, which Dave Eggers says "has the power to change lives" and Book Week says is a "superbly written, life affirming novel about love and second chances." Ferry is also the author of the novel Travel Writing.

17 Comments for Searching for Neal Cassady in San Miguel de Allende

heather 05.06.10 | 2:58 PM ET

i’ve spent some time in san miguel, and it somehow escaped me that neal cassady and those guys hung out there. this was a nice read, and it made me want to make a long overdue return trip.

Harry Burrus 05.06.10 | 4:24 PM ET

The Beats in San Miguel
Setting the Record Straight
Harry Burrus

A favorite local myth is that Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady spent time together in San Miguel de Allende. A few here even claim that in the late 1950s, William Burroughs drank at the Cucaracha bar. Given San Miguel’s beauty, great climate, and reputation as a creative cauldron and haven for writers, painters and poets, it seems, on the surface, a good fit. It also meshes with the free-spirited, adventuresome nature shared by many expatriates, be they artists or not. However, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady were never here together. Jack Kerouac was never in San Miguel. Allen Ginsberg was here once in May 1954 and Neal Cassady was here for portions of 1967 and early 1968. That’s it. William Burroughs’ imbibing here in the late 50s doesn’t work either; he left Mexico in 1952.

The Beats—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs—maintained detailed journals and were voluminous letter writers, sharing the most personal details of their daily lives among themselves and with other poets, writers, and friends. Cassady also wrote letters, but not to the same extent.  Some of his letters influenced the writing of Ginsberg and Kerouac. This fervent and prolific exchange of information created an abundant paper trail. Their published letters, journals, and photographs as well as books and biographies about them make it possible to know where they were each year, with whom they were sharing moments, and what was occupying their time down to the most minuscule minutia.

The fantasy alignment of the Beats being in San Miguel centers around the summers of 1958-1961.  No other years are in contention for this alleged gathering. Based on incontestable facts, no year in that time period can possibly be accurate. It’s a simple test: remove any one of the three Beats from the equation of being here together and the story comes tumbling down. This extraction is easy to do, for each one. Cassady proves to be the lynchpin and that, alone, derails the SMA togetherness. The disruption also happens with the others. Let’s look at each Beat and examine his timeline.

Jack Kerouac:  Jack Kerouac came to Mexico seven times from 1950–1961. The length of his stays varied. For the Beats, Mexico City was the bull’s-eye. It offered a cornucopia of delights—cheap rent and eats, whores, boys, and drugs. Local citizens generally lacked curiosity about what other people were doing and had a high tolerance for unusual behavior—a far cry from the astringent conservative mindset shackling 1950s postwar Truman–Eisenhower America.

Kerouac came to Mexico for the first time in May 1950. Burroughs had been in Mexico City since 1949 and had asked Kerouac to visit. Neal Cassady drove Kerouac and Frank Jeffries from Denver to Mexico City. This journey is depicted in detail in Part Four of On the Road. They rented an apartment next door to Burroughs, on Cerrada de Medellin.

Kerouac made two trips in 1952. Neal Cassady and his wife Carolyn drove him to the Arizona border in May and Kerouac continued on, entering through Nogales. Kerouac told Ginsberg about this trip in a May 10 letter written from Orizaba 210 and also described it in his novel Lonesome Traveler, in the chapter “Mexico Fellaheen.” He worked on his novel Dr. Sax. Laid off by the railroad, he returned in December, but left Mexico City before Christmas.

Kerouac was back in Mexico City by August 1955, staying in a rooftop adobe hut above Bill Carver’s apartment on Orizaba. He wrote Mexico City Blues and Part One of Tristessa. After September 11, he went by bus to El Paso and hitched to Los Angeles—destination San Francisco and Ginsberg. The Six Gallery reading and Howl was on October 7.

After his job as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in North Cascades National Park, Washington, in the summer of 1956, Kerouac returned to Mexico City and stayed approximately two months. He completed Tristessa Part Two: One Year Later, wrote Orizaba 210 Blues and began Desolation Angels. Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter’s brother Lafcadio visited, arriving around November 7. This was the only time Ginsberg and Kerouac were together in Mexico. Kerouac returned to the States with Ginsberg and the Orlovskys in a car with a driver, paying $135.

In 1957 at the age of 35 and waiting for On the Road to be published, Kerouac left for Mexico in late July. During his time in the capital, he experienced an earthquake, became ill and learned that Bill Garver died. He stayed only 10 days, returning to the States in mid-August.

Harry Burrus 05.06.10 | 4:28 PM ET

Harry Burrus continued:

After On the Road came out in September 1957, Kerouac took only two trips during a 3 year period and both were to California. One was to participate in The Steve Allen Show in November 1959; the other was to Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Canyon in late July 1960.

During the spring and early summer of 1960, Kerouac wrote letters from Northport to his sister, Caroline, his agent Sterling Lord, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg (who was in Chile), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Carolyn Cassady. In a June 20 letter to Ginsberg, he wrote, “I never go anywhere or do anything. My last run to New York was so awful, a month ago, I haven’t been back.”

Kerouac was not looking forward to the premier of the film version of The Subterraneans in NYC at the end of June 1960. His novel Tristessa came out. To his great dismay, Kerouac was, again, bombarded with harsh reviews. Ferlinghetti wrote Kerouac the first week of July, offering him the use of his Bixby Canyon cabin on Big Sur. Kerouac jumped at the chance to flee NYC. He responded to Ferlinghetti in a July 8 letter, saying he would be there July 22. On July 21, en route to California, he wrote Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg from Chicago. Kerouac visited the Cassadys in Los Gatos in late July. By mid-September, Kerouac was back in Northport after suffering a nervous breakdown in Ferlinghetti’s cabin.

That September, Kerouac wrote letters from Northport to Phil Whalen, Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady. In his September 14, 1960 letter to Ferlinghetti, he commented on where he had been in the 3 years since Road came out: “You will notice that since I made money and have had the chance to travel anywhere, I’ve only taken two trips and both of ‘em to California!”

Kerouac’s last Mexican trip was from June 1961 to early August. He flew to Mexico City where he wrote Cerrada Medellin Blues, An American Passed Here, and 50,000 words of part two of Desolation Angels, all while staying in the apartment beneath Burroughs’ old duplex on Cerrra de Medellin. Kerouac saw Cassady in late summer of 1960 at Big Sur and in New York in July 1963. 

Allen Ginsberg:  Allen Ginsberg spent much of the spring of 1954 visiting ruins in the Yucatan and Chiapas. He had a prolonged stay at the finca of Karena Shields. By May 16 he was in Mexico City walking the area where Burroughs had lived on Orizaba.  May 23 he was in Patzcuaro. In late May, he spent a night in San Miguel before heading to the mummies of Guanajuato. In a journal entry, he mentioned staying at the “Salto [sic]” and visiting an after-hours bar, but not by name. Ginsberg’s only time with Kerouac in Mexico was November 1956 in Mexico City.

During 1960, Allen Ginsberg was finalizing his Kaddish manuscript while visiting Chile and Peru. In June, he was staying at the Hotel Peru in Pucallpa. Ginsberg was searching for the hallucinogenic Yage vine. After more than six months in Chile and Peru, he returned to NYC, broke. Kerouac came to see him there in October and Ginsberg poured him a sample of Yage.

Ginsberg had plans to join Gregory Corso and William Burroughs in Europe, but couldn’t leave because of lack of finances. His luck changed when the Poets Foundation sent him a $1,000 check. He and Peter Orlovsky left on the S.S. America bound for France. They were gone for 2 years and visited Europe, Tangiers, Greece, Africa and India. Allen Ginsberg was not even in Mexico 1958-1961, let alone San Miguel de Allende.

Neal Cassady:  In addition to the two times he drove Kerouac to Mexico City, when was Neal Cassady in Mexico? Neal Cassady was in prison in California in the spring of 1958 and released on June 3, 1960, greeted by his wife Carolyn. A condition of his 3 year parole was he could not leave the county, much less the country. From the spring of 1958-1963 Neal Cassady was in California and certainly not in San Miguel de Allende, a fact confirmed to me by his then wife, Carolyn.

As soon as his parole was over in summer of 1963, Cassady drove cross-country with some friends. He saw Kerouac in Northport, NY. In an August 16 letter to Carolyn Cassady, Kerouac stated he hated the rudeness of Neal’s friends, but found Neal, when they were alone, as sweet and interesting as always.

In September 1966, Cassady drove down to Mexico with George Walker (Neal Cassady’s and Ken Kesey’s friend and a co-member of the Merry Pranksters) to join Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. They kept on the move, performing their Acid Tests in Manzanillo, Guadalajara and Mexico City before returning to San Francisco that October.
to be contued:

Harry Burrus 05.06.10 | 4:31 PM ET

Beats in SMA continued by Burrus

Cassady and George Walker drove to Puerto Vallarta in early January 1967. They rented a house and stayed for 2 months. In January, February, and early March, Neal wrote to Carolyn Cassady. While in PV, Cassady and Walker ran into the Van Leeuwen sisters whom they knew from Penny Lane, an area near Stanford where Ken Kesey and the early Merry Pranksters lived. The sisters invited Neal and George to stay with them in San Miguel if they ever visited.

Neal Cassady and George Walker left PV in April 1967 and headed to Oaxaca to join friends. Early in the drive, Walker’s Lotus Elan began having motor trouble. Since San Miguel was reasonably close, they decided to come to SMA and have the car fixed. Cassady and Walker stayed with the Van Leeuwens in the Palomar Building on San Francisco. This was the first time Cassady had been in San Miguel. Walker returned to the States and, for a short time, Cassady moved into Murillo 4. In early May, Cassady returned to the U.S. He came back to San Miguel the middle of September and lived for a few days at Quebrada Norte 16. By early October, he was again in Puerto Vallarta. He was back in the United States in November.

Neal Cassady’s final visit to San Miguel was early February 1968. His last address was Beneficencia 6-A. He died on February 4, four days shy of his 42nd birthday. His body was found near the railroad tracks about a quarter of mile south of the station.

In December 2008 in San Miguel, John Cassady (Neal’s son) and George Walker took part in the Authors’ Sala:  A Celebration of the Beat Writers. This was the first time John Cassady had been to San Miguel and only the second time for George Walker. I showed them around for five days and pointed out the places where Neal had stayed. It was particularly poignant walking the railroad tracks with John, discussing Neal’s time here. We noted the irony of Neal dying by railroad tracks when his longest period of employment was working for the railroad.

Who knows why it is so important to some to attempt to enhance the mystique of San Miguel by creating a combined Beat presence here that did not, in fact, exist?  The only Beat of the original triumvirate (Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Borroughs) to visit San Miguel de Allende was Allen Ginsberg in 1954. Neal Cassady, often lumped in with the original Beats, first came to SMA in 1967 and returned in 1968. He was in San Miguel for a total of approximately 60 days, none of which was during 1958-61. Over the years, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady were together in New York, Denver, and San Francisco, but never in Mexico in the 50s or 60s. The legend of the Beats being in San Miguel at the same time persists and is passionately embraced by some. The time has come to put it to rest.

Alan Jones 05.06.10 | 5:26 PM ET

Excellent piece

Alan Jones 05.06.10 | 5:27 PM ET

Excellent Burrus piece

Vince Willoughby 05.06.10 | 8:57 PM ET

Allen Ginsberg’s *Howl* is dedicated to Carl Solomon, not Neal Cassady.

Peter Ferry 05.07.10 | 12:10 PM ET

Thanks to Vince Willoughby for setting me straight on the dedication of “Howl.”  Ginsberg does identify “N.C.” as the “secret hero of these poems.”

And thanks to Harry Burrus for his exhaustive and intelligent research.  I know that it is your special mission to debunk the myths about Beats in San Miguel, of which there are many.  I also found the tales elusive.  For this reason I entitled my piece “Searching for Neal Cassady” rather than “Finding” him, but in the process of writing it I did find some other real characters such as Suzanne Ludekens, Lou Christine and Wayne Greenhaw, and in a sense the piece is about them and the town itself, a place that seems a veritable petri dish for oddballs, eccentrics and misfits, or at least was back in the day.  The story about the girl in the green Mercedes is a very personal memory that has the ring of truth about it.  As for Cassady family accounts, I don’t need to tell you that they are full of contradictions and (perhaps well meaning) misinformation.  That a term of Cassady’s parole was that he couldn’t leave the county for a period of three years would seem more of a challenge than a restriction to this master rule breaker.  And finally, with all due respect, I think that just because an event can’t be corroborated doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.  It does mean that it can’t be presented as fact, which is why I tell Neal Cassady’s story in quotations, memories and heresay. 

By the way, I wonder if you know that Walter Tevis wrote a good part of his classic novel of pool hall life entitled The Hustler in San Miguel?  I know this for a fact because Tevis was a professor of mine and introduced me to the town.  I first came there in 1971 to drink a toast to Walter in the old Cucaracha bar where he claimed to have spent much of his time collecting the little black plastic bears (Oso Negros) that came attached to vodka bottles.

Keith Miller 05.07.10 | 1:47 PM ET

Excellent impressions and writing in the article and subsequent comments….thanks, K.

Harry Burrus 05.07.10 | 2:06 PM ET

” . . .just because an event can’t be corroborated doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.”  Absolutely.  However, when someone says this is what happened . . . the green Mercedes scenario for example, where Cassady, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and “Sunshine” were together in SMA and, it can be shown that those players couldn’t have been there together . . . (by the way, the first claim for this event was 1958 and then the event moved to ‘60, ‘61) then it totally falls apart.  I think Greenhaw took / ebellished the situation from when Cassady, Kerouac, and LuAnne had left Burroughs in Algiers, LA and headed west across Texas and at Neal’s suggetion all three took their clothes off (Jan of ‘49).

Lou Christine 05.07.10 | 2:45 PM ET

For the record, I’m a North Philadelphia guy, not South Philly. Still, I can’t mask my East Coast accent and perceived wise-guy attitude just because I was reared in the City of Brotherly Shove. I enjoyed Peter Ferry’s piece explaining his quest while tracking down info on the deceased Neal Cassady and others. His investigative instincts seemed spot on. Hi enthusiasm was refreshingly genuine. Best was, the Ferry I was privy to presented himself as a stand up guy and true gentleman.
I consider Harry Burris very bright and a friend.  And I have tremendous respect for the renowned writer Wayne Greenhaw who I also consider a friend. In her defense Suzanne Ludekens is the hard-working editor for Atencion, the local expat paper in San Miguel. She’s a single mom and a Generation-Xer, yet as an expat Aussie and long-time resident of Mexico, the “Beats” don’t mean much to her. Now if Ferry was in search of Carlos Castaneda he may have received a different type of reception.
Harry Burris has been almost evangelical with his quixotic quest to debunk the idea that some of those iconic Beats ever hung their berets in San Miguel. All and all it’s not all that important to me or many others. Burris, as a one man debunking team, seems to be hellbent on stomping out any mention of the Beats being in San Miguel. I’m so glad Burris wasn’t standing outside the department store just after I got off Santa’s lap over 50-some years ago. A pedantic smart-Alec smirk would have burst my little boy’s bubble. Burris often rubs it in, by bringing up the “Forward” I penned a few years back in “Solomente In San Miguel,” (a composite of stories penned by San Miguel writers) about past and present San Miguel writers where I mentioned it’s been said those Merry Pranksters dropped in from time to time. When I initially wrote the piece, my research led me to those who swore they witnessed Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, along with Donner, Blitzer and Rudolph scurrying San Miguel’s rooftops. These days I have augmented my statement, whether in writing or verbally, that perhaps it’s myth or urban legend yet the idea of their occasional presence is still embraced by many.
Burris could be right. Yet there’s no way, even with his gum-shoe methods, that Burris could have been on their every trail and stood in their exact tracks at every given moment 24/7. Burris, to his credit, sticks to his guns and remains adamant.
I respect Burris for wanting to get it straight but why such a Kill Joy? It’s delicious fun and inspirational to other writers thinking they were all here, knocking them back at the Cucaracha of which Yours Truly often does ‘til this day. Let’s face it, the whole bunch weren’t that notable or giants in history, so the debunking doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. “Play it Again, Sam,” was never lipped by Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” but almost every movie fan is hip to the inference.
Should I say it? Perception is everything!

Lou Christine
San Miguel de Allende

Harry Burrus 05.08.10 | 7:11 PM ET

A commentor, whom I, likewise, consider a friend, has portrayed me as a “Kill Joy” because I am unwilling to accept the fantasy alignment of Ginsberg, Cassady, and Kerouac being in San Miguel at the same time. He further indicates that my “gum-shoe [sic] methods” cannot extend 24/7. What he’s overlooking is the fact that those who promulgate this fantasy do so by stating that the alleged gathering of named Beats took place in a specific year and month – not too difficult, then, to verify whether such a gathering could have taken place. Perhaps if the esteemed aforesaid commentator had applied some gumshoe methods of his own rather than relying upon the inaccurate statements of another person, he would have discovered the truth. As an excuse for his own lack of gumshoeness, he concludes, “All and all it’s not all that important to me or many others. Let’s face it, the whole bunch weren’t that notable or giants in history, so the debunking doesn’t add up to a hill of beans.” 

Hmmm . . . “debunking doesn’t add up to a hill of beans . . . not that notable.”  Tell that to Rob Johnson, Oliver Harris, Bill Morgan, Dave Moore, and John Leland. They’ve come out with books on Burroughs, Ginsberg, Cassady, and Kerouac. They are excellent gumshoe debunkers who seek the truth and believe in separating fantasy from fact and have done so. Johnson, Harris, and Moore are also familiar with the scene here, including the effort to create an imaginary gathering of certain Beats in San Miguel as a misdirected effort to improve the perception of San Miguel, something I believe to be wholly unnecessary. San Miguel’s mystique doesn’t require fabrication as reinforcement.

“Not all that important” . . .  A little over a year ago in San Miguel we had an evening “Celebrating the Beat Writers.” I was the MC. Among the panel members were John Cassady and George “Hardly Visible” Walker. It was a full house of San Miguel Beat enthusiasts who listened to the history of Cassady, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac in Mexico. The audience then dined together, and, afterwards, eagerly posed questions to the panel. Audience members purchased books by Beat writers (and by the scholars I mentioned above). 

City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco sells ten copies of “On the Road” daily. The Kerouac estate claims that over 100,000 copies of OTR are sold each year. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado continues to attract students, encouraging them to link the past to the present and to apply a fresh approach to their writing. Stanford University bought Ginsberg’s archive and the New York Public Library recently purchased William S. Burroughs’ literary archive.

Time not only has substantiated the merit of the writing of the Beats, but has validated it as well. The Beat worldview embraced life and celebrated the human condition. On the Road’s raw energy encourages curiosity, the refusal to accept the status quo, and the need to investigate what lies over the horizon. It inspires self-pride and the drive to succeed, regardless of social status. The Beats’ criticism of America in the 1940s and 1950s is instructional because it applies to many of the conditions confronting the United States today. Current writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers cite the Beats as their beacons. New bios as well as scholarly books examining their writing, lives, and values continue to come out with great frequency. Beat magazines, paper and online, are widely read and popular. Their book sales are the highest ever. Universities have Beat literature as part of their curriculum. The significance of the Beat writers on current American literature continues to evolve because new work has only recently been discovered. The unpublished work is revealed in books and magazines and reviewed by international newspapers and scholars. 

“Let’s face it, the whole bunch weren’t that notable or giants in history, so the debunking doesn’t add up to a hill of beans.” That statement is as out of touch with reality as is the claim that the principal Beats were in San Miguel at the same time. The Beats are alive and well in the 21st century and continue to pervade our lives today.

Dave Moore 05.09.10 | 10:35 AM ET

I cannot fault Harry Burris’s account of the times that the Beats were, or were not, in San Miguel de Allende. I congratulate him on his meticulous scholarship. I’ve also been researching the activities of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, Burroughs and Corso for many years, using primary source material, such as letters and journal entires. My conclusions exactly mirror Harry’s, and I am pleased to see that he has at last laid to rest many of the absurd myths concerning the Beats in San Miguel.

Wayne Greenhaw 05.09.10 | 1:19 PM ET

Peter Ferry has written an interesting and accurate account of our lunch at the Instituto. I had just met Ferry and always enjoy my time with Lou Christine. Harry Burris has written much debunking my time in San Miguel, where I first came in the summer of 1958 to study writing at the Instituto under a wonderful writer named Ashmead Scott. Sometime during the summers of ‘58, ‘59, ‘60, or ‘61 a green Mercedes showed up in town. It was a small place back then. You could count the cars on two hands. These men with their naked friend Sunshine were known to some of the older GIs who drank at the Cucaracha on the Jardin. They called themselves Jack, Neal, and Allen, said they were the Beats. I was a kid during that time from 18 to 21. And in the summer of ‘61 I was in San Miguel only a few weeks, going on to Mexico City College, where I studied for a brief time. For many years I never wrote about that time. They were in town only for a few days, and to me there were many more people who were more interesting, like Walter Tevis, whom Ferry mentions, and Charles Portis and Clifford Irving. For me, one afternoon with Leonard Brooks is worth more than a year with the so-called Beats.

tom frazee 05.09.10 | 8:16 PM ET

All this fucking name dropping.  Writing about other people because of their fame and talents is like making up for one’s own lack of fame and talents.  You’re not them! Everybody was somewhere, and they weren’t everywhere else.  Cease with the,  I crapped in the same toilet that Charlie Manson did.  Tell us about Joe and Jane Schmoe, or doesn’t that impress or sell?

phlete martin 06.14.10 | 6:19 PM ET

tom has it close to right.  i lived in sma from ‘69 thru ‘73 and i heard about cassady dying on the tracks outside town almost immediately. of course, i heard it in the cucaracha bar. it was well known that ginsberg and kerouac had visited. so what? walt tevis, charlie portis, cliff irving, and bob marlin were some of the real writers who lived and worked there. and not so they could hang out at the “cuke” and drink rum and soda, either. they were real writers who worked at home and maybe went down to the cuke for a beer from time to time. the best writer who ever lived there was probably gary jennings(who did AZTEC), and he went into mexico city every sunday nite to research that book at the national library, returning on friday nite. the town in those days was known as a good quiet place to write on the cheap. END OF STORY

Jim Benning 06.15.10 | 12:13 PM ET

The more of these comments and recollections I read, the more the whole collective memory of Kerouac in SMA—especially the quibbles and disputes and such— take on the flavor of a Peter Ferry novel.

Pete, I don’t know if you’re working on another novel, but doesn’t all this make for great fodder?

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.