Browsing through a newspaper on a break from work my attention was caught by the word ‘Cassady’ – a short article announced that Love Always, Carolyn (2011), a new documentary by the Swedish filmmakers Malin Korkeasalo and Maria Ramström, would be showing at the end of the week.
That Friday night I sat in front of the TV with great anticipation, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the focus of the documentary remained with Carolyn Cassady, rather than, as I had expected it would, devoting its attentions to her better-known husband, Neal Cassady, and her friend Jack Kerouac.
One might ask why anyone would want to make a documentary about Carolyn Cassady. When I asked Malin and Maria about the main purpose of their film they explained to me that during the12 years they have known Carolyn she has been engaged in a neverending struggle to balance the myths and truths about her life with Neal and Jack, and their film was an opportunity for her to make her voice heard. For various reasons Carolyn was eager but simultaneously wary of participating in the project, but chose to take part in order to tell her side of the story. Besides giving voice to Carolyn, the film also provides a female perspective on an otherwise male-dominated era of American history, not only in literary terms but in a historical and sociological sense as well.
It would be impossible, of course, to tell Carolyn Cassady’s story without telling part of the stories of Neal and Jack: they were a big part of her life. In fact, it becomes every clear during the film that the fame of these two men has become Carolyn´s main source of income and, indeed, the key to her own fame, something she´s obviously very well aware of. The fame of Jack and Neal, and the risk of their life stories overshadowing the story of Carolyn, was a significant challenge which the filmmakers had to take into account during the editing of the film. Malin and Maria tried to avoid anecdotes and stories about Neal and Jack that did not directly relate to Carolyn, concentrating instead on information about them which was necessary to providing an insight into their relationship with her. By using Carolyn´s own words and stories about the two men, the film keeps the focus on her, with letters, pictures, and other archival material shedding light on her private life, and on that of her children. Whilst Neal and Jack are present and part of the narrative, the story remains Carolyn’s.
Nevertheless, the film makes it frighteningly obvious that Carolyn´s life revolves almost entirely around the lives and fame of Jack and Neal: a key impression that the film gives is that large parts of her waking hours are spent trying to figure out how to tell her side of the story. One cannot help but feel a sting of sadness at Carolyn´s situation: making a living by constantly reviving old and supposedly very painful memories.
Throughout the film, Carolyn aims to portray Neal as more human – reduced, almost – than the Neal of common (mis)conception, the party guy whose nickname was ‘the speed limit’. This is, I think, understandable, considering that he was the father of her children, her intended life partner, and the love of her life. She repeatedly insists that the Neal portrayed in, for example, Ken Kesey´s film, The Magic Trip, is not the real Neal, emphasizing that the main reason for her participation in this film is to present facts, the facts of her life with and in relation to both Neal and Jack.
Although the film does place Carolyn centre-stage, at the end of these 70 minutes I am still left with the feeling that I would like to know more about her. What was her life like before she met Neal? What other social relations did she have and what part did they play in her life? Carolyn relates a childhood trauma involving her brother, and we also learn a little about Carolyn’s relationship with her parents and their view of her marriage to Neal. Besides this, however, the Carolyn with whom we are presented remains very much in the context of the lives of Jack and Neal. Of course, one has to keep in mind that the main premise of this film is allowing Carolyn to tell her side of the story about her life with these two men: in order to maintain this focus and to keep the narrative thrust clear and attractive to a wide audience, material relating to her life before Neal, and, indeed, to her own personal achievements, seems to have been judged to be extraneous. Having said that, although during the process of making the film Carolyn expressed her respect for the filmmakers and their vision of her life, she did not always agree with their focus or their chosen aesthetic. There were also financial reasons for dropping the more personal angle, of which more below.
Love Always, Carolyn reminds us that there are real, human faces behind these famous names, something that is easily forgotten in the state of fascination that not only the works but also the myths and legends of the writers and characters connected to the Beat Generation tends to engender. There is a long line of broken families, personal tragedies, pain and neglect hidden behind the pages of many of the Beat writers, and Carolyn´s contribution is invaluable to the understanding of the other side of the coin; crucially, as she herself puts it, it helps to “set the record straight”.
Of course it is important to remember that this is Carolyn´s story, told from the perspective of herself and her family, who constantly live in the shadow of her late husband. Given the circumstances of her life, it is not hard to understand the very obvious bitterness that she expresses. In the very first minutes of the documentary Carolyn observes that the only reason that anyone, including the creators of this film, is at all interested in her is because of her relationship with Neal and Jack, a sad but unfortunately somewhat true statement. This documentary enables us to hear the story of the woman and children behind the modern icons, and the resulting picture is simultaneously intriguing and distressing. Carolyn seems to spend a lot of time giving interviews and making appearances at different Beat-associated events, and to watch her and her son John attend these events, which seem to be something of a necessary evil for them, is almost painful when one is made aware of her situation. Not only are they key to promoting her book, Off the Road, they are essential to her financial situation and they provide the opportunity for her to live a reasonably comfortable life. In this context, the Beat events presented in the movie seem somewhat absurd and insensitive.
I find myself wondering about the extent to which a person will, or should, exploit their own private life. What is the price of being dependent upon the fascination of others? What is the impact, upon oneself, of such self-exploitation? These are questions not easily answered, but in Carolyn´s case playing the role of wife and lover to famous men seems to have made her very lonely. The public display of private life was a notable trait of many Beat writers, exhibited not just on the pages of their novels or in the lines of their poems, but in the publication of their personal journals and correspondence. Whilst they no doubt had many different reasons for doing so – reasons I don´t feel in a position to judge or evaluate – the key difference is that Carolyn was not seeking fame. She wasn´t a writer (until her recent book) but she nevertheless had fame thrust upon her as a result of her relationship with Neal and Jack, a situation she has consequently been forced to deal with almost all her life.
For some Beat fans there is a romanticized halo of adventure, freedom, and independence hovering over the Beat generation, and particularly over Jack and Neal, due in particular to the success of On the Road. And yet in this film Carolyn describes how she watched the two men she loved slowly destroy themselves: the contrast between the romanticized vision of Neal and Carolyn´s life together (and, indeed, Carolyn´s current life), and the alternate reality presented in this documentary, is stark and striking.
Love Always, Carolyn provides us with a different perspective on some of the main characters of the Beat phenomenon, a phenomenon which spread world-wide and had a significant impact on subsequent literature, culture, and censorship laws. Besides provoking a sense of gratitude towards my fellow Swedes for telling Carolyn´s story, the documentary made me turn my attention back home in search of a Swedish Beat tradition. In doing so I found that there are a number of writers within the canon of Swedish literature who are reminiscent of the American Beat writers and for whom the work of the Beat Generation has been an important source of inspiration.
In 1940, writer and poet Karin Boye wrote her most famous novel, Kallocain. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future where society has turned into a sterile and impersonal control system, similar to that later portrayed in Orwell´s 1984. We follow the life of an accomplished chemist who invents a drug called “kallocain”, a drug that makes everyone who is exposed to it speak the absolute truth. This is a very dangerous thing in a society in which individual thinking and personal recreation is essentially viewed as treason. The book focuses on questions of truth and reality, control, individual freedom, interpersonal intimacy, and human relations, themes we recognize from many of the American Beat writers. A further common denominator between Boye and some of the Beat writers is her personal struggle with sexuality. To establish herself in the identity of a bisexual woman in the 1930s was not easy, and caused her great anxiety. Tragically, she ended her life in 1941 at the age of just 41, and did not live to see her last novel turn into the Swedish modern classic it is today.
Twenty one years after the publication of Kallocain, in 1961, writer and musician Sture Dahlström released his first book Angels Blow Hard, a novel that takes its readers on a journey through Swedish small towns, jazz concerts, love affairs, and the life of a hobo on the streets of Europe. Dahlström was greatly influenced by the American Beatniks – Jack Kerouac in particular – and aimed to apply a similar kind of spontaneous and free method of writing to his work. His love of jazz also influenced his surrealistic, humorous, and flowing language. One of his most famous novels, Cuckoo´s Progress – an Erotic Novel, was originally written in English, and was first published in New York and London before the author himself translated it into Swedish. During his literary career, Dahlström wrote 18 novels, finishing his last book in the year 2000, a year before his death in 2001. Dahlström has left a big imprint on Swedish popular culture, in music as well as literature. There have been two books written about him and his work, and in 1999 The Sture Dahlström Society was formed, creating a forum and meeting place for Dahlström enthusiasts to enjoy and study his work. In 2001, The Sture Dahlström Society had approximately 900 members.
As Dahlström jumped around between jazz bands and industrial jobs, in 1948 another Swedish Beat inspired writer and musician was born. Ulf Lundell was born in a working class family in Stockholm and didn’t attend university due to his family´s financial situation. Lundell made his literary debut in 1976 with his novel Jack, and has become one of Sweden´s most famous cultural figures. The main character in the novel is a young, bohemian man with dreams of becoming a writer and artist, who leads a wild and adventurous life on the streets of Stockholm. If this Jack seems familiar it is because, like Dahlström, Lundell was greatly inspired by the American Beat writers, notably Allen Ginsberg and, of course, Jack Kerouac, who is the obvious inspiration for the novel’s main character. For those of you who have read Polina Mackay´s recently published interview with Carolyn Cassady (available on the EBSN website), Lundell is a familiar name. Carolyn apparently has a photo of this “Mr. Sweden”, as she calls him, at her house. A few years back Lundell invited Carolyn to a concert in Stockholm where he honored her by singing his most famous song, Open Landscapes, together with an audience of thousands of fans.
Due to the innovative, non-traditional nature of their work, some of the writers named above have met with varying degrees of skepticism both from the public and from publishers, but nevertheless succeeded in publishing their work. The battle for publicity seems to be a recurrent struggle among many Beat and Beat-inspired writers, and, as with everything which diverges from the mainstream, it requires patience and individuals willing to take some risks.
In 1992, publisher and intellectual historian Carl-Michael Edenborg founded Vertigo, a Swedish company which publishes everything from political and socially critical literature to erotic novels. Among the writers published by Vertigo are modern authors such as J.G. Ballard, and classics such as Edgar Allan Poe, the Marquis de Sade, and H.P. Lovecraft. Vertigo seems to have made it their mission to publish authors who challenge mainstream literature, using eye-catching covers that remind us that the debate about obscenity is not entirely over. Alongside more famous authors, Vertigo also publishes new and somewhat controversial Swedish writers who, even today, would probably have a difficult time getting published by other companies, recalling the role playing by bold publishers such as Maurice Girodias and John Calder in the success and longevity of the Beat writers.
The Beats have been a bit more present than usual in the Swedish media this year, and during the spring of 2012 there was a wave of Beat-related documentaries shown on Swedish television. Alongside Love Always, Carolyn, Swedish viewers have had the opportunity to see a more nuanced portrait of William S. Burroughs in Yony Leyser’s William Burroughs: A Man Within (2010), and to join Ken Kesey on his trip across America in Alx Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place (2011).
After a proposal from producer Margarete Jangård at WG Films, the company that produced Love Always, Carolyn, Swedish television chose to show Magic Trip immediately after Love Always, Carolyn on the very same evening. This decision, and the contrast between the two films, highlighted the contradictory view of the free and spontaneous lifestyle adopted by many of the Beats in relation to everyday life and responsibilities.
As it turns out, the journey to make Love Always, Carolyn was not been all that easygoing. Carolyn’s age (she is 89) had to be taken into consideration during filming, whilst the filmmakers’ desired structure, requiring the interlacing of past and present material, proved to be challenging.
In addition to the struggle to find the desired perspective in the documentary itself, Malin and Maria struggled with financing their project. Largely due to the material they had access to, they managed to attract financiers, but these financiers only agreed to get involved on the condition that the more personal and intimate angle intended for the film was dropped in favor of a more general storyline about Jack, Neal, and Carolyn, focusing on their wild, Beat lifestyle. Malin and Maria ended up financing much of the film themselves, with some financial support from the Swedish Film institute and Swedish television (SVT).
Thanks to the filmmakers’ perseverance, the movie eventually was made, and seems to have played a key role in provoking a resurgence of interest in the Beat generation in Sweden. Perhaps more significantly, Love Always, Carolyn provides an important counterpoint to the established legend, and serves as a key model for more nuanced histories of the Beat generation for future scholars and Beat enthusiasts.