Neal Cassady was born “on the road” in 1926. As a boy he stole cars in Denver, and at age eighteen he served a year in reform school. Then he made his way to New York City, where he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Cassady became Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road; years later he hooked up Ken Kesey’s crowd, the Merry Pranksters, and was immortalized again in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was one of Cassady’s letters that inspired Kerouac to change his writing style. This pivotal epistle, the so-called “Joan Anderson letter,” was a stream-of-consciousness outpouring that was passed around—Kerouac to Ginsberg to the poet Gerd Stern—before a large portion of it was (according to legend) lost off Stern’s Sausalito houseboat in 1955. As Kerouac later described it, the letter was “a work of literary genius. Neal, he was just telling me what happened one time in Denver, and he had every detail. It was just like Dostoevsky. And I realized that’s the way to tell a story—just tell it!” That 1950 letter—at least the 5,100-word portion that remains—is included in Cassady’s Collected Letters, 1944-1967 (Penguin), as are more than 200 other letters written to Kerouac, Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes and others, including a large selection of letters to Cassady’s second wife, Carolyn. The letters are the natural expression of someone with little formal education, who, for a variety of reasons, decided that writing would be his way out of a life of petty crime. Those who knew Cassady said that it was as if he could not keep still, and that restlessness is evident in this collection. Several plans are always underway at the same time: schemes for selling stolen overcoats and finding drugs; suggestions for rendezvous in Texas and Mexico, Denver and San Luis Obispo. Through 1947 Cassady fends off Ginsberg’s sexual advances while still trying, Sheherazade-like, to hold his interest as a writing mentor; in 1948 Cassady responds enthusiastically to Kerouac’s suggestion that they and their friends all live together on a ranch, and as the list of friends grows—“So that’s another 9 counting Julie and Bill [Burroughs] junior. That makes a house that . . . ought to hold eighteen people”—we see what Cassady could not: that it can only be another doomed utopia. Cassady was tenacious in pursuing his many ambitions; unfazed by the setbacks that were to dog him right to the (premature) end, he seemed never to give up hope. Despite his frequent deceptions and petty crimes, Cassady was, in his own unique way, a quintessentially American idealist, and these letters are an essential addition to the Beat canon.