Past Perfect Review: Maggie Cassidy
Classic Novel by Jack Kerouac
Review by Bridey Heing
Issue No. 7 – March 2015
Among literature’s great sprawling autobiographies, perhaps Jack Kerouac’s body of work stands as one of the most mythic. Although the bulk of his published work was conceived as a long-form biographical epic, Kerouac passed away before he was able to compile his novels into one cohesive narrative. Beginning with Kerouac’s childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, and creating a steady picture of his journey from star athlete to college student to Merchant Marine to Beat Generation icon, Kerouac’s work creates a panoramic view of pre- and post-war American culture.
Tucked within the folds of Kerouac’s life story is the retelling of his relationship with Mary Carney, immortalized as the titular character in 1959’s Maggie Cassidy. Set in 1938 and 1939, the story follows Kerouac’s alter ego Jack Duluoz as he navigates the perils of high school romance. Torn between the enigmatic Maggie and his main girl Pauline, Jack experiences the highs and lows of young, feverish, and temporary adoration.
The story of Jack Duluoz’s first love is wrapped up in a larger narrative about the main character’s hometown. Lowell is portrayed as an idyllic and nostalgic place, a small town cut from a Frank Capra film. Kerouac’s prose is laced with an unending fondness for the pre-war Americana that defined the period and his own adolescence, which creates a sense of longing from the very first pages. Lowell is, to Kerouac, a joyful and authentic place to which he can never return.
The love story of Maggie and Jack is a story of their whole town, exploring the sort of communal sense of self that permeates all milestones in small towns. Jack and Maggie are in no way isolated from their peers and families, but rather moving through the gestures of courtship with those people. Notes passed over fences and kisses stolen while friends sit outside on the porch make up the backbone of their relationship, and they are always aware of the scrutiny of others. Just as neither Jack nor Maggie can separate their identities from their community, their love is inextricably linked with Lowell.
Kerouac’s signature spontaneous style pairs with the ecstatic nature of childhood memory, both crisp and magical. Written with the clarity of distance, Kerouac emphasizes the meaning of moments that could be described as mundane. His admiration for his childhood puts the minor victories and hurts of adolescence in a sentimental yet prophetic light.
Maggie Cassidy is laced through with a rich nostalgia, both for the town and the time in which Kerouac grew up. With World War II and the birth of post-war counterculture creating a chasm between Kerouac and his memories, the warm way in which he looks back at the innocence and supposed crises that consumed him as a child rings sentimental, without being overdone. The period of which he was writing – the late 1930s – is widely regarded by our culture as one of the great periods of true Americana. Standing on the precipice of a world war that would forever change what “The United States” means for the international community, those final years of calm are easy to romanticize. Kerouac does not shy away from the small tragedies that rocked his young life, but rather examines them through the lens of a great societal shift that forever changed the fabric of teenage life in the U.S.
At once light hearted and touching, Maggie Cassidy is a well-preserved glimpse of youth, love, and the uncertainty of each. Jack Kerouac’s eye for the ecstatic in the everyday captures the depth of small town relationships and the tight bonds of community. Although a far cry from the counterculture narratives that made him an icon, Maggie Cassidy illustrates the joy and keen observation of humanity that makes Jack Kerouac such an indispensable chronicler of American life.
208 pages, $10.95