Garrett Hedlund in Unbroken: Neal Cassady's Letter to Jack Kerouac

12/15/2014 10:42 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

You may remember Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty in Walter Salles' On the Road. The Minnesota-born actor played the character inspired by the famed fast talking fast driving, Neal Cassady, son of a Denver wino in the movie based on Jack Kerouac's iconic novel. During his time in New York doing publicity for Salles' 2012 film, Hedlund said a dealer was trying to sell him Cassady's bathroom door. Such is the beat industry! Didn't Johnny Depp buy Kerouac's raincoat? There's the literature, and then there are the artifacts: which is more important, and to whom?

Last week, Hedlund was back in town at a luncheon at the Metropolitan Club celebrating his new film, Unbroken, and its director Angelina Jolie. Sensitive to the importance of keepsakes to history, he spoke about his connection to the story of Unbroken, in which he portrays an American prisoner of war in Japan; he had discovered a picture of his grandfather in uniform, and other memorabilia. The Cassady's "Joan Anderson letter," had recently been found, and was scheduled for sale this coming week at the Southern California auction house Profiles in History. Forget the bathroom door. Hedlund was considering buying that letter, thought destroyed, one Neal wrote to Jack about picking up a girl on a Greyhound bus. Alas, as of the latest news, the auction was postponed, while the estates figure out who should get what from the sale.

Back in the day, Kerouac praised his friend's writing to the proverbial skies, calling it as good as anyone's prose. When Neal Cassady landed on Kerouac's door in New York in 1946, he had literary aspirations, and hoped he could learn craft from Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac. From the time Neal's letter was found last month, much has been written about its influence on Kerouac's writing, a fact he acknowledged himself. In an interview after the publication of her 2012 biography of Jack Kerouac, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, Joyce Johnson spoke to me about Neal's significant inspiration, but cautioned again the idea of giving him too much credit, noting other influences, particularly French:

"The voice in "La Nui est my Femme" was this first person voice in French, he had been fighting about using, very direct, colloquial, and passionate, and I think this was the voice he gave to the narrator of On the Road. And instead of trying to write such correct English, he allowed some of the natural French English to come into the text. It was the breakthrough into this natural first person voice of his that was French. He first thought of On the Road in 1946: a man recovering from a long illness goes on the road and meets symbolic characters, a solitary journey, a year before he met Neal. So before Neal, he was doing his own thing."

The importance of French-Canadian language to Kerouac is the latest line of inquiry pursued by current literary scholars, but it is not the only influence. In my own early work on Kerouac, I explored the relationship of his writing to jazz, haiku, Dostoyevsky; is one more profoundly influential than another? The significance of Cassady's letter has yet to be fully assessed. Noteworthy in his journals and letters, Kerouac was exuberant about many things, praising Shakespeare and Burroughs alike. So it is not surprising to see his excitement about Neal Cassady's writing. Neal, however, did not sit still long enough to complete even his autobiography, The First Third. There is no doubt that his language was an important influence on Kerouac's style, but one among several.

As to Cassady's letter, it may go the way of the On the Road scroll manuscript, to live on as an artifact commanding big fascination and bigger bucks. The scroll went for $2.43 million at Christie's, the highest price ever for a literary text. Fortunately, the buyer James Irsay has allowed the manuscript to travel, so an eager public and scholars have had access. Let's hope the letter as artifact meets a similar fate, whether or not Garrett Hedlund or anyone else gets to keep it.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.