Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5905
Jack Kerouac described himself as “a great rememberer redeeming life from darkness” and fondly recalled moments when he had “the quiet opportunity to remember my own mind.” In one sense, the Beat movement itself issued from his memory. In his June, 1959, Playboy essay “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac claimed that the guts of the Beats had come from his ancestors—the independent Breton nobles who fought against the Latin French; his grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, who used to defy God to put out his kerosene lamp during a thunderstorm; his father, who used to give such loud parties that the Lowell police came for drinks—and from his own childhood, peopled with the Shadow, the Moon Man, and the Marx Brothers, all eccentric, rebel individualists whose nonconformism was inspired by a notion of being contrary to the expectations of a fearful, bourgeois social system. At the least, its roots were in the post-World War II generation that had seen the face of Evil, had traveled across the globe, believed that there was nothing they could not accomplish, and were inspired by a search for what Ginsberg called the promise of “a lost America of love.”
Kerouac claimed on more than one occasion that his books were actually one book about his entire life. He had intentions to consolidate them, but these plans were not carried out before his death. The areas of life that he remembered and celebrated include the dichotomy between his family and friends in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Beat friends with whom he carried on such a frenzied, peripatetic relationship. As a rememberer, he never separated the two entirely; the Roman Catholic Bretons and the gentle Leo and Gerard were never far from his consciousness. Kerouac declared that his father had never lifted a hand to punish his children, or even their little pets, and that Gerard had extracted from his younger brother a promise never to hurt or allow anyone else to hurt a living thing. These two strains—the fierceness of the Bretons and the gentleness of his brother and father—culminated in the vitality and the kindness of Jack Kerouac, whose disappointments at the unavoidable failure of his largest dreams grew into an almost inchoate anger against a universe that had betrayed his quest for something sacred perhaps unattainable on earth.
The disparity between the legend of the Beat saint and the reality of Kerouac’s life is likely to increase just as the full power of his literary achievement is becoming “officially” acknowledged. Contrary to the early critics who misconstrued On the Road according to their own agendas, the novel can be understood, as Louis Menand has put it, as a “sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity and failure,” but also as a story of high-energy enthusiasm for a vast continent always ready for an eager explorer. Menand maintains that the Beats were more misfits than rebels, “men who wrote about their feelings,” but there is an outlaw—that is, outside the law—inclination in their lives and more so in their artistic endeavors. Kerouac dreamed of recognition as outstanding student-athlete and great writer, at least in his youth. The books that made him famous, however, could not have been written by a man satisfied with standard measures of success. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other men who, in Menand’s words, “stretched a canvas across an entire continent,” Kerouac’s ambitions were vast, and in the service of their fulfillment, he reached—as really outstanding artists must—beyond what even his skills could encompass.
The Town and the City
When he was ready to write his first published book, The Town and the City, Kerouac found it necessary—or more aesthetically pleasing—to use five boys to present the many facets of his own character and the psychological dynamics of his family. The Kerouac family became the Martins, and Lowell became Galloway, which had a rural setting. The Martins are wealthier than the author’s own family; they are also less devout as Catholics. The mother is French, and the rest of the family is Irish. Most of the vignettes serve to illustrate the love that the Martins feel for one another and Galloway as a town of “wild, self-believing individuals,” the kind about which Walt Whitman sang.
The style of the novel is romantic and sprawling, in the vein of Thomas Wolfe. While Kerouac possessed an almost uncanny aptitude for recollecting details, he enhanced his memory by reviewing his old notebooks, a basic method of composition on which he depended. The book was to be more than a chronicle of the Martin/Kerouac family; it was to be a microcosm of America. There are three sisters and five brothers in the Martin family, as opposed to the daughter and two sons of the Kerouacs; the loving, compassionate Mrs. Martin recalls Kerouac’s own mother. Mickey, the youngest child of the Martins, goes to dinner and the races with his father, just as the young Jack had gone to Rockingham racetrack with Leo. He also writes novels and publishes newspapers about his imaginary racehorses and baseball teams. Gerard Kerouac’s traits are divided between the twins Julian and Francis Martin (Gerard’s baptismal name was Francis Gerard). Two of the sisters, Rose and Ruth, have the characteristics of Kerouac’s sister Nin, while the third, Liz, is more like Kerouac’s high school sweetheart, Mary Carney. One story of sibling love involves Charley, who had broken a window with his slingshot and is collecting junk to pay for it. Liz and Joe pitch in to help him when they learn of his plight. Liz eventually elopes with a jazz musician, has a stillborn baby, divorces her husband, and becomes a blond barmaid.
The central character, Peter, is thirteen when the novel begins, and the story of his most spectacular high school game is that of his creator. As a result of his prowess, Peter wins a football scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, but he leaves to join the merchant marines. As a student, however, he meets a new circle of friends whose habits dismay George Martin just as Kerouac’s marijuana-smoking cronies had bewildered Leo. Peter tries to introduce his mistress Judie to his parents, but their meeting is interrupted by a policeman who wants Peter to identify the body of Waldo Meister, a suicide victim. The gulf between the Martin family and Peter’s friends is never closed, but Peter continues to be a loving part of both groups. He nurses his father during his final illness and reacts to his death with grief and disbelief.
Peter’s brother Francis is a shy, studious Harvard student who fails the officer candidate school aptitude test and rebels at being a soldier. When he is confined for tests, he spots a Navy psychiatrist with The New Republic under his arm and decides that he has met a kindred spirit. Convinced that Francis is indeed incapable of taking orders, the doctor helps him obtain a discharge, a loose parallel with Kerouac’s own service situation. As Peter moves out in the world beyond Lowell, he listens to Leon Levinsky (the first of four characterizations of Allen Ginsberg) lecture in a Times Square cafeteria about a “post-atomic” disease of the soul, using words taken from an actual essay by Ginsberg (with permission from Ginsberg).
The novel ends with an unhappy Peter heading for the West and a new life on a lonely, rainy night. The family has figuratively died with the father, and Peter will go wherever the road leads. According to John Clellon Holmes, the book had originally ended with the family together, and the “on the road” ending was a last-minute Kerouac addition that would lead obviously and naturally into his next book, already in the planning stage.
The Town and the City is frequently compared with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929), and, like Wolfe’s book, it required considerable editing, which was accomplished by Robert Giroux, who cut one-third of the manuscript. In spite of its lukewarm success, Kerouac continued to believe in his own genius. Years later, he learned that the Kerouac family crest includes the motto (translated from the French), “Love, Work, and Suffer.” He happily noted that these words accurately describe the Martin family.
On the Road
Both the title and the novel had been incubating in Kerouac’s mind for four years when he sat down to write On the Road in 1950. He considered alternate titles, including “Rain and Rivers,” before he fashioned the scroll on which he typed the first complete draft, 120,000 words in one single-spaced paragraph. Six more years passed before its publication, the manuscript undergoing revisions while it was rejected by several publishers.
Sal Paradise, the narrator and the Kerouac figure, received his name when Ginsberg wrote a poem containing the line, “Sad paradise it is I imitate.” His casually scrawled “d” caused “Sad” to look like “Sal.” Sal, whose ideals are both romantic and personal, sets out near the beginning of the tale to search for an Eden, both in a literal geographic sense and in terms of a kind of inner consciousness. He is a war veteran, studying on the G.I. Bill, and is at the same time leaving behind the intimacy, safety, and responsibility associated with home and family and, in Kerouac’s case, the familiar cityscape he knew. In an expression of open-minded expectation and camaraderie, nearly everyone Sal meets is described with astonishment and delight. He hears “the greatest laugh in the world”; he observes the most smiling, cheerful face in the world; and he watches a tall Mexican roll the biggest “bomber” (marijuana cigarette) anybody ever saw.
While enjoying the singularity and diversity of the citizens of a country he is discovering, Sal thinks of himself, his friends, and fellow travelers as seeking salvation and some kind of promised land. Sal expects to find a direction and purpose on the road that his life has not previously had. He has studied maps of the American West, and when he begins his trip, he wants to repeat as closely as possible the path of the old wagon trains. He glories in the names of such cities as Platte and Cimarron and imagines that the unbroken red line that represents Route 6 on his map duplicates the trail of the early American settlers.
After a false start hitchhiking on a rainy day, Sal returns to New York and buys a bus ticket to Chicago; the bus is a mode of travel he uses more than once. In Des Moines, Sal awakens nameless and reborn in what seems to be a turning point in his life. This moment that divides his youth from his future occurs, fittingly enough, in middle America. He goes from Denver to California, where he meets Dean Moriarty, the central figure of the book and the characterization that made Neal Cassady, “the Adonis of Denver,” a legendary presence in the Beat cosmos. Dean, recently in reform school, becomes a part of Sal’s life, an extension of his personality, his alter ego; he even insists on sharing his wife with Sal. Three becomes a crowd, however, and Sal, after several digressions, goes back to the East and his aunt. On the last lap of his journey, he meets a shriveled old man with a paper suitcase who is called “Ghost of the Susquehanna.” Sal sees him as an aging reflection of what he himself will become—an American vagabond, a heroic dropout of a social order too corrupt to be redeemed.
The energy of On the Road derives from Moriarty, who is never far out of Sal’s mind. Dean’s accomplishments include skillful driving (often of cars he has stolen for joyrides), talking his way out of any tight situation, seducing women (frequently two at a time), and appreciating jazz in a burst of words somewhat incoherent but so forceful in the rush of language that their lack of formal organization is not an impediment to comprehension. The friends Dean has met in pool halls become the minor heroes of this epic or, at least, memorable figures in the tableau that Kerouac is creating.
In Kerouac’s mind, Cassady and America were one entity—vibrant, carefree, and admirable. Through Dean, Kerouac chronicles a new kind of existence in postwar AmericA&Mdash;suggesting a life less dependent on place and family and more tolerant of impropriety. The hedonist Dean loves and leaves his women in the manner of the stereotyped cowboy who rides off into the sunset. Dean, never complacent, ever free, can be characterized by the fact that he goes to answer his door completely naked. Even when he is employed and has a home address, he seems to be on the move; he is always planning a break from entanglements, often represented by whomever his current wife might be.
Sal sees himself as a disciple to the saint, Dean, and he exults in Dean’s uniqueness and eccentricity. Dean’s mysticism consists of belief in his father, in God, and in IT, which can be communicated by jazz musicians and which has somehow been communicated to Dean through his missing father, who had been a drunk. The search for Dean’s father is one of the book’s themes, along with the search for God. The travelers are seeking some kind of wisdom giver, a guru who can direct and enlighten them, as well as someone to shelter them from life and responsibility. They approve of those pilgrims (Montana Slim and Remi Boncoeur) who are respectful toward their own fathers even as they live independently on the road.
Perhaps the story would not have been the same if Dean had not been such an extraordinary driver, absolutely at home on the road. Sal has no driver’s license, and when he is allowed at the wheel he guides the car off the road and onto a muddy shoulder. Even though Dean’s chief contribution to their conversation seems to be “Wow,” he expresses himself eloquently while in control of a car. Never mind if he wears it out; he delivers the car exhausted to its owner, while he travels on jauntily in another vehicle willing to respond to his touch—an example of his attitude toward his life as one event after another in an endless chain of opportunity and excitement.
Women respond to Dean in the same way, and he sees sex as essential and holy. His problem is that he wants to love several women simultaneously. He sees them as part of his self-improvement schedule, which is not induced by remorse for crimes committed or prison terms spent, but by the demands imposed by his search for a better life. Sal forgives Dean his thefts and other transgressions, reasoning that all Americans are like that, or perhaps ought to be.
On the Road is also a love story, both an unabashed story of love for the terrain the characters traverse and the story of Sal’s love for Dean; their movements back and forth across the continent represent in some ways their relationship. Sal sees Dean at first as a source of hope, and he moves toward him, fascinated. He finally assumes some of the responsibility for his friend and becomes his defender. After Dean’s thumb becomes infected as a result of his having struck one of his women, Sal sees Dean as a mad Ahab. When Dean, Sal, and a friend go to Mexico City, on what is significantly their first north-south journey, Sal becomes ill and is abandoned by Dean, who has to go home to straighten out one of his recurring domestic crises. Sal never denies Dean, but he is less enamored of his sometimes childish friend by the book’s end.
Most of the characters Sal meets on the road are attractive in some way; as Huck Finn finds people on the river to be sympathetic, Sal feels a communion with the hobos, who eschew competition and jobs for a sense of brotherhood and a simple life. He is disappointed, however, when he sees his first cowboy, whose apparel is his only claim to authenticity. Like Stephen Crane before him, Sal sees that the mythic West is merely trying to perpetuate dead traditions and that Central City is simply a tourist attraction. Nothing can be as fine as his dreams of the West, and he eventually begins to conclude that the East, after all, may be the place to find contentment and salvation. He returns home in his favorite month, October, realizing that he has acted out an adventure, but that he has experienced no rebirth. The last paragraph of the novel, however, contains the embryonic dream of an ideal America still intact and forecasts future voyages across the continent, in actuality and in the re-creation of memory and, ultimately, in the pages of the book toward which the trip leads.
The point of view of On the Road is consistently that of Sal, but as he tells the reader about his experiences as they occurred at the time, he also comments on the same events as he sees them now, with a more mature, more disillusioned, more objective eye. Saddened by the realization that the road itself is all-important to Dean, that Dean does not seem to have any deeper or larger foundation, Sal repudiates the idea of movement with no purpose.
Recognizing the vastness and shapelessness of the experience he was trying to put on paper, Kerouac sought a suitable form and style. He began to write the book in a conscious imitation of Thomas Wolfe, but he finally decided to try to approximate Cassady’s amorphous, joyous style. He added to that a new, free-association method that he called “sketching,” suggested to him by Ed White, who thought it possible to paint with words. Sketching, comparable in Kerouac’s view to the improvisation of the jazz musicians he greatly admired, was new, but the story he told was a repetition of the ageless initiation theme. On the Road is, however, not simply another Tom Jones (Henry Fielding, 1749) or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1884); it reflects the confusion, the sense of search, and the troubled spirit of the Kerouac generation as well as the fierce idealism and almost innocent expectations of post-World War II America. It is a defiant rejoinder to the paranoia and suppression of the politics of the Cold War and the McCarthyite assaults on civil liberties.
The title of The Subterraneans comes from Ginsberg’s name for Greenwich Villagers; its setting is New York, disguised with San Francisco place names. Kerouac claimed that the book is a full confession of the incidents surrounding his love affair with Alene Lee, a part black, part Native American subterranean (called Mardou Fox in the book) who had been hanging out with drug addicts and musicians. Kerouac fell in love with her, he said, even before they were introduced, typical of his romanticized anticipation of experience prior to its occurrence.
The book, consciously modeled on Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913), contains Mardou’s private thoughts as she has whispered them to Leo Percipied (the Kerouac figure). She imagines herself walking naked in the Village, crouching like a feline on a fence, experiencing a private epiphany, and then borrowing clothes and money to buy herself a symbolic brooch.
Leo sympathizes with minority races (as Kerouac himself always did in theory, although as he got older he tended to sound anti-Semitic when referring to Ginsberg) and listens to Mardou’s thoughts about African Americans, American Indians, and American society with a keen perception. The story carries Leo and Mardou on their frenzied movements through the Village in scenes that include meetings with bop musicians, poets, and novelists. A central scene describes Yuri Gligoric’s (Gregory Corso) theft of a vendor’s pushcart, in which he transports his friends to the home of Adam Moorad (Allen Ginsberg), who is angry at Yuri because of the prank. Both Mardou and Leo become dissatisfied with their life together, and when Yuri and Leo bicker over Mardou, Leo chooses the incident as an excuse to separate from her. Afterward, he wanders alone to a freight yard, where he has a vision of his mother. Leo finally admits that he felt inadequate sexually in the presence of Mardou, and he concludes, “I go home, having lost her love, and write this book.”
Fortified by Benzedrine, Kerouac sat at his typewriter with a teletype roll and wrote his confession in “three full moon nights of October.” The style of the novel is notable for its faithful reproduction of Alene Lee’s syntax and her drawn-out syllables. Kerouac heard in her speech a similarity to bop music, and he found in it what he called the “prose of the future.” Impressed by this remarkable language, Burroughs and Ginsberg asked Kerouac to write a description of his spontaneous method of composition, and the result was the essay “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.”
Reviews of The Subterraneans were not favorable. The only affirmation came from Henry Miller, who admired Kerouac’s forthrightness. When an editor tried to cut some of the book, Kerouac refused to let him print it, and it was finally published in its original form in March of 1958.
The Dharma Bums
In 1955, following his fourth visit to Mexico City, where he had completed the manuscript for Mexico City Blues, Kerouac traveled back to the United States to visit Ginsberg just prior to Ginsberg’s landmark first reading of Howl. Kerouac met the other poets who were preparing for the night at the Six Gallery and immediately became friends with Snyder, who was taken with Kerouac’s “affable clarity” and recognized him as “a truly gifted writer with a new kind of language sense.” These two men epitomized the blending of East Coast and West Coast sensibilities and styles—seemingly contradictory but ultimately complementary attitudes toward life and literature. Snyder, a protoenvironmentalist and self-assured outdoorsman, and Kerouac, an inward-focused, drug-dependent city dweller, saw in each other the possibilities of a new American aesthetic in which both believed. Kerouac, “too bashful” to join the others on the stage, admired Snyder’s ability to follow Ginsberg’s overwhelming presentation of Howl, delivering poems with “heroic firmness and a smile.” He was drawn to the amiability and good sense that made Snyder a friend to all of the disparate and often contentious gathering of writers in the Beat constellation, “earnest and strong and humanly hopeful,” as he described Japhy Ryder, his mythologizing portrait of Snyder in The Dharma Bums.
The Dharma Bums, a book that Kerouac regarded as an adventure story, is one of the most representative expressions of a Beat sensibility in a work of fiction. Snyder called The Dharma Bums a real statement of synthesis, through Kerouac, of the available models and myths of freedom in America: Whitman, Thoreau, and the nomadic vagabonds whom Kerouac likened to the “Zen lunatics” Snyder told him about. Unlike The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums is less a confessional following a chronological record than an intelligently crafted re-creation of one of the most positive moments in Kerouac’s life. For example, the author begins the narrative with an encounter on a freight train with a bum who reads daily the prayers of Saint Teresa, much beloved by Kerouac himself since childhood. He includes this character because the ascetic hobo adds to the book’s religious ambience, and he balances this theological dimension with a depiction of a golden-blond California girl in a convertible who gives him a ride to San Francisco, where he first sees Ryder “loping along with the curious long stride of the mountain climber”—the spiritual and physiological elements of human nature blending in a Zen vision of fulfillment as the key to the dharma.
In the heart of the book, Ray Smith (Kerouac) remembers an evening of peaceful happiness when he and Japhy sat together on a big glacial rock, elated, hallucinating, yet serious, and surrounded by yellow aspens. Their experience was akin to Zen satori (a kind of enlightenment) or, in more Western terminology, a Joycean epiphany in which something essential about a person is revealed or illuminated.
The picture of Japhy is painted through an accurate reproduction of Snyder’s speech and recollections of his poetry. The haiku that Japhy composes on the mountainside are repeated verbatim, as are fragments from letters, which led Snyder to chide Kerouac for not making the incorporations more seamless. Japhy is such an inspiring, admirable character that Snyder felt a bit abashed about the depiction and gently reminded people in later years that Ryder is a heroic exaggeration. The scenes of Smith and Ryder in what are frequent occasions for parties, however, are both entertaining and enlightening in terms of Kerouac’s capable handling of overlapping dialogue among visitors and local friends, which deftly reveals the psychological perspectives of characters, even those only briefly glimpsed. In addition, Kerouac’s ability to convey the feeling of a particular location is evident, giving the book some of the qualities of the best travel writing. The feeling for the terrain that Ryder helps Smith to grasp is a function of Snyder’s verses just as Snyder was emerging as an important voice in American poetry and of Kerouac’s real skill with description, an aspect of his own efforts with poetry (as in Mexico City Blues, which was published the next year).
The way of life to which Ryder introduces Smith is a truly spiritual one, punctuated with prayer, laughter, and poetry, whose exemplars are the fellow anarchist/pacifist/regionalist political activists who peopled the “rucksack revolution,” Kerouac’s conflation of old Chinese mountain hermits and American railroad tramps. Both Smith and Ryder seek to understand the dharma, or the truth of religion and life, in individual and mutual interaction. The dharma is associated with a nobility of body, mind, spirit, and speech as Smith is introduced to ecology and earth consciousness. The two discuss their own private religious beliefs, and Kerouac, who had been reading Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible (1938) since his breakup with Lee, was very receptive to Snyder’s ideas and instruction. Uncertain about how to conclude what is basically a picaresque accumulation of incidents, Kerouac decided to use his notebooks from his stay on Desolation Peak after Snyder departed for Japan. This is a test of his Buddhist beliefs, alone in the wilderness, isolated from both the town and the city, and off the road with no human companions. The reliance on the Self offered an opening into areas of perception that Kerouac rarely considered and led to an ending that is more upbeat than almost anything else in his work.
As Joyce Johnson has described it, the day after On the Road was published, “The ringing phone awoke him [Kerouac] the next morning and he was famous.” The magnitude of the burden that fame brought could not be anticipated, and Kerouac was ill suited by nature and disposition to handle it. By 1961, he was aware of the psychic damage resulting from his efforts to approximate in public the image of “Jack Duluoz” by putting on “a jovial cap to keep up with all this.” Lamenting the “drunken visitors puking in my study” and realizing that he had “to get away to solitude again or die,” Kerouac accepted an invitation from Lawrence Ferlinghetti (the model for Lorenz Monsanto in Big Sur), publisher of City Lights Books, to spend some time at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur along California’s central coast.
In Big Sur, in an unnerving echo of some of Kerouac’s sojourns on mountain terrain with Snyder, Duluoz makes a fearful descent down a cliff to Monsanto’s cabin, this trek the beginning of his attempt to recapture the halcyon days of dharma freedom. He envisions a ritual of purification and spiritual cleansing and a reconnection with the “rucksack revolution.” Instead, a forbidding landscape and a pervading feeling of isolation envelop him, leading to an inward journey to the depths of his psyche. In the woods, he feels a nostalgia for cities, and by the fourth day he has already begun to get bored, “A long way from the beat generation, in this rain forest.” Some of Kerouac’s most vivid, lyrical writing conveys the ethos of the wilderness even as it leads to an uneasiness that cannot be calmed by thoughts of Emersonian self-reliance. Duluoz finds himself rethinking everything he has done and questioning all that he had hoped to accomplish.
The narrative voice in this novel is very intimate and personal, and the narrative structure is designed as an unfolding present, immediate responses to stimuli in a succession of sentences often linked by dashes. Retreating from Big Sur, Duluoz arrives at Monsanto’s bookstore in San Francisco and joins some of his old friends from the “madder Dharma Bum days.” Although he realizes how much “things have changed in America” after he fails at hitchhiking, he looks forward to visiting “great Cody” (Neal Cassady) “up ahead with his thousand stories.” Wary as he notes a “signpost of something wrong,” Duluoz finds Cody preparing to rush off to work, his home a domestic refuge from the road. Recognizing his own need for a secure space, Duluoz is still disappointed by his friend’s turn toward domesticity, and he looks forward to a party at the cabin with old friends and eager new arrivals. The revelry is more like a “drunken dumbshow” (Ginsberg’s term for the era), disillusion and disappointment overshadowing forced gaiety, Duluoz trying to live up to the legend so he will not disappoint the “believing heart” of yet another worshipful young stranger.
Moments of lacerating insight ground the narrative, as in a two-page exegesis about the horrors of alcoholism. The heart of the book is a fond tribute and farewell to Cassady, the sharer of Kerouac’s secret soul. Mixing revery, recollection, appreciation, and regret, the pages from section 23—“Suddenly, boom, the door of the cabin is flung open with a loud crash and a burst of sunlight illuminates the room and I see an Angel standing arm outstretched in the door! It’s Cody!”—to the end of section 30, when “Cody has completely disappeared,” are Kerouac’s envoi to the phantom of wonder who remains tantalizingly alive in his writing.
Following Cody’s departure, the narrative continues in a haze of alcoholism, anger, and self-pity. Duluoz descends into a pit of paranoia, a “blur of days” in which he fears he is losing his mind. Kerouac conveys the feeling of madness in a surreal surge of short fragments and images, a stunning evocation of Duluoz’s moods that grips the reader as intensely as any extended passage in Kerouac’s writing. The last pages are a sudden return to sanity from the dark nightmare of the soul, somewhat substantiated by a “poem”—“Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur”—that validates the narrator’s resumption of a more normal mental state. Ginsberg said that he “wrote through his misery to end with ’Sea,’” but the excursion along a dark road remains as a haunting reminder of what happened to Kerouac when his life and his legend collided.
Vanity of Duluoz
Writing with the kind of mature self-reflection not evident in his earlier work, Kerouac concluded the saga of the Duluoz clan with a vivid re-creation of the cultural conditions that formed the artist in Vanity of Duluoz. His working title for the book was “An Adventurous Education, 1935-1946,” which highlights the twin goals of his youth. The book is presented as a kind of “autonovel,” one of the terms that Henry Miller (whom Kerouac admired) used for his novelistic autobiographical inventions, but the book is actually a memoir written before the genre became popular. Ostensibly addressed to “Wifey” (Stella Sampas) as an explanation of his “particular form of anguish,” it quickly shifts from complaints about the ways America has declined (“Nobody loves my dashes anymore” is a variant on a pervasive refrain) to a high-energy, enthusiastic re-creation of a vanished world that Kerouac remembers very fondly.
The “voice” that expresses the narrative consciousness of the book is unlike anything that Kerouac used previously. He seems more relaxed, less agitated, but as enthusiastic and involved as in the Road novels. His goal is to set the record right (“Bragging still, but telling the truth still”), to clear up various misconceptions about important events and people in his formative years. As he describes his participation in football, first on a sandlot level and then toward the scholarship he was awarded by Columbia University, and his gradual development as a student—in terms of both formal and self-directed studies—his excitement and determination are designed to pull the reader along on a quest for excellence. In addition, Kerouac conveys the complex, vibrant mix of people in New York, so that the city is both setting and a sort of “character” in the story, as on the long subway rides that Duluoz took each day from his residence in Brooklyn to the Columbia campus on the city’s northern fringes.
Even as his considerable achievements unfold, Duluoz often feels that he could do more, that he has not fully satisfied his own or his family’s hopes, what he calls “the black plume in the hat of success.” Perpetually restless, always interested in new experiences, he impulsively leaves the football team when the famous but blinkered coach does not give him the opportunities he feels his talents deserve. While this seems like a setback, it is actually an opportunity for him to become a part of a wider world, even if he often seems like an outsider at odds with a standard model. He is discharged from the Navy due to “psychiatric difficulties,” an episode he describes with an antic attitude, casting everything in a bizarre comic mode. The concluding chapters of the book introduce “the characters of my future life,” notably Will Hubbard (Burroughs) and Irwin Garden (Ginsberg). Ginsberg is seen briefly in fleeting glimpses, but Burroughs is carefully captured with admiration, “a truly tender and curious soul,” as Kerouac is attempting to direct his literary heritage for posterity.
The final pages show a world receding into history as Duluoz projects an ethos of philosophical accommodation to the circumstances of his life. The Catholicism and Buddhism that have been separate but not contradictory strains of thought for him remain as touchstones, paralleling the construction of the entire book, as several narrative threads are interwoven sufficiently to give the volume a unity of individual psychology. The solid intellectual formation that began in Kerouac’s youth becomes clearer here than in any other of his works, and his attempt to justify himself to himself and to the world is an appropriate riposte to all of the critics who castigated him for what they thought were just the unformed jottings of an uneducated bohemian. As important as Kerouac’s other enthusiasms were, the conclusion of the Duluoz saga makes clear—as he hoped it would—just how much more important writing was for him than anything else he ever did or hoped to do.