Jack Kerouac

Vanity of Vanities – Kerouac, Writing and Notoriety

Brian Kirk

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“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Ecclesiastes 1:14

It’s disturbing to find that Solomon, the wisest king of the Old Testament, thought so little of his wisdom and learning. For an aspiring writer it’s particularly alarming to find one of your heroes undermining the one thing you really hold dear. The life of a writer is a life spent in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the relentless examination and re-examination of the nature of our existence and the relationships we experience with ourselves and others and the world around us.

     As a reader in my early twenties I understood Jack Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz to be an older man’s bitter re-appraisal of a certain time in his own life and in America’s recent history. The very fact that Kerouac was one of the primary forces behind the Beat movement and the freedom it espoused only made it all the more heartbreaking to read him as he systematically undermined its legacy. The novel is hardly a novel at all. Even by Kerouac’s standards there is hardly any attempt to separate fact from fiction or to approach the recounting of facts using the imagination. At times he doesn’t even bother with the flimsy mask and goes so far as to refer to himself in parentheses as Kerouac as opposed to Duluoz. All of the events in the novel are biographically true, some having previously been fictionalised in other works, so it reads like a kind of memoir laced with great dollops of bitterness and a certain amount of regret and self-pity.

     Earlier this year I was prompted to re-read Vanity of Duluoz after I read Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City. The latter is a book I’d known plenty about but had never read. Like a lot of Kerouac admirers I’d started in my teens with On The Road before moving through the later books. For some reason I never felt the need to go back to the first Wolfe-influenced family saga, probably assuming that it was little more than juvenilia and of minor literary merit. My brother gave me The Town and the City earlier this year and encouraged me to read it, which is fitting because it was his copy of On The Road that I first read back in the early eighties.

     I was relieved to find that The Town and the City isn’t simply the young Kerouac aping his hero Thomas Wolfe. It is hugely ambitious, not only in its range of characters (the whole Martin clan) and span of time (1930s /1940’s Massachusetts and New York), but it also allows Kerouac the scope to talk about the war and the shadow it cast across a generation. I was surprised also to find strong female characters in the Martin sisters, Rose and Ruth; particularly Ruth who grasps the new opportunities offered to young women by the war. It’s also one of those novels wherein the writer brings everything they know and have learnt from life to date to bear in the story. Kerouac describes the novel’s ambition very well towards the end of Vanity of Duluoz: “So... I went home and…  I decided to become a writer, write a huge novel explaining everything to everybody...”  That novel was The Town and the City. This was Kerouac defining himself as a real and committed writer for life, putting down markers, identifying the themes he would return to again and again throughout his writing life.

Stylistically, he is making the language reflect the subject throughout; you can see flashes of the flow of his later spontaneous prose in his active descriptions. Take this section describing a high school football game:

  “And up in the stands the crowds roared and saw Peter swing wide with the ball in one hand gripped like a big egg, and turn in swiftly towards the scuffing lines and break through at headlong speed, and go breakneck up the field with his legs twinkling in the gloom, pursued by dark figures, smashed down by dark figures on the white chalk-stripes.”


     In the novel Peter Martin is Jack, but the Martins are a big family, unlike the Kerouacs, so the older brothers, Joe and Francis, also display elements of Jack’s character, even down to the detail of Francis being a surviving twin. Joe is the wild one who wants to be on the road, Francis is the intellectual who feels out of place in small-town Galloway (Lowell) and wants only to be in New York City, but Peter is the closest approximation of Jack – the college ball player, the one who gets the girls, but also the one who has ambitions to be a journalist, a writer.

     The arc of the story is the same as that of Vanity of Duluoz: a bright and ambitious boy who loves his family gives up academic and football career opportunities in order to pursue the life of a committed writer and sometime bum. In Vanity of Duluoz the idea of viewing success or even its pursuit as an act of vanity is applied retrospectively by the older, embittered writer. But even in The Town and the City, a book written while Kerouac was still in his twenties, there is a yearning for the simplicity of youth in the text which seems incongruous in one so young; particularly in the character of Peter Martin, who after some early trials and tribulations is constantly drawn back to his home and his parents before he makes a full commitment to writing. Near the very end of the novel Kerouac describes a touching scene with Peter and his dying father, followed by young Peter’s thoughts on life and death which must have reflected his own feelings at the time: 

“He saw that all the struggles of life were incessant, laborious, painful, that nothing was done quickly, without labor, that it had to undergo a thousand fondlings, revisings, moldings, addings, removings, graftings, tearings, correctings, smoothings, rebuildings, reconsiderings, nailings, tackings, chippings, hammerings, hoistings, connectings – all the poor fumbling uncertain incompletions of human endeavour.”

In Kerouac’s own life, between the bouts of sustained writing, travelling, hard drinking and drug-taking, he used the family home as a refuge from the very alternative life he had chosen. It’s clear that part of him believed from an early age that the better life was the life at home and that the life of experience and kicks spent with the other Beat characters was just a form of vanity. The really interesting point for me is where these two lives intersect, that space where the young man steps away from the madness, sits down at a typewriter and tries to make sense of the glorious mess that is his experience. In 1958, at the height of his success with On The Road, Kerouac chose to return to live with his widowed mother in Florida where he worked steadily on the manuscript of The Dharma Bums until he got itchy feet again and returned to New York and all the consequent madness.

It’s not unusual for writers to return again and again to the same themes in their novels: in Kafka it’s alienation, in Philip Roth it’s sex etc., but Kerouac not only returns to the same themes, he often returns to the same story. Towards the end of The Town and the City a version of the true story of the killing of David Kammerer by Kerouac’s friend Lucien Carr is told. In the real version Kerouac helped Carr dispose of the evidence and subsequently gave himself up and was detained as a material witness for a time. A fuller version of the story was told also in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which was written in collaboration with William Burroughs and published only in 2008. The story again appears in The Vanity of Duluoz. The names have changed again of course, but the tone is altered also. Now it is neither adventure nor cruel farce, but matter-of-fact reportage of the stalking of Carr by Kammerer and the subsequent killing of the latter and disposal of his body. There’s also an element of bar-room bravado as we have the older Kerouac telling us how it was for him on remand, the aspiring writer, rubbing shoulders with wise guys in the ‘Bronx Opera House’: “ …as I’m lying there reading Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in waltzes Vincent the Falcon Malatesta arm in arm with Joey Angeli.”  

What we know about Kerouac’s approach to his work we know from the biographical content in the works and from the man himself. Towards the end of his life his attitude to writing had changed and he appeared to include the act of writing itself as part and parcel of the general vanity of the world. This idea of vanity chimed with his Catholic upbringing but also with the Buddhist idea of no self which he had always been drawn towards. This is from his 1968 Paris Review Interview, the year before he died: 

“What I do now is write something like an average of eight thousand words a sitting, in the middle of the night, and another about a week later, resting and sighing in between. I really hate to write. I get no fun out of it because I can’t get up and say I’m working, close my door, have coffee brought to me, and sit there camping like a “man of letters” “doing his eight hour day of work” and thereby incidentally filling the printing world with a lot of dreary self-imposed cant and bombast,bombastbeing Scottish for pillow stuffing.”

     It seems to me that Kerouac’s distaste for writing could more accurately be described as a growing distaste for the subjects he was writing about. He no longer recognised America as the same country he grew up in. Then there is his drinking to consider. Self –loathing is often a by-product of heavy drinking. He craved anonymity and isolation but his fame or notoriety ensured that he was constantly pestered by callers who wanted to meet the great man and buy him a beer. And what was worse, he felt only anathema for these kids, the new hippie generation, who so wanted to lionize him: “everybody looks at everybody else on the sidewalk with guilt and worse than that, curiosity and faked concern, in some cases ‘hip’ regard based on ‘Don’t miss a thing’.”

     It’s ironic that the only thing he ever really wanted to do with his life became a burden and a chore as he became successful. The base material for all of his writing – himself and his life experience – became the very thing he couldn’t bear to apprehend near the end. It’s maybe not the best advice to give to an aspiring writer, especially one who might have an eye on fame, but perhaps it’s not surprising that a forty-something year old Catholic with Buddhist tendencies could write these lines in the late 1960s: 

“…I did it all, I wrote the book, I stalked the streets of life, of Manhattan, of Long Island, stalked thru 1,183 pages of my first novel, sold the book, got an advance, whooped, hallejuah’d, went on, did everything you’re supposed to do in life. But nothing ever came of it. No ‘generation’ is ‘new’. There’s ‘nothing new under the sun’. ‘All is vanity.’

Jack Kerouac died on 21st October 1969, forty seven years ago. He was forty seven years old.