Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous education, 1935-1946

by Jack Kerouac
   This novel is Jack Kerouac’s final entry in what he called “The Duluoz Legend,” his fictional autobiography. The book is an account of much of the material Kerouac had previously covered in his first novel, The town and tHe city. Yet this revised account takes on a different tone. Vanity of Duluoz is considered one of Kerouac’s most accessible novels because of his self-described attempt to write plainly and to use normal punctuation (he somewhat bitterly chooses to eliminate his characteristic dash-style of punctuation). The book also covers aspects of the Kerouac’s life that are calculated to interest his readers, in particular the Columbia years and the scene around Joan Vollmer’s apartment at the time of the famous murder of Dave Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Kerouac’s letters to his agent at the time of the writing of this book show that he was under severe financial pressure for it to be a success, and perhaps this is why he finally ignored the plea of Carr, who had for years asked him not to discuss Kammerer’s death. Still, the book succeeds on its own terms, establishing a ruthless truthfulness and fullness of disclosure that is the trademark of Kerouac’s best work. Kerouac addresses the book to his third wife, Stella Sampas, for one of reasons that he wrote on tHe road—to explain to his wife, Joan Haverty in the case of On the Road, how he had come to be who he was. It is also worth noting that Kerouac wrote to Stella throughout the years that are covered in the book, although it would be many years before he would marry and move back to Lowell with her. The word vanity seems to be hanging before Kerouac as he writes the book. He points out to Stella that all his success as a writer has really brought him more trouble than happiness. Jack Duluoz is Kerouac’s persona again, and his decision to attend Columbia costs his father his job with Calloway printers in Lowell, which had offered him a promotion if Duluoz played football for the Jesuits at Boston College. Accordingly, in the years to come, Duluoz feels pressure to justify his decision. He spends a year at Horace Mann prep school to make up his high school deficiencies. There his fellow football players, who are mostly from working-class backgrounds, are suspicious of his friendship with the nonathletic, rich Jewish students who comprise the majority of the student body. Duluoz’s city friends introduce him to literature, avant-garde film, and jazz. He skips classes to study New York City. The original title of the book was “The Adventurous Education of Jack Duluoz,” and Duluoz recommends letting “a kid learn his own way, see what happens.” Kerouac’s nickname was “Memory Babe,” and he demonstrates a facility for recalling events and details of his teenage years, particularly his experiences in New York. War will disrupt what appears to be a clear path to success as a football player and a scholar at Columbia: Duluoz does play the 1940 season at Columbia. However, a spectacular run-back makes him overconfident in a game against St. Benedict, and he has his leg broken on the next play, foolishly fielding an unreturnable punt. The broken leg gives him the leisure to study, and he immerses himself in the works of the writer who will most influence him in his early years—Thomas Wolfe. Late one night, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in a blizzard, he actually sees Wolfe stride past him, deep in meditation, not noticing Duluoz. Duluoz returns to Columbia for this sophomore year, and his sense of fatalism is reinforced by Lu Libble’s (based on coach Lou Little) obvious intentions to keep Duluoz benched, playing lesser players in his place. Duluoz walks away from the team with a resolution to “go after being a writer, tell the truth,” and to “go into the Thomas Wolfe darkness” of America. He returns to Hartford and his disappointed father, takes a job at a gas station, and rents a typewriter. His father’s job ends in New Haven, and the family returns to Lowell, where Duluoz has the appearance of a returning prodigal son. He takes a job as a sportswriter for the Lowell Sun and spends his afternoons there writing a Joyce-influenced novel. In the evenings, he embarks on a program of self-education, working through H. G. Wells’s Outline of History and the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He fights with his father. His mother tells him not to listen to his father and that his father is only afraid that Duluoz might succeed in life by following his own path. Duluoz claims for the first time that he will support his mother no matter what comes. He quits the sports-writing job and goes South, where he works a construction job on the military’s new Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., in Virginia. War broke out in December, and Duluoz inevitably enlists—in the marines—but he ends up signing on with the merchant marines as a scullion, bound for the North Pole. Kerouac’s most important friend of his youth, Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas, brother of Stella, is portrayed here as Sabbas “Sabby” Savakis. Sabby tries to sign on with him, but Duluoz tells him he wants to be on his own. Duluoz laments that if Sabby had been able to sail with him, it might have changed his fate and saved his life. Sabby is later killed on the beach at Anzio. Much of the book quotes from Kerouac’s sea diary on board the ship, which he interrupts with wry, parenthetical comments about the style of his prose. Kerouac, at the time he wrote the novel, disliked communism, but in spite of the fact that he deplored anti-Vietnam war protesters, this book has a strong antiwar message. He is in the ship’s mess, cooking 2,000 strips of bacon for the crew, when he hears a depth-charge attack against a German submarine. Instead of feeling fear, he thinks of the German boy on the submarine who is doing the same thing he is—cooking breakfast.
   He arrives back home to find a telegram from Lu Libble, telling him it is time to come back and play football for Columbia. Duluoz does, on the condition that he gets to play and that Libble help his father get a job. Neither happens, and Duluoz implies that Libble keeps him benched in the Army game because the mob has a fix on the outcome. While listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the radio in his dorm room, he decides to quit football. Duluoz returns to Lowell, gets sick with the German measles, and spends his time hand-printing a novel entitled “The Sea is My Brother.” After recovering, he reports to the navy for duty, flunks his Naval Air Force Test, and is sent to boot camp.
   Duluoz’s problem with the navy was that he could not submit to the arbitrary discipline of his superiors. In the middle of the daily drills, he throws his gun down and walks off the field. They find him in the library. Although it was determined after psychiatric testing that he had the highest IQ of any soldier in the history of the Newport Navy Base, he is shipped off to the “nuthouse.” Duluoz explains to no avail that he was perfectly willing to serve his country in the merchant marine. In the psychiatric ward, he meets “Big Slim” from Louisiana, a man whose ambition from childhood was to become a hobo. Naturally, Duluoz hits it off with him. Duluoz is visited by his father, who tells him that he did the right thing in throwing down his rifle. Sabby also visits him, eyes big with tears, not understanding Duluoz’s actions. This is the last time that he sees Sabby. The navy discovers that Duluoz and Slim have hidden away knives to attempt an escape and sends them both, straight jacketed, to Bethesda Naval Hospital. There they are thrown in with seriously mentally ill patients. Duluoz tells the doctors that he constitutionally is incapable of submitting to discipline. They discharge him honorably but make him sign an affidavit that he will make no claims on the military thereafter. Kerouac now regrets that he felt compelled to balk the navy and even admits that he might have learned something useful in the service-something more useful, he says, than writing. He begins his “adventurous education” anew, going to live with his parents who now reside in Ozone Park in New York City. Big Slim visits and with Duluoz’s father they spend a day at the horse races and a night drinking. This is the last time he sees Big Slim. Duluoz makes good on his promise to the navy psychiatrists and signs on a merchantmarine ship. While making this voyage, he reads John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and comes up with the idea to write his own saga of interconnected books. The chief mate has it in for Duluoz, and assigns him to life-threatening duties that enraged the other crew members. Duluoz compares his situation to Billy Budd. After the ship docks in Liverpool he sees enough of the extreme poverty of the city and buys a train ticket to London on a two-day pass.
   Duluoz manages to visit London during a lull in the German air war. He visits museums and hears the symphony at the Royal Albert Hall. The day before sailing, he imagines fully the idea of “The Duluoz Legend”—“a lifetime of writing about what I’d seen with my own eyes.” Back in Brooklyn, he continues a romance with Johnnie (based on Edie Parker). Johnnie lived with a Barnard journalism student named June (based on Joan Burroughs) whose Columbia-adjacent apartment was the center of a group of bohemians. Here begins a long account of the events that are based on Lucien Carr’s relationship with Dave Kammerer. Here Carr is Claude de Maubris, and Kammerer is Franz Mueller. Kerouac had never previously published his version of the famous killing that signaled the beginning of the Beat Generation. Here he gives a detailed account of the older man Mueller stalking the beautiful, blond Claude and of Claude’s bemused response to Mueller that finally turned to desperation and murderous rage. For libel reasons, Kerouac has William S. Burroughs, Kammerer, Carr, and Kells Elvins all come from New Orleans, instead of St. Louis. Kerouac writes that this “clique was the most evil and intelligent buncha bastards and shits in America but had to admire in my admiring youth.” Kerouac also writes a detailed portrait of Burroughs and of the beginning of their long friendship. It is as close as Kerouac ever came to writing his longpromised novel based on Burroughs.
   This book gives the most detailed account of the Carr/Kammerer murder that was written by any of the Beats, and it is the basis of most of the accounts that are found in other books. It is a very literary retelling (Duluoz says of Claude and Mueller that their past was “exactly like Rimbaud and Verlaine”), almost as if the real-life story were scripted to be included one day as the first installment in the legend of the Beats. Mueller follows Claude from school to school and from city to city. At one point, Claude is so depressed by Mueller’s pursuit and his own confused sexuality that he attempts suicide by sticking his head in a gas oven-only to be saved at the last instant by Mueller. The pursuit continues in New York, where Claude attends Columbia and Mueller befriends Claude’s friends. Duluoz and Claude plot to shake Mueller for good by shipping out to France on a merchantmarine ship. The trip to France falls through when the first mate of the ship runs off most of the crew, including Duluoz and Claude. Claude awakens Duluoz at six the next morning, saying that he has “disposed of the old man last night.” The motive was self-defense. According to Claude, Mueller said that he would kill him if he could not have him. Claude stabbed him 12 times with his Boy Scout knife. Claude weighted the body and submerged it in the river. At some point earlier that morning, he found Will Hubbard, based on Burroughs, who advised Claude to get a good lawyer and turn himself in, which he planned to do. But first, Claude and Duluoz dispose of the evidence and go on a two-day drunk in Manhattan for one last time before, as Claude believes, he goes to the electric chair. After Claude turns himself in, Duluoz is arrested as an accessory to murder. The case immediately makes the newspapers. Duluoz is put in a cell with Mafia men who are being held as material witnesses, and one by one these hardened criminals try to take him into their confidence to find out if Claude is a homosexual. If his friends, including Duluoz, do not testify that Claude is heterosexual, he is almost certain to be convicted of murder, rather than manslaughter, for which he would receive only a two-year sentence. Duluoz is bailed out by Johnnie’s mother (Duluoz’s father had angrily refused bail money), and in return he marries Johnnie. Duluoz’s arresting detective was the best man, bought them several rounds of drinks, and escorted Duluoz back to jail. Duluoz’s summary comment on the murder is that Mueller got what he deserved for threatening Claude. To pay back Johnnie’s mother the bail money, Duluoz moves with his wife to Detroit where his father-in-law finds him an easy, well-paying job in a ball-bearing factory. He works for two months until the money is repaid and then goes to New York to ship out. Aboard the S.S. Robert Treat Pain, the bosun makes Duluoz’s life miserable by referring to him as a pretty boy, and Duluoz—still sensitive to the issues of sexuality raised in the Claude/Mueller affair—suspects the man’s hatred of him as some kind of homosexual infatuation. He jumps ship in Norfolk, Virginia, and heads back to the Columbia campus, where he dedicates himself to becoming a serious writer. After Benzedrine use lands him in the hospital, he rejects his Beat friends. This is the beginning of Duluoz’s ambition to explore America and signals his break from New York. The final chapters of the book focus on the death of Duluoz’s father, Duluoz’s vow to support his mother, and the writing of a novel. His biggest “vanity” is revealed as his ambition to be a great writer.
   An excellent account of Kerouac’s writing of Vanity of Duluoz appears in Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac. Amburn was Kerouac’s editor for desolation anGels and Vanity of Duluoz, which is dedicated to Kerouac’s wife Stella and to Amburn. Amburn says that it was his idea that Kerouac address the book to his wife and that this helped him find a form and a voice for the novel. Kerouac completed the novel in 10 marathon sessions at the typewriter. Amburn was disappointed by the book’s sexist and racist statements. The book was poorly reviewed, with the notable exception of john clellon holmes’s review, but it has since become a classic example of Kerouac’s misanthropy and bitterness at the end of his life. Kerouac’s portrait of Ginsberg as Irwin Garden seems particularly harsh. Yet, the book is still a tour de force of memory.
■ Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • Vanity of Duluoz — infobox Book | name = Vanity of Duluoz title orig = translator = image caption = author = Jack Kerouac cover artist = country = United States language = English series = genre = Semi autobiographical novel publisher = Coward McCann release date …   Wikipedia

  • Jack Kerouac — circa 1956. Fotografie von Tom Palumbo Jack Kerouac (* 12. März 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts; † 21. Oktober 1969 in Saint Petersburg; eigentlich Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac) war ein US amerikanischer Schriftsteller mit franko kanadischen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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