The title tells the whole story: Vanity of Duluoz is all about his vanity, a look at his youth from beyond the grave. Allen Ginsberg gave a very good description of it: Everybody’s beauty was a vanity. Everybody’s tolerance was egotism. So it’s a late disillusioned version and a very precious one for that, because it’s a view of youth seen from the advantage of illness and age and total realism, no longer clinging to the favourite images and archetypes and loves of youth. It’s really washed out of that. You rarely get a view of youth from old age which is still tender, but judged accurately on the basis of experience. Once you get past Jack’s school grades and sports results, the book is easily his most accessible work and is the source of mose people’s received knowledge of the early days of the Beat Generation. It embodies the story of Edie Parker, of meeting Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, Bill Burroughs and Huncke. It retells the well-known anecdotes of the 115th Street commune and, of course, the tragic story of the death of Kammerer. The book ends with the slow painful death of his father, which was also the end of Kerouac’s youth.
He was undergoing such crucifixion in his mortification of his body as he drank. Nonetheless, he did have this quality of negative capability, the ability to hold opposite ideas in his mind without ‘an irritable reaching out after fact and reason’ which John Keats proposed as the true mind of the Shakespearean poet.
Allen Ginsberg: ‘So he drank himself to death. Which is only another way of living, of handling the pain and foolishness of knowing that it’s all a dream, a great, baffling, silly emptiness, after all.’
So, apart from an unseemly squabble over his estate, which is now valued at many millions, what did Kerouac leave behind? To quote William Burroughs: ’Kerouac and I are not real at all. The only real thing about a writer is what he has written, and not his so-called life. “And we will all die and the stars will go out, one after another.”