"I Dig Joyce": Jack Kerouac and Finnegans Wake

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The literary productions of Jack Kerouac have been persistently dogged by the misapprehension that he was an unschooled and simple recorder of the experiences that happened around him. Kerouac the writer has never been able to escape his public persona as the King of the Beats. He is often seen as a celebrator of the moment who cast aside all literary convention and any sense of a literary tradition, typing rolls of first draft manuscript out of a frenzied benzedrine inspiration. Seymour Krim, for example, buys into this when, introducing Desolation Angels, he says the Beats "were in revolt against a prevailing cerebral temper that had shut them out of literary existence ... and the ton of experience and imagery that had been suppressed by the critical policemen of post-Eliot U. S. letters came to the surface like a toilet explosion."(1) With the publication of Kerouac's Selected Letters, it has become clear that this is not at all the case.(2)

While Kerouac, as many have noted, may have been somewhat under the spell of Thomas Wolfe during the writing of The Town and the City, between 1946 and 1949, all along he had a much larger conception of what it was to be an artist. Writing to Allen Ginsberg, as early as 1944, Kerouac says,

I prefer the new vision in terms of art--I believe, I smugly cling to the belief, that art is the potential ultimate. Out of the humankind materials of art, I tell myself, the new vision springs. Look at "Finnegan's [sic] Wake" and "Ulysses" and "The Magic Mountain" (Letters, 82).

This only five years after Finnegans Wake was published. Kerouac's central influences were the literary giants of European modernism, the texts he had studied closely and seriously, whose examples he hoped to transform into an American epic. Much later, in Visions of Cody, the narrative voice will assert, "I know the secrets; I dig Joyce and Proust above Melville and Celine."(3) It was the secrets of Joyce, Proust, and Mann that Kerouac used to inform his sprawling treatise on the American twentieth century, that included all his novels and came to be known as the "Duluoz Legend."

The writer Kerouac saw as his most important literary fore-bearer was James Joyce. Hundreds of allusions to Joyce pepper Kerouac's fictions and letters, and they greatly outnumber his frequent references to any other writers. The name Duluoz, which Kerouac used to denote the protagonists of all of his novels, was derived from Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, as we see when Kerouac explains his early work to Neal Cassady in 1951. "In those days I was writing a Joyce-like novel in which I was the Dedalus; and called myself Duluoz. Let's do that now. Duluoz the Ladysman!" (Letters, 296). (Kerouac always resented the fact that his various publishers would not allow him to use the Duluoz name throughout all of his novels.) Gerald Nicosia says that Kerouac was charmed by the sight of Ireland during one of his Merchant Marine voyages, and that he felt that the Kerouacs had probably originated in Ireland before they made their way through Cornwall into Brittany.(4) The Joycean connection was something Kerouac took great pride in, and he reiterates it over and over again. His relationship with Dublin's greatest exile is not that of a student to a master, he feels, but rather they are co-equals in the same artistic line, as Kerouac boasts to Allen Ginsberg in 1952. "On the Road is inspired in its entirely.... I can tell now as I look back on the flood of language. It is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity" (Letters, 355). If James Joyce could write a national epic, then so too could Jack Kerouac.

But the novel that seemed to make the greatest impression upon Kerouac was Finnegans Wake, and apparently he immersed himself in it thoroughly, not giving up after the first ten pages as many readers did and still do. As he wrote to Carl Solomon, "When something is incomprehensible to me (`Finnegan's [sic] Wake,' Lowry's `Under the Volcano' . …