Jack Kerouac: #DormLife in 1940

In the semi-autobiographical novel Vanity of Duluoz, Jack Kerouac talks about his days as a student and football player at Columbia in 1940. It was in his dorm room in Livingston Hall (now Wallach) that Kerouac had the quintessential collegiate moment.

Hartley, Wallach (Livingston) and John Jay Halls (l to r). Scan 5460. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

In 1940 Jack Kerouac was in many ways a typical Columbia freshman. He was taking LitHum (“read Homer’s Iliad in three days and then the Odyssey in three more”). He worked as a dishwasher at John Jay. And he was playing freshman football, hoping to play varsity for Coach “Lu Libble,” as he renames Lou Little in the novel. This is how he describes his room: 

I had a room all to myself on the second floor, overlooking the beautiful trees and walkways of the campus and overlooking, to my greatest delight, beside the Van Am Quadrangle, the library itself, the new one, with its stone frieze running around entire with the names engraved in stone forever: ‘Goethe … Voltaire … Shakespeare … Molière … Dante.’ That was more like it. Lighting my fragrant pipe at 8 P.M., I’d open the pages of my homework, turn on WQXR for the continual classical music, and sit there, in the golden glow of my lamp, in a sweater, sigh and say “Well now I’m a collegian at last.”

Jack Kerouac in Columbia Football uniform, 1942. Scan 4673. John Mladinov Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Back then the ‘new library’ on campus was South Hall, or what we now know as Butler Library, The Library opened just a few years earlier  in 1934 and was not renamed after President Nicholas Murray Butler until 1946. From his room at Wallach, Kerouac could see the names on the eastern façade of the Library: Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, and Goethe. Dante, however, is actually located on the western façade. But despite this bit of poetic license, his description of doing homework by the desk lamp in your dorm room still rings true today.

Kerouac, Jack. Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-1946. New York: Penguin, 1994, c 1968, 66.