I was curious to find out what set of books Kerouac was referring to in his summer 1942 diary when he was out at sea on the Dorchester, and then rewrote of in 1965 in Vanity of Duluoz.
The Diary entry is paraphrased as such, that he had many writers he enjoyed in a little book series (little as in size dimensions) which he purchased for .75 cents back in Lowell. In Vanity of Duluoz, he writes “It was now June 1942, with a little black bag containing rags and a collection of classical literature weighing several ounces in small print.”
I reached out through Melville scholar Hershel Parker who passed my query on to one of America’s leading textual scholars, Dr. G Thomas Tanselle, PhD., who replied:
“Kerouac’s description rules out a series like the Modern Library and Everyman’s. The only series that occurs to me as fitting his comments is the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books. They were small (about 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches) and lightweight, with paper covers; they generally consisted of 32 or 64 pages of small type. They were widely available throughout America from the 1910s through the 1950s, sold in drug stores, train stations, etc. Although the series contained radical and freethinking works, it also included a great many classic works of literature and philosophy. The price in the 1940s would have been less than 75 cents apiece. But if Kerouac meant that he bought a large group of them for 75 cents, that would certainly have been possible in a second-hand book store. I wrote an article about this series many years ago; if you want to look it up, it’s in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 64 (1970): 29-78. The light weight, small size, and wide availability of these booklets makes me think Kerouac might well have been referring to the Little Blue Books. This possibility is fascinating to me as further evidence of the influence of the series.”
Next for me is to acquire some titles!