On le Road

Kerouac's French-Canadian roots hold the key to his literary identity

Illustration by Iveta Karpathyova
Illustration by Iveta Karpathyova

The real-life backstory of Jack Kerouac’s unpublished novel is classic beat generation. It was December 1952, and tensions were running high as Jack and his friend Neal Cassady—the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road—drove from San Francisco to Mexico City.

Whereas Neal was looking for adventure and a chance to stock up on weed, Jack was in a difficult period. His first novel, The Town and the City, published under the name John Kerouac in 1950, had met with lukewarm reviews and poor sales. In April 1951, he had written On the Road on a (now famous) 120-foot-long scroll, but hadn’t been able to find a publisher. He was thirty and had been laid off by the railroad after a bout of phlebitis in his leg.

Kerouac decided to convalesce in Mexico City with William S. Burroughs, who would later author Naked Lunch. Three months earlier, Burroughs had performed a William Tell act with his wife, Joan, while they were drunk and accidentally shot her in the head, killing her. Shortly after Kerouac’s arrival, Burroughs skipped bail and fled the country. Neal Cassady went home. Alone, living in a rooftop apartment in Mexico City, Jack wrote a short novel over the course of five days.

The first line reads: Dans l’moi d’Octobre, 1935, (dans la nuit de nos vra vie bardasseuze) y’arriva une machine du West, de Denver, sur le chemin pour New York. Written in the language of Kerouac’s childhood—a French-Canadian patois then commonly spoken in parts of New England—the line has an epic, North American ring. Kerouac would later translate it as “In the month of October, 1935, in the night of our real restless lives, a car came from the West, from Denver, on the road for New York.”

The novel’s title is Sur le chemin—“On the Road.” But it is not the On the Road we all know (which would be translated in France as Sur la route). It was the On the Road of Kerouac’s vernacular—chemin being used in the title to mean both “path” and “road.”

Over the course of his literary career, Kerouac redefined the archetype of the American man, and he has since become so integral to American culture that his identity as an immigrant writer is often forgotten. He was born in 1922 as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac to parents from Quebec. He spoke French at home and grew up in the French-Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts. In one of his letters, he wrote, “The English language is a tool lately found . . . so late (I never spoke English before I was six or seven). At 21, I was still somewhat awkward and illiterate sounding in my [English] speech and writings.”

In 1954, Kerouac created a list of everything he had written and included Sur le chemin among his “completed novels”—even though it would remain in his archives for more than six decades before publication was finally arranged this year. Sur le chemin and his other French writings provide a key to unlocking his more famous works, revealing a man just as obsessed with the difficulty of living between two languages as he was with his better-known spiritual quests.

In particular, they help explain the path—le chemin—he took as he developed his influential style, which changed the way many writers throughout the world have thought about prose. To this day, Kerouac remains one of the most translated authors, and one whose work is shared across generations. His unpublished French works shine a light on how the voice and ideas of an iconic American figure emerged from the experiences of French-Canadian immigrants—a group whose language and culture remain largely unknown to mainstream America.

Kerouac’s parents came to New England as part of the French-Canadian diaspora, what in Quebec is still referred to as l’exode—the exodus—the period from 1840 to 1930 when half of the province’s population emigrated south. As many as 900,000 French Canadians made the journey, and by the turn of the century, 700,000 Franco-Americans—or roughly half of the French-speaking population of Quebec—were working in New England’s textile, paper, and leather mills.

Having spent a century resisting English colonial rule, French-Canadian immigrants clung to their language and traditions, influenced by a strain of parochial Catholicism that remained conservative even by the standards of the time. A New York Times editorial from 1892 warned against their “singular tenacity as a race and their extreme devotion to their religion,” describing their migration as a “priestly scheme” to bring New England “under the control of the Roman Catholic faith.” By the 1930s, with the Great Depression in full swing and new laws restricting immigration, Franco-Americans faced intense pressure to assimilate. They were often spat on, called “frogs” and “pea-soupers,” and told to “speak white.” To avoid such discrimination, many changed their names.

Kerouac grew up in Lowell during this period, when prosperity turned to hardship and dislike of French Canadians intensified. In 1950, he published his first novel—a book that, though deeply autobiographical, masked his French-Canadian origins. In a review in Le Travailleur, an American French-language newspaper, the Franco-American critic Yvonne Le Maître asked whether he might be avoiding the genre of the immigrant novel. She pointed out that although Kerouac’s family were known survivants—a term denoting those who fought for the “survival” of the French identity—he failed to plant human roots in his writing.

Kerouac responded with a passionate letter in which he betrayed how unsettled he felt about the question of his identity: “I cannot write my native language and have no native home any more, and am amazed by that horrible homelessness all French-Canadians abroad in America have . . . Someday, Madame, I shall write a French-Canadian novel, with the setting in New England, in French. . . . All my knowledge rests in my ‘French-Canadianness’ and nowhere else . . . ”

Jean-Christophe Cloutier, editor of Kerouac’s collected French texts and their translator for the Library of America edition, notes that in the period following this exchange, “French begins to (re-)infiltrate Kerouac’s writings, and he comments [in his journal] on how the assimilative pressures of the US have forced him to ‘pass’ as an American for years.”

In February 1951—a little more than two months before he wrote On the Road on the 120-foot-long scroll—Kerouac began La nuit est ma femme, or The Night Is My Woman. Subtitled The Labors of Michel Bretagne, it describes the hardships he knew as a workingman and is more simply written than many of his works, its tone distinctly confessional: “I am French Canadian, born in New England. When I am angry I often curse in French. When I dream I often dream in French. When I cry I always cry in French . . . ”

The Night Is My Woman is a story of both survival in America and the need to forge an identity from two languages. Kerouac’s use of English words to describe work evoke how his people’s struggle for livelihood led to the kind of cultural subjugation often central to immigrant stories. His decision to become a writer obliges him to question his relationship with the dominant language, much as he does in his letter to Le Maître, in which he wrote: “The reason I handle English words so easily is because it is not my own language. I refashion it to fit French images.” In The Night Is My Woman, he expands on this subject: “I dreamed for too long that I was a great writer. . . . At first I used big ‘fancy’ words, big forms, ‘styles’ that had nothing to do with me. When I was a child in New England I ate my supper at the table and wiped my mouth with the dishrag—done, and gone. Why the big words, the grand lyrics, to express life?” And then Kerouac delivers this surprising line: “I never had a language of my own. French patois until six years old, and after that the English of the guys on the corner. And after that—the big forms, the lofty expressions, of poets, philosophers, prophets.”

These thoughts help chart Kerouac’s transition from the more conventional narrative of The Town and the City to the rhythmic, idiomatic prose of On the Road, the book that, according to William S. Burroughs, “sold a trillion Levi’s, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road.” It forged the image of the beat generation, with Kerouac as its rambling, all-American Pied Piper. He was no longer Jean-Louis or even John, but Jack: a more American-sounding name could hardly be imagined. And yet On the Road’s distinctive, uninhibited style had evolved during the period when he most often wrote in French, when he struggled to bridge not only two worlds, but two ways of speaking of the world: his private, intimate patois, and the public, assimilative English that—though it was the language of his friendships and the literature he loved—had all but extinguished French in the US.

I first read Sur le chemin in the New York Public Library archives. Written down in two small Mexican school notebooks that Kerouac carried in his backpack for years, it is the novel that perhaps best reflects his worldview, bringing together as it does many of the themes and characters that inform his writing as a whole. Some sections are in French, some are in English, and in both languages, there are traces of the other.

The story begins with nine-year-old Dean Pomeray Jr., another fictionalized version of Neal Cassady—but this time, he’s a child with a French last name. America is mired in the Depression, and Rolfe Glendiver, a cowboy and Dean Jr.’s half-brother, drives Dean and his wino father to New York so they can start over in an apartment belonging to relatives from Boston.

The novel’s long passages surge through the characters’ pasts before returning to junctures where their lives intersect, giving Sur le chemin the feel of a classic American text of its era, Faulkneresque in its driving language and changing points of view, its digressions rich with descriptions of the US.

And yet its hybridized patois is also reminiscent of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (a book Kerouac admired): multiple languages inhabit the same lines—though here the effect they produce contributes to a fresh presentation of the American experience. Virtually no other enduring texts from that time show us the cultural collision then taking place in New England or present, in a voice that was authentically theirs, the Franco-Americans’ contribution to America. In the way Kerouac merges the two languages, in the phonetic renderings of French words he knew by sound but struggled to reproduce on paper, the ebbing of the French-Canadian experience in New England is powerfully felt.

In Quebec, the equivalent use of popular, idiomatic language wasn’t apparent in literature and theatre until 1968, with the stage production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs, seventeen years after Kerouac wrote Sur le chemin. The play’s focus on the real lives of plainspoken working-class women scandalized the conservative, deeply religious society and started a revolution in Québécois literature. Until then, the voices of the poor and uneducated, the vernacular of the working class, hadn’t been represented in books or on stage.

That way of speaking is still called joual, a word originally used to refer to the slang spoken in Montreal’s east end. (The word derives from the way “horse”—cheval—is pronounced by joual speakers.) Kerouac’s language differs from that of Les Belles-soeurs, though both works emphasize the real patterns and idioms of the French spoken by ordinary people in their part of North America. In his book, Kerouac writes of “les chwals de Nebraska”—“the horses of Nebraska”—chwal being the New England variant (or at least Kerouac’s) of joual. The term is frequently spelled this way in Louisianan and Haitian Creole, evoking not only the long history of the French colonial presence, but also the peasant language of the people who carried it around the world. Elsewhere in his writing, Kerouac spells the word shwal, a more American variant. Cloutier and I, over the course of the many conversations we had while he was reconstructing and translating Sur le chemin, searched for a shorthand to describe this Franco-American patois—for a term that would crystallize that historical moment in relationship to its language, to its roots in Quebec, and to the larger North American francophone experience.

We finally settled on shwal.

Though a critic such as Le Maître could conclude that Kerouac’s debut was in no way a Franco-American novel, the author’s rejection of his French-Canadian ties even as he struggled to validate them speaks to the conflicting impulses of the immigrant experience: the attachment to traditional values and an old community, alongside the desire to succeed in a new one; the dislike of the cultural garments being donned, matched by an urgency to get them on.

Against this backdrop, the themes and preoccupations of Kerouac’s complete body of work—read as a Proustian memoir, a roman-fleuve, or, in his word, “one vast book”—come into focus: the lifelong identity crisis and the search for spiritual and cultural belonging that found moments of equilibrium in his novels; the Catholic faith that for him found expression through drug-fuelled mysticism, Buddhist meditation, poetry, and bebop prose; the quest for self-invention that was mirrored in the awe he felt when encountering the vast beauty of America.

And yet a sense of loss and inauthenticity haunted him, especially after his rise to fame. In the years before he drank himself to death at the age of forty-seven, he was consumed by self-loathing. His 1962 novel, Big Sur, is from this period, when he lived in Florida with his mother—one of the few people with whom he could still regularly speak French. This domestic setting was at odds with the myth of Kerouac, and his alter ego in Big Sur, Duluoz, states: “I’m supposed to be King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms . . . ”

In one of the more striking passages in Big Sur, Duluoz suffers from the DTs and finds himself no longer able to maintain the facade. He begins praying to God in French, wailing and crying out that he feels sick. He then notices a young beatnik fan outside his cabin window. Briefly, the two Kerouacs occupy the same space: the beat hero and the son of immigrants. Scarcely has he finished asking for God’s mercy in the language of his childhood than he has judged himself, conscious of his young admirer: “I wonder now what he told people about this later, it must have sounded horrible.”

The image is sad and strangely Biblical: the prophet of a generation begging for salvation only to condemn what is truest in himself. If someday America finds it has outlived its romance with the simple, exuberant beat Kerouac, there may be space to free him from myth, to humanize him and place him back in a history no less American for being French Canadian. Maybe then this conflicted, kneeling Kerouac can be remembered: his story a record of loss—and, in this way, far more American than most of us know it to be.

This appeared in the December 2016 issue.

Adapted from Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America, edited by André Pratte and Jonathan Kay. Copyright © 2016 Deni Ellis Béchard. Published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Deni Ellis Béchard
Deni Ellis Béchard recently released his second novel, Into the Sun.
Iveta Karpathyova
Iveta Karpathyova, M.Des., is an illustrator, animator, and educator. Her work can be viewed online at www.ivetaka.com.