Jack Kerouac, Francophone

Michael Hayward

The success of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road marked the start of the Beat era, his “spontaneous prose” style a striking departure from the formalities of previous generations of American writers. But not many people realize that Kerouac, that prototypically “all-American” writer, was born to Québécois parents, raised in the midst of an expatriate French-Canadian community in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and spoke only French until the age of six, when he first began to learn English at school.

Two new books focus on Kerouac’s francophone roots. The first, La vie est d’hommage [Life is a Tribute], from Quebec publisher Les Éditions du Boréal, collects some of Kerouac’s first writing attempts in his native language, including an early draft of On the Road, titled “Sur le chemin,” written in 1952 in joual, a slangy, colloquial form of French, while Kerouac was living in Mexico City, in the apartment of William S. Burroughs. An English translation of “Sur le chemin” is included in The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings (Library of America), along with “The Night is My Woman,” a translation (by Jean-Christophe Cloutier) of “La nuit est ma femme,” which dates from 1951.

Cloutier’s introductory note in The Unknown Kerouac makes fascinating reading, shedding light on Kerouac’s ambivalence about English, and his attachment to the orality of his first language. As Kerouac himself put it in a letter from 195, “All of my knowledge rests in my 'French-Canadianness' and nowhere else.”

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