Known primarily as the author of On the Road (1957), the novel most closely associated with the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) also wrote extensively about his French-Canadian heritage. A native of the large francophone community of Lowell, Massachusetts, he faced the dilemma of writing in a foreign language, English, while one of his motives to write was to memorialize a community assimilating to U.S. society and speaking French less and less. The recent publication of his two short novels in French from the early 1950s, La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman) and Sur le chemin (Old Bull in the Bowery), provides evidence that the preoccupation with travel informing On the Road is deeply tied to his sense of cultural and linguistic exile. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Quebec to New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries practiced survivance, cultural survival, especially through maintaining fluency in French and adhering to Catholicism while living among a Protestant majority. These customs of the Quebecois diaspora had begun in Canada: following the 1763 annexation of Lower Canada to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War, francophones resisted immense pressure to assimilate, both official and unofficial. Narratives of displacement from France and subsequently Quebec persisted in folklore and literature on both sides of the border through the 20th century.
In early 1951, Kerouac drafted La nuit est ma femme, telling the story of Michel Bretagne, a French Canadian from New England who wanders around the eastern United States with a sense of homelessness. Narrating in a French that reproduces the southern New England dialect, Michel laments that neither of the languages he speaks really belongs to him. The text develops the theme of cultural and linguistic mixing and its discovery through travel. Shortly after completing La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac brought this theme to On the Road, famously composing the novel on a roll of paper in three weeks in April 1951. Contrary to legend, he did extensive rewriting before his landmark work was published: Sur le chemin, which he drafted in late 1952, offers an “on the road” story about Franco-Americans and was by his own account a key part of the rewriting process. During this time, he elaborated his theory of “spontaneous prose,” writing quickly and in an improvisational manner as a way of conveying geographic, cultural, and linguistic movement. In the wake of On the Road’s depictions of the expanses of the United States, including its geographic place in North America, Kerouac turned to Franco-American New England. His next book, Dr. Sax (1959), takes place in Lowell and features lengthy passages in French; the novel’s central concerns are his community’s relationship to a legacy of displacement and the conflict between clinging to the past and creating something new. If there is a principal thrust in Kerouac’s writing, it is to challenge American literature to recognize its transnational and translingual character.