Jack Kerouac and Translingual Literature
Summary and Keywords
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.
North American Roads
With the recent publication of writings by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) in his native French, including his two short novels from the early 1950s, the latter of which have also appeared in English translation, an entirely new picture of the Beat Generation author is emerging. Although journalistic and scholarly accounts continue to portray him as a naïve hipster who wandered and wrote with equal aimlessness,1 La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman) and Sur le chemin (literally On the Road, but Kerouac’s English title is Old Bull in the Bowery)2 at the very least underscore that Kerouac’s preoccupation with travel had everything to do with his sense of cultural and linguistic exile. Composed in a French whose spelling and grammar transcribe the dialectal language he knew intimately, these writings show that literature offered him a way of addressing the outsider status that dominant, anglophone U.S. society imposed on him as a member of the Quebecois immigrant population. One of his primary motivations to become a writer, he made clear in letters and journal entries, was to memorialize his people as he witnessed their rapid assimilation to U.S. society. When he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922, the local Franco-American community made up roughly 25 percent of the city’s total population of around 100,000. Given the name Jean-Louis Kerouac,3 he learned French before English, attended francophone parochial schools until age eleven, and was fully aware of the hostility his people had long faced.
Long cut off from France after the 1763 annexation of Lower Canada to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War (the North American portion of the Seven Years’ War), through much of the 19th century the Catholic francophone population of Quebec faced vigorous policies of assimilation. In the words of John Lambton, Lord Durham, appointed governor general of British North America in the wake of the failed Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837–1838, the continuing unrest stemmed from “a contest of races” whose solution lay in “obliterating the nationality of the French Canadians.”4 One of the principal ways that these policies took shape was economic, in the form of greater obstacles imposed on francophones against securing credit and obtaining business licenses. Failing farms in Quebec coupled with growing U.S. industry contributed to the migration of about 900,000 people between 1840 and 1930, roughly half the population of the province during this period. By the turn of the 20th century, at the height of the migration, one quarter of French Canadians lived in New England. The environment was not welcoming: they were greeted by such epithets as “the Chinese of the Eastern states” and “a horde of industrial invaders” because of their reputed willingness to take any job at the lowest wage;5 their maintenance of ethnic identity in continuing to speak French was often assailed as unpatriotic, even a threat to American democracy.6 Over the years, such stereotypes found ever-renewed currency. In his classic of World War I–era U.S. white supremacist resurgence, The Passing of the Great Race, Madison Grant deemed the French of Canada “of little more importance to the world at large than are the negroes in the South.”7 In 1923, when Kerouac was a year and a half old, Grant follower Robert C. Dexter railed in The Nation against Rhode Island, following its legislation protecting the right of French-Canadian private schools to instruct in French, as “the most thoroughly foreign State in the Union.”8
Reactions to this often aggressive bigotry were strong in the communities of the Quebecois diaspora, mainly through efforts at survivance (the term of choice for cultural survival, used on both sides of the border). Despite these efforts, assimilation to the dominant anglophone culture of the United States kept a steady pace. In the decades following World War II, the parochial schools in New England became primarily anglophone and the francophone newspapers folded. During his early years, Kerouac, determined to be a writer, made extensive notes on writing fiction about Franco-Americans; as early as 1939, he created a character named Richard Vesque (a variation on his mother’s maiden name, Lévesque) who lived in the town of Galloway, based closely on Lowell.9 Around 1945, he opted for less ethnically distinct American characters, as he struggled with a pressure to assimilate that manifested itself as an interest in writing a novel with broad appeal, “a universal American story,” as he later put it.10
Kerouac’s first published novel, The Town and the City (1950), is an allegory of assimilation, both as the performance of a francophone author’s fluency in English and as a showcase of Americans whose ethnic roots are increasingly hidden. Even the name of the town suggests a disappearance of Frenchness, “Gall-away,” and all that’s explicitly left of Kerouac’s own heritage is in the protagonists’ mother, Marguerite, the granddaughter of a Quebecois farmer named Courbet who settled in New Hampshire.11 The father’s name and the family name, Martin, is ambiguously anglophone and francophone, concealing the name of Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897), whose centrality to Catholic life in Franco-American Lowell Kerouac would patently depict in later work.12 The Town and the City also tells a story of scattering from initially shaky rootedness: the members of the Martin family leave New England, many of them because of war duties, and despite efforts never manage to return to the settlement of home, remaining distant from each other. The novel ends as Peter Martin, one of several brothers whom Kerouac based on aspects of himself, embraces the uncertainty of wandering, allowing the road to take him where it will as he hitchhikes.13 Hence Kerouac not only sets the scene for a sequel, his planned road novel, but he also announces the simultaneous lamentation and celebration of lost rootedness, an idea that would dominate all his subsequent writing as well as inform his compositional practices.
Along with the generally positive reviews in major newspapers such as the New York Times, Kerouac’s debut book garnered attention in the Franco-American press. Amid praise for his poetic language and crisp realism, Yvonne Le Maître, a distinguished Franco-American journalist of the early 20th century and from 1911 to 1913 a correspondent on the Paris literary scene for H. L. Mencken’s The Smart Set, took the young John Kerouac (as his name read on the book cover) to task on the front page of the Worcester, Massachusetts, weekly Le Travailleur for hiding his heritage. “In the starter soil, the manifold and diverse ethnic humus, Lowell, where this tree grows, John Kerouac didn’t plant … human roots.” She quipped acidly, “Imagine Hamlet without the father’s ghost.”14 On September 8, 1950, nearly six months after the review had appeared, Kerouac wrote a letter of thanks to Le Maître from Mexico City—a place where he regularly visited friends, in letters and fiction often treating the trip as a re-enactment of crossing the border of the United States from the north. In the letter, he shows a mix of pride at their shared heritage and chagrin at his removal from it, yet he affirms the thorough hold the heritage has on him: “All my knowledge rests in my ‘French-Canadianness’ and nowhere else. The English language is a tool lately found.” One of the complications of “French-Canadianness,” of “the horrible homelessness all French-Canadians abroad in America have,”15 is a tenuous relationship to French: the pressure to assimilate and to have “universal” appeal imposes the necessity of writing in English.
Kerouac makes Le Maître two interrelated promises. The first is that “[s]omeday, Madame, I shall write a French-Canadian novel, with the setting in New England, in … the simplest, most rudimentary French. If anyone wants to publish it … , they’ll have to translate it.” The second is that, since “French-Canadians everywhere tend to hide their real sources,” “I’ll never hide it again.”16 In strong echoes of Franz Kafka, the literary conundrum that Kerouac now faced was the impossibility of not writing, lest he and his people remain hidden to dominant anglophone society; the impossibility of writing in English, since doing so hides him and his people; and the impossibility of not writing in English, since writing in French leaves him and his people even more hidden.17 In the months following his letter to Le Maître, Kerouac embarked on the quest for a writing method that would at once be in English and open to foreignness of both language and culture. The result was the discovery of his much-maligned “spontaneous prose”; necessary and integral to this discovery was a literary detour into writing the promised novel in French, which Kerouac apparently regarded as a hidden part of his oeuvre. In fact, it has taken six decades of international fame for him to be recognized through publication as a francophone author.
Languages of Migration
Kerouac dated the notebook in which he wrote La nuit est ma femme “Winter-Spring 1951,” indicating his starting date as February: so this experiment followed by only five months his promise to Le Maître.18 It shortly preceded the major poetic breakthrough of his career, the drafting of the scroll manuscript of On the Road (1957) in three weeks in April 1951, the latter embodying the attempt to break away, for reasons closely related to his cultural and linguistic conundrum, from the careful composition-and-revision process he had so far observed. In La nuit est ma femme, he tells the story of Michel Bretagne, a French Canadian in the United States grappling with who he is and which language he is better off speaking. His surname signals the French name of Kerouac’s ancestral region, Brittany, and his first name recalls Saint Michael, in keeping with the missionary narrative that was common among 19th- and early-20th-century century French-Canadian clergy in connection with the migration of hundreds of thousands of Catholics to a primarily Protestant country.19
The text of La nuit est ma femme is a demonstration of Kerouac’s strong interest in understanding his relationship to French, and just as much to the English that remained foreign to him. It marks his first sustained use of the nonstandard French that turns up in many other places in his work, and it contrasts with polished French passages he wrote elsewhere. He constructed it with the aim of conveying the language that his New England community spoke. (Although this language is sometimes called joual, this term, designating a dialect of the Montreal region, is culturally and historically inaccurate concerning Franco-American Massachusetts.) In transcribing dialectal differences through altered spelling and syntax, he underscored the distance between these two versions of the language; hence he signaled that Massachusetts French was itself a testimony to exile. He wrote this French with fluency, and it is quite readable once one is used to the patterns of its irregularities. The latter are largely in accord with both Quebecois French and its variants spoken in southern New England through the 1970s.20
The language itself is integral to the story; its very use signals Michel’s lack of rootedness. The narration is in the first person, an acknowledgment of Kerouac’s recent vow not to hide himself; for the same reason, he draws heavily on autobiography, as he did in all his subsequent works. Lamenting his distance from his origins, Michel goes on the road, recognizing the need to leave behind his New England home and seek a new place that remains elusive—but this apparent failure to find a new home is what enables his encounters with the different cultures of the United States. The fragmentary, meandering narrative of La nuit est ma femme is appropriate for presenting the divided identity of this wandering French Canadian. This textual quality stems from the rough-draft status of the manuscript, but it also suggests that capturing cultural and linguistic fracture is why Kerouac soon moved away from the planned order of composition and revision. He links the task of writing to the state of exile, signaling through Michel that the English he has used in his work has only amplified his exile:
J’ai rêvez trop longtemp que j’etait un grand écrivain. J’appri ça dans les livres. Y’avait un temps que j’pensais chaque mot que j’ecrirai etait immortelle. J’embarqua ça avec un gros coeur romantique. Ça c’est possible dans les jeunes. D’abords j’ai usé des grand mot “fancy,” des grosse formes, des “styles” qui avait rien a faire avec moi.
(I dreamed for too long that I was a great writer. I picked that up in books. There was a time when I thought every word I wrote was immortal. I embarked upon this with a big romantic heart. This is possible in the young. At first I used big “fancy” words, big forms, “styles” that had nothing to do with me.)21
This writing (presumably Kerouac’s own in The Town and the City) concealed the basic realities of French-Canadian culture. The quest for literary immortality in English has only worsened Michel’s longing for a lost home.
To express this sense of separation, Kerouac/Michel writes simple, straightforward, vernacular phrases in the French that is both intimate for its tie to the faraway home and distant for its removal from standard French as well as from English. The reason that writing is of vital importance is that exile takes place in language:
J’ai jamais eu une langue a moi-même. Le Francais patoi j’usqua-six angts, et après ça l’Anglais des gas du coin. Et après ça—les grosses formes, les grands expressions de poète, philosophe, prophète. Avec toute ça aujourd’hui j’toute melangé dans ma gum.
(I never had a language of my own. French patois until 6 years old, and after that English of the guys on the corner. And after that—the big forms, the lofty expressions, of poets, philosophers, prophets. With all that today I’m all mixed up in my noggin.)22
Through Michel, Kerouac announces that if he really will write a French-Canadian novel, he must forgo the ascendancy to literary greatness that his ambivalent acceptance of assimilated Americanness would enable. Through this experiment of writing a translingual fiction that he never expected to publish, he created a model for his subsequent writing in English: his task was to make, in the words of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a “minor utilization”23 of the major language, to move away from syntactic and lexical convention in order to counter the exclusion of vital parts of reality.
Through the detour into French that is La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac began the parasyntactic recasting of English for which his writing is well known, and that earned him immense scorn throughout his lifetime. His position as an outsider to English gave him the advantage of speaking a language removed from its metropolitan version by the tremblings of civilization and empire; his writing brings the innumerable effects of these shocks to light through transformations of English. If he began in “le Francais patoi,” the French-Canadian French that in 1941, at the age of nineteen, he had described as “one of the most languagey languages in the world,” full of “words of power,” “a huge language,”24 he was already working in a language of migration that refuses fixed forms and also spawns expressions for the new realities it encounters. The point of his literary experimentation is to inject into the literature of American English such malleability and inventive power. As preparation for the experiment of drafting On the Road that he undertook almost immediately afterwards, and as his promised Franco-American novel, La nuit est ma femme brings to light the close links in his poetics between his unsettled Franco-American identity and his ancestral ties. The road is the uncertain way back to cultural origins as well as the inevitable path of exile, and writing is depiction, extension, and performance of cultural vagabondage. In light of La nuit est ma femme, commentators should simply quit regarding On the Road as a mere memoir or autobiographical novel illustrating some countercultural hero’s intoxicated peregrinations. It is, rather, an exercise in a poetics of exile—a reflection on cultural displacement that opens a quest for the many cultural displacements that constitute the United States. The road is both literal and figurative: it is the way to approach these shaky settlements, and it is writing itself, a map of the terrains it explores.
The Prose of Travel
From April 2 to 22, 1951, Kerouac composed On the Road on a series of sheets of Japanese drawing paper varying in length between about twelve and seventeen feet, likely feeding each sheet through the typewriter and subsequently taping them together to produce the famous 120-foot scroll.25 This procedure enabled him to write quickly (fueled by coffee, not amphetamines) and to visualize the convergence of his writing and the road. As he wrote to Neal Cassady a few weeks later, “Went fast because road is fast … rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road.”26 In the novel, Kerouac compares this process of composition to the road, through the image of the writing sheet describing the motion of travel and implicitly likening the car to a typewriter, the instrument that maps the land: “The magnificent car made the wind roar; it made the plains unfold like a roll of paper.”27 Placing existential importance on the road, his poetics of exile necessitates quick composition. As Kerouac writes in the opening statement of Visions of Cody, a long, highly experimental novel published posthumously in 1972, his writing is “like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed.”28 Nonetheless, not only is it the case that the 1951 scroll is part of a process that he had begun several years earlier, but also that the 1957 published version is the result of extensive revision. Although legend has it that this rewriting was a series of alterations imposed on an unwilling author by his square publisher, evidence instead indicates that most of the changes between the first and last versions were made at Kerouac’s initiative (albeit in frequent consultation with editors) and all with his knowledge.29
Rather than solely the result of an impulsive burst, On the Road is a work whose long-term composition reduces the importance of the distinction between writing and revision. Kerouac’s idea of writing “on the run” has more to do with the fact that his writing is movement—that his manuscripts undergo regular alteration as part of his effort to bring them into intimate contact with the reality that they engage—than with some notion of simply heaving out words. So a serious critical understanding should at least partly account for each work’s extended network—its continuity with other versions, notes, letters, journal entries, and so on. The 1957 published version of On the Road is a legitimate edition, fully attributable to Kerouac, no less “authentic” than the 1951 scroll (published in 2007); but barely in a secondary position are the scroll, the other drafts, and numerous additional documents. Among these is Kerouac’s other extended narrative in French, which he wrote in a series of notebooks in December 1952 and titled Sur le chemin. Although this phrase means “on the road,” instead of the more obvious Sur la route (the standard title of the translation of On the Road since its publication by Éditions Gallimard in 1960), Kerouac uses the word chemin, a somewhat older word in French (dating to the 11th century) than route (dating to the 12th century) that indicates a more out-of-the-way thoroughfare. This choice reflects Kerouac’s acceptance of the widespread mid-19th- to mid-20th-century mythical idea that Quebecois French is closely related to the medieval version of the language, the latter an imagined artifact of the time of colonization. The word chemin also suggests more meandering than route, hence more digression of both narrative and travel.
The text’s story is a digression from that of On the Road: its main event is the 1935 meeting in New York City between Dean Pomeray, a drunk who travels by car from Denver, and Leo Duluoz, a French Canadian driving from Boston.30 Duluoz is the family name Kerouac uses in most of his novels to designate his main character/alter ego Jack or Jean Duluoz; Leo is his own father’s name; his use of “Dean Pomeray” for the two characters based on Neal Cassady, father and son, corresponds to other versions of On the Road. Duluoz is accompanied by his thirteen-year-old son Ti Jean (Kerouac’s own childhood nickname), Pomeray by his nine-year-old boy, Dean, as well as an older stepson named Rolfe Glendiver, the driver. The French of this text is similar to that of La nuit est ma femme. Leo and Ti Jean’s car trip takes them on from their home in Massachusetts, across Connecticut, and to New York. The planned meeting with the Pomerays is a kind of migration, a glimpse at the expanses of the United States:
“Imagine tué drivez toute ce chemin la de Denver a New York,” disa Leo a son fils, “ses des gran distances sa, a travers les espaces profondes de la terre, sa, c’est pas comme nos petit voyage a Vermont la dans Nouvelle Angleterre, tse, c’est pas comme achetez des clams a Cape Cod.”
(“Imagine driving all that way from Denver to New York,” Leo was saying to his son, “those are great distances, across profound spaces of earth, it’s not like our little trips to Vermont in New England, you know, it’s not buying clams like at Cape Cod.”)31
The destination, New York, is the place where Kerouac, when he moved there in 1939 to attend the Horace Mann School as part of his football scholarship to Columbia University, advanced his discovery of the America that had long fascinated him.
Kerouac considered Sur le chemin to be a vital step in rewriting the manuscript of On the Road. In a letter of January 10, 1953, he tells Neal and Carolyn Cassady that the short novel is “the solution to the ‘On the Road’ plots all of em.” Although he doesn’t elaborate, given the story elements that he provides to Neal—“your father and my father and some sexy blondes in a bedroom with a French Canadian rake and an old Model T”32—the fathers stand out as bearers of heritage, essential components of the security of the prewar past. The Ford Model T that the older Pomeray drives, a car manufactured between 1909 and 1927, belongs to this nostalgic time. That the young boys Jean and Dean end up with “sexy blondes” suggests that, in the cultural mix of New York, they are reassured by the motherly flesh of these adult women and at the same time brought out of settled childhood. Sur le chemin presents the fathers as cultural anchors who at the same time lead the boys away from the past, toward each other, toward the bonding that will be the source of their strength to go on the road themselves. In the 1957 version of On the Road, narrator Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty embark on the quest for Dean’s long-lost father, Old Dean Moriarty. This quest takes them to all manner of places through extensive detours and digressions but ultimately proves futile. Several of the changes that Kerouac made between the 1951 scroll and the 1957 version, apparently in connection with writing Sur le chemin, demonstrate his awareness of the tension he stages in the latter between trying to recover and departing from an integral notion of origins. In the scroll, the opening sentence is: “I first met met Neal not long after my father died,”33 in keeping with a notion of the irrevocable loss of the past. The 1957 version begins as follows: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”34 By replacing the death of the father with the separation from the wife, Kerouac attests to the independence of present-day travel and migration from the relationship with fathers. He instead characterizes wandering and the masculine bond it entails as the function of an end to a settled, conventional household and its heterosexual bonding with a woman.
Spontaneity and Foreignness
The narrative of On the Road turns out to be one of cultural discovery, an opening of horizons that leaves the past of familial heritage behind. The novel presents a search for America around borders and between regions, such as Mexico and the United States or different geographic sectors of the latter. Transitions often take place near rivers such as the Hudson, the Mississippi, or the Rio Grande; in multiethnic, multilingual spaces, including the African-American section of Denver, the French Quarter of New Orleans, Mexican communities in California; and in shadowy underworlds and dynamic jazz venues. They involve the mixing of immigrant and other culturally distinct communities; they sometimes show signs of the U.S. legacy of slavery and of the many migrations that have traversed the country. In “a little Frisco nightclub,” Slim Gaillard, “a tall thin Negro with big sad eyes,” “grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cuban beats and beating bongos yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages.”35 On the Road is a result of Kerouac’s poetics of exile, an attempt to bring his writing practices to bear on an encompassing vision of the United States that doesn’t take root in any one region or group. The ensuing picture of the country takes shape through movements of migration and along the roads that bear them. The interconnected motion of writing and migration informs Kerouac’s syntax, which frequently ties together disparate geographic regions in a single, lengthy sentence:
Cheyenne again, in the afternoon this time, and then west over the range; crossing the Divide at midnight at Creston, arriving at Salt Lake City at dawn—a city of sprinklers, the least likely place for Dean to have been born; then out to Nevada in the hot sun, Reno by nightfall, its twinkling Chinese streets; then up the Sierra Nevada, pines, stars, mountain lodges signifying Frisco romances.36
The words convey both movement and locale. The brief descriptive phrases underscore the differences between these places, and the syntactic juxtaposition presents the trajectory through them as mutual permeation.
As a first experiment in quick writing, the 1951 composition of the On the Road scroll led Kerouac to theorize and systematize his writing practices under the heading of “spontaneous prose.” He sought prose that would remain open to geographic and cultural movements and would be able to convey them by participating in them: he worked in an English in which he found a foreignness, aiming to enhance this attribute through writing the two short novels in French. Though much maligned in his time and since, Kerouac’s spontaneous prose is no less than a method of activating the foreign elements hidden within standard literary English, and hence of mobilizing its capacity to approach and convey the unfamiliar. Shortly after the publication of On the Road, numerous characterizations of his writing condemned it as awkward and downright illiterate. Norman Podhoretz’s judgment that the prose of The Subterraneans (1958) read like “an inept parody of Faulkner at his worst”37 was followed shortly by Truman Capote’s tinny yet resonant quip, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”38 Not one critic at the time noticed that Kerouac’s style sometimes yielded an unfamiliar diction that reflected confrontation with foreignness, in the following examples through borrowings from French. When Sal Paradise says to Mary Lou, “Wait until we be lovers in San Francisco,”39 the use of the subjunctive reflects French grammar: “Attends jusqu’à ce que nous soyons amants à San Francisco.” And when Sal reports an Okie woman’s declaration of fondness for Dean, “She said Dean reminded her of the husband gone,”40 the sentence imports the phrase “le mari parti.”
Kerouac first published an outline of his theorization, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” in Black Mountain Review in 1957. He starts the series of points with the technique he began practicing shortly after completing the On the Road scroll:
Set Up. The object is set before the mind, either in reality, as in sketching (before a landscape or teacup or old face) or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from memory of a definite image-object.41
Sketching is a procedure suggested to Kerouac by Ed White, a close friend from the years at Columbia, a prominent architect with whom he had a long correspondence.42 In a May 1952 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac describes the process as follows:
Sketching (Ed White casually mentioned it in 124th [Street] Chinese restaurant near Columbia, “Why don’t you just sketch in the streets like a painter but with words?”) which I did … everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words (which effortless angels of the vision fly when you stand in front of reality) and write with 100% personal honesty both psychic and social etc. and slap it all down shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.43
The purpose of sketching is exactly the opening of language to the unending strangeness of reality, a mobilization of language that aims to bring into both literary expression and representation what the lexical and syntactic standardization of English conceals. That this technique had everything to do with Kerouac’s interest in uncovering foreignness in the United States, in bringing his own French-Canadian identity, culture, and language out of hiding, is attested by the fact that the first novel he worked on using the method of spontaneous prose was Dr. Sax (1959), a book about his immigrant community, the first of his so-called Lowell trilogy that also includes Maggie Cassidy (1959) and Visions of Gerard (1963). From the American expanses that the road reveals, which assume continental dimensions through a detour through Mexico, Kerouac moves his narrative back to the settlement of his home, itself the outcome of travel on the long road of North American migration.
Across Languages and Borders
In the May 1952 letter, Kerouac tells Ginsberg that he has begun Dr. Sax in Mexico City,44 a place whose non-anglophone, predominantly Catholic society led him to regard it, fantastically, as reminiscent of both Quebec and Franco-American Lowell. Although his promise to Yvonne Le Maître of a year and a half earlier was to write a novel in French, “with the setting in New England” (a promise that La nuit est ma femme partly fulfills), Dr. Sax offers such a detailed picture of the community that in 1972 Quebecois novelist and critic Victor-Lévy Beaulieu termed it “the best documentation we possess on Franco-American life in the 1920s and 30s.”45 And its language is mainly the off-English Kerouac developed in order to admit foreignness, doing so in part by including lengthy passages in French. In another letter to Ginsberg in November 1952, he says of his work on Dr. Sax, “At this moment I’m writing directly from the French in my head.”46 The English of the novel is in regular contact with French, in accord with the cultural intersections and overlaps that Kerouac finds in Lowell, the hometown tied to cultural and linguistic migrancy. In writing between languages, he took cues from literary sources also marked by translingualism, mainly the works of James Joyce and 16th-century French author François Rabelais, two of his favorites.
Kerouac begins Dr. Sax by announcing in the voice of narrator Jack Duluoz the close affinity between the process of sketching and the depiction of Franco-American cultural reality. He presents this reality as available in a dream of the past, a past that the procedure brings to the page in vivid memorialization:
The other night I had a dream that I was sitting on the sidewalk on Moody Street, Pawtucketville, Lowell, Mass., with a pencil and paper in my hand saying to myself “Describe the wrinkly tar of this sidewalk, also the iron pickets of Textile Institute, or the doorway where Lousy and you and G. J.’s always sittin and dont stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better—and let your mind off yourself in this work.”
Just before I was coming down the hill between Gershom Avenue and that spectral street where Billy Artaud used to live, towards Blezan’s corner store, where on Sundays the fellows stand in bestsuits after church smoking, spitting, Leo Martin saying to Sonny Alberge or Joe Plouffe, “Eh, batêge, ya faite un grand sarmon s’foi icite”—(“Holy Batchism, he made a long sermon this time”) and Joe Plouffe, prognathic, short, glidingly powerful, spits into the large pebblestones of Gershom paved and walks on home for breakfast with no comment (he lived with his sisters and brothers and mother because the old man had thrown em all out—“Let my bones melt in this rain!”—to live a hermit existence in the darkness of the night—rheumy red-eyed old sickmonster scrooge of the block)—47
Kerouac moves from the act of retrieving the hidden past to everyday details, homing in on an event that defines a community in diaspora. The French-Canadian names reveal encroaching anglicization: Billy Artaud may once have been named Guillaume (he is based on a boy named Bobby Rondeau),48 and in the storytelling he receives the last name of Antonin Artaud, a figure from the French experimental writing that was an integral part of Kerouac’s relationship with his heritage. “Blezan’s corner store” mixes, by its location and clientele, with the church where the French Canadians meet to hear a sermon. Leo Martin bears the name of the family from The Town and the City— Kerouac makes this earlier family fully French-Canadian and reaffirms the link to paternally transmitted culture by inserting his own father’s first name, Leo.
But this opening addresses the loss of heritage culture as much as its preservation: Leo’s complaint about the sermon suggests dissatisfaction with this site of community gathering. Yet it also affirms the centrality of patrilineal cultural transmission: his curse word, batêge, is a Quebecois euphemism for baptême, “baptism,” and Kerouac’s translation of it as “batchism” captures its sound and sense. The word refers to the main Catholic rite of transmission through the name of the father, its alteration in both languages pointing to the fact that cultural movement has made it less central and less effective. The French phrase itself, along with the translation, also participates in the changes Kerouac lays out: it is in the off-French of La nuit est ma femme and Sur le chemin, reflecting Quebecois pronunciation (sarmon for the French sermon) and usage (icite for ici: cette fois-ci, “this time,” becomes s’foi icite). Although the French in Dr. Sax may appear sloppy, he gave it close attention49—its use throughout the novel indicates his interest in documenting the unraveling of a culture. In the English, he chooses the unidiomatic phrase “he made a long sermon,” a literalist translation of the French “ya faite un grand sarmon,” the latter rendering the colloquial pronunciation of the standard phrase “il a fait un grand sermon”: this bending of English against French signals the collision of the two languages, a function of the community’s migration. The motion of French continues, as Kerouac affirms, in his head—he puts it on the page in an English that reveals its proximity to French.
The novel’s longest passage in French reaches through the past of linguistic and cultural heritage to the first in the sequence of events that precipitated the Quebecois diaspora and the ensuing disintegration of community: the defeat of the French Army under General Montcalm in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the fall of Quebec City that marked the turning point in the French and Indian War. Jack Duluoz’s Uncle Mike, a tragic poet, “the saddest Duluoz in the world,”50 places Montcalm alongside the 19th-century archenemy of the British Empire, Napoleon, tying both figures to the family ancestry in France: “Napoleon était un homme grand. Aussie le General Montcalm a Quebec tambien qu’il a perdu. Ton ancestre, l’honorable soldat, Baron Louis Alexandre Lebris de Duluoz, un grandpère—a marriez l’Indienne, retourna a Bretagne, le pere la, le vieux Baron, a dit, criant a pleine tête, ‘Retourne toi a cette femme—soi un homme honnete et d’honneur’”51 (Kerouac’s translation of this passage is below, with comments). The Duluoz family retells not only the story of the defeat of noble French heroes by the British, but also that of their own ancestry, noble and French, as well as hybrid, and hence Quebecois through marriage with the Native population. Basing this account closely on his own ancestral lore, Kerouac knew that his family had held onto some version of the story for generations52 as they, along with the vast majority of Quebecois, were stripped of social and economic privilege and their identity as French. The passage registers this disenfranchisement linguistically by underscoring distance from standard French. At the same time, it suggests the alternative view of an autonomous community spontaneously inventing its own identity: Kerouac affirms a living locality by reproducing the pronunciation and grammar of Massachusetts Quebecois French. For example, he uses marier as a transitive, nonreflexive verb rather than in the reflexive, indirect transitive form of standard French, se marier avec, and uses no subjunctive forms. His spelling bears the influence of late medieval and Renaissance conventions, such as the s in ancestre (ancêtre in standard French—many instances of es were replaced in the 18th century by ê) and the liberal use of the letter z. This orthography is in keeping with the pre-Revolutionary time the passage evokes and with the myth of an unchanging language, a myth that the dialectal, unsettled character of the French debunks.
In Kerouac’s translation of this and other French passages in Dr. Sax, the English is often nonstandard, though his word-for-word renderings partially preserve the syntax of the prior language: “Napoleon was a great man. Also the General Montcalm at Quebec even though he lost. Your ancestor, the honorable soldier, Baron Louis Alexandre Lebris de Duluoz, a grandfather—married the Indian woman, returned to Brittany, the father there, the old Baron, said, yelling at the top of his voice, ‘Return to that woman—be an honest man and a man of honor.’”53 Kerouac incorrectly translates the article in the phrase “le General Montcalm” into English, writing “the General Montcalm.” His choice of “grandfather” for “grandpère” stretches the English word to denote, like the French one, “ancestor.” He renders the Quebecois pleonasm “là” as its literal equivalent, “there,” a jarring word in this context. He pushes the structures and stabilities of English against the presence of French, this French that has migrated from the standardized language and is mostly lost from New England by the time he writes Dr. Sax. The conflict between the two languages, along with their interaction in his text yielding a hybrid diction, is all the more patent when the author puts “original” and translation alongside each other. The text stages linguistic migrancy as its English ceases to be standard, as it confronts a foreign language that has traveled into its geographic space. Kerouac aims for a style in which previously unheard phrases may resound and the cultures from which they emanate be recognized. This procedure is integral to his challenge to dominant linguistic convention and more broadly to the exclusivity of literary representation.
A central concern of Kerouac’s fiction and poetry, from The Town and the City to the last novel he published in his lifetime, Vanity of Duluoz (1968), is the conflict between grounding identity in an imagined security of the past and embracing unsettled identity, the latter entailing powers of creation. His narratives frequently involve movement in search of solid foundations that turns out to lead to open-ended discovery and invention; the continual variations in his syntax and vocabulary both reflect and participate in this mobility. In his novels, he kept returning to his own community: following On the Road, with the exception of The Dharma Bums (1958) and Pic (published posthumously in 1971), each of his first-person narrators is Franco-American and speaks French some of the time. But at the same time, he explored the many cultures of the United States, often situating the country and its primary language in the larger North American continent, pursuing cultural connections that extended over the globe. His study of Buddhism, which he conducted in earnest from 1953 to 1961, was driven partly by an interest in relinquishing national borders as limits on cultural experience.54 His interpretations and adaptations of Buddhism inform The Dharma Bums and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960), also making their mark on much of his poetry from that time and distinctly turning up in Desolation Angels (1965) and Satori in Paris (1966). The latter novel tells a story based on his trip to France in search of his patrilineal ancestry, more or less concluding that any grounding of identity in heritage culture of necessity relies on fictional re-creations of the past; the deeper value of the quest for grounding as it proceeds across languages and territories is in the many unexpected encounters and discoveries that it yields. The entirety of Kerouac’s work relentlessly raises these and similar questions, throwing into relief the transnational and translingual dimensions that American literature has often hidden from itself.
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(1.) Exemplary of this portrait is Harold Bloom’s characterization in his Modern Critical Interpretations volume on On the Road: “a rather drab narrative” in which he “can locate no literary value whatsoever.” Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” in On the Road, ed. Harold Bloom (Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2004), 1.
(2.) Jack Kerouac, La nuit est ma femme and Sur le chemin, in La vie est d’hommage, ed. Jean-Christophe Cloutier (Montreal: Boréal, 2016), 51–111, 113–226; and The Night Is My Woman and Old Bull in the Bowery, in Jack Kerouac, The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished, and Newly Translated Writings, ed. Todd Tietchen, trans. Jean-Christophe Cloutier (New York: Library of America, 2016), 63–97, 173–237.
(3.) Kerouac’s baptismal name was Jean-Louis Kirouac: these are two variants of the name’s spelling, others being Kéroac, Kéroack, and Kérouack. In anglophone society he went by John, in adulthood legally changing his first name. When writing of himself as of French or Quebecois ancestry, for example in his 1966 novel Satori in Paris, he sometimes placed an acute accent mark over the e in Kerouac. On his baptismal record, see Paul Maher, Kerouac: His Life and Work, 2d ed. (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2007), 13.
(4.) John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America, ed. Sir C.P. Lucas (London: Ridgways, 1839), 27, 299.
(5.) Carroll C. Wright, Uniform Hours of Labor [From the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics] (Boston: Rand, Avery and Co., 1881), 149.
(6.) Editorials in the New York Times of July 5 and August 22, 1889, both titled “The French Canadians,” make this case.
(7.) Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Scribner’s, 1916), 72.
(8.) Robert C. Dexter, “The Gallic War in Rhode Island,” The Nation, August 29, 1923, 215.
(9.) Jack Kerouac, typescript story, revised (1939?), Jack Kerouac Collection of Papers, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, 5.14.
(10.) Kerouac to Yvonne Le Maître, September 8, 1950, in Selected Letters: 1940–1956, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1995), 229.
(11.) Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City (1950) (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1983), 411.
(12.) Jack Kerouac, Dr. Sax: Faust Part Three (1959) (New York: Grove, 1987), 4.
(13.) Kerouac, Town, 499.
(14.) Yvonne Le Maître, “The Town and the City,” Le Travailleur 20.12 (March 23, 1950): 1: “Au sol initial, l’humus ethnique multiple et divers où croît son arbre, qui est Lowell, John Kerouac n’a pas planté de racines … humaines. Pensez à un Hamlet où manquerait le spectre du père.” My translation—suspension points in text.
(15.) Kerouac to Le Maître, September 9, 1950, 228.
(17.) On the impossibilities faced by Jews who write in German, Kafka wrote to Max Brod in June 1921: “The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently.” Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Schocken, 1977), 289. See also the commentary on this sentence in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 16.
(18.) Kerouac, Nuit, 53.
(19.) André Sénécal, “La thèse messianique et les Franco-Américains,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 34.4 (1981): 557–567. Excellent primary sources expressing this narrative are: Adolphe-Basile Routhier, “Le rôle de la race française en Amérique,” in Fête nationale des Canadiens-Français célébrée en Québec en 1880, ed. H.-J.-J.-B. Chouinard (Québec City: A. Côté, 1881), 282–295; and Édouard Hamon, “Préface,” in Les Canadiens-Français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre (Québec City: Hardy, 1891), xi–xv.
(20.) A superb linguistic analysis of Franco-American French is Edith Szlezák, Franco-Americans in Massachusetts: “No French no mo’ ’round here (Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 2010), 39–84. Also of use in reading Kerouac’s French is Léandre Bergeron, Dictionnaire de la langue québécoise (Montreal: Typo, 1997).
(21.) Kerouac, Nuit, 55; and Night, 66.
(23.) Deleuze and Guattari, 26.
(24.) Jack Kerouac, “The Father of My Father,” in Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings, ed. Paul Marion (New York: Penguin, 1999), 151.
(25.) There are many accounts of Kerouac’s highly mythified composition process. Some of the most valuable, because they debunk the countless myths that have sprung up around Kerouac’s feat, are: Matt Theado, “Revisions of Kerouac,” in What’s Your Road, Man? Critical Essays on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, eds. Hilary Holladay and Robert Holton (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 8–34; Howard Cunnell, “Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road,” in Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking, 2007), 24; and Joyce Johnson, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (New York: Viking, 395–396). An extraordinary account of the pre-scroll, scroll, and post-scroll versions is Isaac Gewirtz, Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road (New York: New York Public Library; London: Scala, 2007), 73–148.
(26.) Kerouac letter to Neal Cassady, May 22, 1951, in Letters 1940–56, 315–316. Suspension points in text.
(27.) Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957) (New York: Viking, 1991), 234.
(28.) Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody (1972) (New York: Penguin, 1993), preliminary pages.
(29.) Gewirtz, Beatific Soul, 109–147.
(30.) Kerouac, Chemin, 117, 146; and Old Bull, 175, 190–191.
(31.) Kerouac, Chemin, 147; and Old Bull, 191.
(32.) Kerouac to Neal and Carolyn Cassady, January 10, 1953, in Letters 1940–56, 395.
(33.) Kerouac, Scroll, 109. The editor, Howard Cunnell, wisely chose to preserve Kerouac’s repetition of the word met.
(34.) Kerouac, On the Road, 1.
(37.) Norman Podhoretz, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” (1958), in Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Penguin, 2001), 490.
(38.) Capote said this on David Susskind’s TV show in January 1959. Stephen Battaglio, David Susskind: A Televised Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 2010), 3; see also Dennis McNally, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America (New York: Delta, 1979), 267.
(39.) Kerouac, On the Road, 132.
(41.) Jack Kerouac, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (1957) in Good Blonde and Others, eds. Donald Allen and Robert Creeley (San Francisco: City Lights/Grey Fox, 1993), 69.
(42.) Jack Kerouac, “Letters from Jack Kerouac to Ed White, 1947–68,” The Missouri Review 17.3 (1994): 107–60. In 1957, Kerouac somewhat hubristically credited his friend with “start[ing] a whole new movement of American literature.” Kerouac to White, April 28, 1957, in The Missouri Review, 148; also in Kerouac, Selected Letters, 1957–1969, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1999), 30.
(43.) Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, May 18, 1952, in Letters 1940–56, 356. Suspension points in text.
(45.) Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, Jack Kerouac: A Chicken-Essay (1972), trans. Sheila Fischman (Toronto: Coach House, 1975), 27.
(46.) Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, November 8, 1952, in Letters 1940–56, 383.
(47.) Kerouac, Dr. Sax, 3–4.
(48.) Kerouac to Bernice Lemire, August 11, 1961, in Selected Letters, 1957–1969, 299.
(49.) Kerouac’s correspondence with Jeanne Unger, production editor at Grove Press, during the proof stage of Dr. Sax signals his care with respect to the French: “Fix’t some of the French but you fix’t most 99% of it, you know French.” Kerouac to Unger, February 5, 1959, in Selected Letters 1957–1969, 181.
(50.) Kerouac, Dr. Sax, 118.
(52.) Thanks to decades of efforts by the Association des Familles Kirouac, the family history has been reconstructed. Patricia Dagier’s extensive genealogical research in Brittany and Quebec demonstrates that the story Kerouac told of “l’ancêtre,” though inaccurate in some details, notably the man’s aristocratic title, was correct in its outlines: Patricia Dagier and Hervé Quéméner, Jack Kerouac: Au bout de la route … la Bretagne (Le Relecq-Kerhuon, France: An Here, 1999); and Dagier and Quéméner, Jack Kerouac: Breton d’Amérique (Brest, France: Télégramme, 2009).
(53.) Kerouac, Dr. Sax, 119.
(54.) Eric Mottram, “Introduction,” in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, ed. Jack Kerouac (1960) (San Francisco: City Lights, 1994), 7–8.