Stories will still need to be told, and writers will continue to tell them. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the written word will persist, even if it’s in ways we can scarcely imagine.
The French ConnectionNorman Ravvin
18 June 2021
Jack Kerouac’s Quebec connections received new attention in 2006 when his archives, held by the New York Public Library, were opened, revealing substantial writings from the early 1950s in French. These included a pair of proto-novels – La nuit est ma femme and Sur le chemin – the latter tantalizingly titled to appear as a proto-manuscript of the Beat masterpiece On the Road. But Kerouac used variations of the road in titles in notebooks and in unfinished drafts throughout his career, modeling his work after his life, which was so often on the road. In a notebook dated April 1949, the heading is “ROAD-LOG,” followed by a closely packed record of word count output for an early version of On the Road.
In the big American biographies, the Kerouac and Levesque family background in Quebec is limited to a mention of a land grant made to an ancestor in the eighteenth century. The earliest Kerouac from Brittany was in fact a voyageur, a travelling fur trader. Anne Charters adds, confusingly, that descendants of early Kerouacs “married Mohawk and Caughnawaga Indians.” There is often something a little off about American-published references to the family’s history, as if the writer decided that readers were not looking for this material, so why send out the fact checkers?
In interviews, Kerouac was sometimes asked about his parents’ birthplaces: his mother was born in Kamouraska, and his father not far from Rivière-du-Loup. Since his father died early in Kerouac’s life, it’s his French-Canadian mother who became a part of his mystery, his myth, and until his death, his daily life. Kerouac lived with Memère till the end and she became his gatekeeper, resisting visits from figures like Allen Ginsberg, whose influence she’d never liked. In 1965 Kerouac reported in Holiday magazine about a bus trip they took to Mexico together. Memère, he tells his U.S. readers, is a “nickname for Grandma in Québecois.” (This is the way Holiday, and maybe Kerouac, spelled the word. It is with one accent that he dubbed his mother: Memère.)
Kerouac’s use of the term Québécois over French is telling. In his early-fifties French writing he devised a phonetic form of sounded French, which he connected not with international French, nor with joual, but with the language he heard in his own childhood home in Lowell, Massachusetts. It is a kind of ethnic slang, a minority dialect, a remnant of the Franco-Canadian diaspora that took shape in New England.
Kerouac’s links with Montreal are few and difficult to trace. He was apparently in the city on a childhood trip in 1934. He came back, as a working writer, in 1953. Most interestingly, he appeared in the Expo spring of 1967 on the French language show “Le sel de la semaine,” interviewed before a live audience of young people by Fernand Séguin. Available now on a variety of Internet sites, it’s a revelatory and somewhat discomforting encounter. Kerouac is funny and self-deprecating as he searches for the odd word in French. The interviewer’s questions have a predictable quality, and the idea is not to reclaim the American Beat celebrity for the local culture but to explore his work and his youth. One feels a combination of deep feeling and disconnection between interviewer, audience, and subject, but the document is rich all the same.
A run through Kerouac’s collected letters turns up little on these elements of his past and cultural crossings hidden by biographers’ disinterest. In a letter to Neal and Carolyn Cassady he jokes about going “to live in French Canada eventually with Ma.” But he and Memère were, in the final years, back and forth between the American east coast and south Florida. There was a P’tit Quebec on the east coast of the state, but Kerouac’s local interests were St. Petersburg’s Black neighbourhood and baseball. Back in Lowell in 1968 with Memère and his wife, Stella, Kerouac fended off visits from journalists and old pals. The only Kerouac in the phone book was a cousin, Hervé, who also wasn’t talking.
Death claimed Jack Kerouac on a suburban avenue in St. Petersburg in October of 1969. Again he was on the road, as his body was taken back to Lowell, where his funeral service took place – appropriately, for anyone looking for the Québécois in Kerouac – at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Roman Catholic Church.
Norman Ravvin is the author of The Girl Who Stole Everything, published by LLP in 2019. Previous novels include The Joyful Child, Café des Westens, and Lola by Night. A story collection Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish, won the Ontario Arts Council K. M. Hunter Prize, and his travel essays are collected in Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue. He has traveled often to his family’s prewar home in Poland, and this experience informs his writing. He lives in Montreal.