Atop An Underwood

A Book Review by Juliana L’Heureux

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Note:  "Atop an Underwood" is an entertaining primer to the more mature writings of Jack Kerouac, those written later in his career, like the vibrant "On The Road" and "Big Sur".  Kerouac's short essays and stories in this anthology are excellent inspirations for young aspiring writers.

Franco-American writer Jack Kerouac was recently described by Lowell Mass author Paul Marion as a familiar author who is, nevertheless, "underknown". 

Marion recently published "Atop An Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings", an anthology of previously unpublished writings by Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac wrote on an Underwood typewriter, thus the origin of the book's title.  "On The Road", published in 1957, is Kerouac's best known book. As a result of "On the Road", Kerouac became known as the father of the 1950's "beat generation".

Kerouac writings collected in "Atop an Underwood" reveal some first person insights about the author's ethnic roots growing up in Lowell, Mass, where he was raised as a traditional French speaking, Franco-Canadian-American   Rather than yearning for a life away from textile mill work, typical of young men growing up in Lowell during the 1930s, Kerouac was driven instead by two ambitions.  First, Kerouac wanted to play baseball, because he was excellent at the sport.  Second, he was passionate about writing. 

"Always considered writing to be my duty on earth," wrote Kerouac.

"Atop an Underwood" is entertaining reading. Unlike the bohemian plots of Kerouac's more popular stories, these early writngs prove the writer's innocent soul, prior to the influence of nomadic travels and his maturation as an author. 

Kerouac's early writings make known a likeable and interesting man who was proud of his French-Canadian heritage. Apparently, Kerouac was especially fond of his inherited French-Canadian slang language commonly called "joual".  In an essay titled, "The Father of My Father", he describes joual as "languagey language". (Kerouac frequently invented words, a refreshing and often amusing trademark of his fluid, colorful and spontaneous writing style.)

Actually, joual is a particular slang spoken by families like the Kerouacs and others in Lowell as well as in Maine and Canada.  Kerouac claimed his native French language was "Canuckian child patois, probably medieval."

"This French Canadian language is the strongest in the world", writes Kerouac. "It is too bad one cannot study it in college because it is one of the most 'languagey languages' in the world.  It is unwritten, it is the language of the tongue and not of the pen.  It grew from the lives of  French people who came to (North) America.  It is a terrific and huge language."

A description of his father, also named Jack, is really a salute to Kerouac's French heritage. Kerouac writes about his father,  "He was a staunch Catholic and a Breton.  He had blue eyes and black hair, characteristic of the hardy English Channel fishermen (of his ancestors).  The hardy Celts of France, blue eyes and black hair,  the sea... the descendent of a mother who fled the French Revolution, sailing to Canada and receiving a land grant in Quebec... Honest Jack (my father) was fearless."

Unfortunately, Kerouac is less an icon of the Franco-American culture than he is a hero to the beat generation he helped to identify with "On the Road".  A revival of Kerouac's writing will eventually put the author in the Franco-American heroes hall of fame, a status he might have received anyway, if he plunge into a career in baseball instead. 

Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings was written by Jack Kerouac, Paul Marion (Editor) and published by Viking Press, 1999, ISBN: 0670888222. Available new and used at at

Other books by Paul Marion or by Jack Kerouac.

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Review published on August 17, 2000
Copyright 1994-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux