By Juliana L’Heureux
Thanks to a letter received months ago from Elmer Parent, a North Hampton, NH reader, this particular column is about the famous Franco-American writer Jack Kerouac. "Why don’t you write about famous Franco-Americans?" wrote Parent.
So, why did it take so long to report on the life of a Franco-American credited with founding the "beat generation? Frankly, writing about famous Franco-Americans is something like searching for diamonds. They are marvelous gems but difficult to mine. All too frequently, the list of famous French names in American folklore and history, are definitely not Franco-Americans. Recall the definition of a Franco-American being a person of French-Canadian descent, typically a Roman Catholic who grew up with French speaking relatives and a history of family migration into New England during the American Industrial Revolution.
Indeed, Jack Kerouac was described by biographer Tom Clark as being a dyed in the wool Franco-American. In 1984, biographer Tom Clark wrote, "Jack Kerouac, who wrote American English with an almost physical love for the rough, rangy complexity of the language, didn’t speak it at all until his fifth year. He is arguably the most important writer since Joseph Conrad to adopt English as a second language. His first tongue was the Franco-American (slang called) joual", writes Clark.
Clark properly identifies joual as a unique dialect of French spoken by the Quebecois of the St. Lawrence Valley. "It is a spoken language, not a written language," writes Clark.
Kerouac is best known for writing, "On the Road", but he also wrote "Big Sur", "Visions of Cody", "Mexico City Blues", and many of other popular books.
Although Kerouac became a famous American writer, his life was anything but glorious. He was born in Lowell Mass, the son of French-Canadian parents who taught him about life as though living were merely a series of misfortunes. Kerouac often said his family motto was, "Aimer, Travailler, et Souffrir" (Love, Work and Suffer). Unfortunately, this saying became Kerouac’s destiny.
Kerouac wrote prolifically during his short life (1922-1969) but he also lived life on the edge of catastrophe. Eventually, he fell victim to drugs, alcohol and excesses of his undisciplined generation. Even his untimely death was an event shrouded in his "travailler et souffir". Apparently, he was writing on a tablet while watching TV, in St. Petersburg, FL, when an unexpected abdominal rupture painfully took his life in a relatively short period of time. He is buried in Lowell, MA.
Typical of a Franco-American, Kerouac cared for his mother, Gabrielle, throughout his adult years. Clark’s biography tries to explain the bond between Kerouac and his mother, who was with him when he died, but misses the cultural connection. Possibly, caring for his mother was a tradition Kerouac embraced despite his powerful counter-cultural writings and his nomadic lifestyle.
Reading Jack Kerouac’s biography is an entertaining way of learning and understanding the Franco-American culture without having to study a sociological essay. Clark’s biography paints a clever picture of a brilliant and troubled Franco-American writer who falls out of step with his roots. Clark’s book is titled, "Jack Kerouac: A Biography", published Marlowe & Company in New York.
Books by Jack Kerouac are available at Amazon.com
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Published on January 21, 1999
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux