- Expanding Jack Kerouac’s “America”: Canadian Revisions of On the Road
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In our history, America began with a French look, briefly but gloriously given it by Champlain, Jolliet, La Salle, La Vérendrye. . . .(René Lévesque, An Option for Québec, 1968, 14)
‘Come into my house,’ Jack said to me when I read Doctor Sax; ‘we have so few visitors from Up There.’ —(I’ll teach you and teaching you will teach me)—(Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, Jack Kerouac: A Chicken Essay, 1972, 31) [End Page 31]
Fans of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are offered a facile lesson in American history. Readers race alongside Sal Paradise as he sweeps across the land, pausing to exult in the vastness of what he calls “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent” (Kerouac, Road, 79). And as they cover “the whole mad thing, the ragged promised land” with Sal, they encounter cowboys and vagrants, students of Nietzsche and Mexican migrants, ranchers, coal-truck drivers, mothers and fathers, drug addicts, poets, con men, jazz musicians—all the people of his “American continent” across its varied, incredible landscape (Kerouac, Road, 83). Is this “American continent,” however, confined to the United States of America?
At first glance, the answer must be yes: The book begins with Sal Paradise “reading books about the pioneers” and poring over maps of the United States (Kerouac, Road, 10). As he sets off on his “dream” to “follow one great red line across America,” readers are meant to recognize that Kerouac is recreating the journey of the pioneers, the adventurers, and the rugged individuals of American history, with Sal Paradise heading westward (ho!) from Eastern civilization to the Western frontier of the unknown, all along emulating Dean Moriarty, a latter-day Deadwood Dick, the nineteenth-century hero of American dime novels (Kerouac, Road, 11).1 The repeated east-west movement across the center suggests that this book will focus only on the United States of America, yet it ultimately extends to the north and south borders, as well.
Veering from their course, the characters and their book end with a digression into Mexico: “no longer east-west, but magic south” (Kerouac, Road, 265). The land beyond the American border signifies “other worlds” and a place where Sal and Dean are past the “end of America, and we don’t know no more,” as Dean says (Kerouac, Road, 273). “The big continent” goes on beyond the United States but past the border, it becomes hazy; it takes on a foreignness, and a haunted aspect (Kerouac, Road, 276). Scenes in Mexico include Sal’s nightmares of a ghostly horse chasing Dean down, and end with Sal, lying ill and abandoned by Dean (Kerouac, Road, 265, 273).2 Canada, in the text, is similarly a haunted, ghostly place. As Sal sets off on his first trip to California, he becomes disoriented—“I didn’t know who I was,” he says, “a ghost”—and he re-encounters this ghost on his return, in the form of the Ghost of Susquehanna, an old man trying to head north to “Canady” (Kerouac, Road, 15).3 One of Sal’s doppelgängers in the text, the Ghost of Susquehanna, is, like Sal, going the wrong way, and the two briefly unite: “We were bums together” (Kerouac, Road, 104). The Ghost never reaches Canada; but Canada, like Mexico, lingers as that ghostly presence in the text, reminding readers that they are engaging the literature of an author who saw and envisioned his “America” via its physical boundaries that separate and link the United States to its southern and northern neighbors.4
This article presents a transnational approach asking readers to re-think what is at stake in Kerouac’s “American continent,” from the perspective of [End Page 32] that Canadian presence, with its ghostly manifestation. In the first half of the article, I will focus...