- The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished and Newly Translated Writings by Jack Kerouac, and: La vie est d’hommage by Jack Kerouac
In Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, the narrator’s father speaks “loud, in French, like an uncle calling the idiot from the corner making clear to me meanings that can never be recorded in the English language” (Kerouac 2009: 97). Two invaluable collections of previously unpublished works by Kerouac, La vie est d’hommage and The Unknown Kerouac, reveal the profound effort and revolutionary achievement of Jack Kerouac to express those meanings. These collections show us Kerouoac’s evolution as a writer, bring to light the source of his literary experimentation as a movement between two languages, and illuminate the consequences for his thematics of travel and migration. Kerouac’s outsider perspective allowed him to create a style we now recognize as quintessentially American. These two volumes will help readers to appreciate the impact of Kerouac’s native French on his innovations in writing and give us a richer picture of his aesthetic and compositional philosophy.
The Unknown Kerouac’s editor, Todd Tietchen, explains in his introduction how his volume corrects mistakes that still haunt readings of Kerouac—that he was a careless writer with a shallow knowledge of literature, more a cult figure than a dedicated and committed artist—through these significant additions to the Kerouac canon. For example, his “Journal of 1951” is a stunning record of a psychic and aesthetic breakthrough that leads to a new sense of Kerouac’s creative mission, and his resolution to create a literature of lived experience. Kerouac wrote this journal as he convalesced in a VA hospital after an attack of thrombophlebitis, “where I had time to think at last without interruption and unfolded my secret desire in writing at last:—to tell exactly what happened and not worry about style but only worry about completeness of detail and the hell with what anybody thinks,” as he explained in a 1963 interview with John Clellon Holmes (312). “Journal of 1951” highlights the diversity of inspiration for Kerouac’s literary art (Chaucer, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Melville, Proust, and Céline) and provides valuable context for Kerouac’s road novels. Migratory experience, literary archetypes of pilgrimage and quest, the aspirations of the post-war generation, and the history of the French-Canadian diaspora, all play an important role in this journal.
In a haunting fragment from “Memory Babe,” an unfinished project started by Kerouac after On the Road that provides a portrait of French-Canadian life in the 1920’s and 1930’s and was meant to be included in Kerouac’s monumental The Duluoz Legend, the author notes, “American writers who write and speak only one language are lucky. I write in English but I speak French to my family. My French family on my mother’s side arrived in Quebec Canada a few miles north of Maine a long time ago. My father’s side 1756. So don’t say we’re not North Americans. What I have to do here is transpose the French talk into understandable modern American English, and then add the exact sound-spelling of the old French behind it. Besides, I want the reader to see what I had to go through and what fun it was to know 2 languages” (254). In his translator’s note, Cloutier explains how the first draft actually reads “I want the reader to see what I had to go through and how much work it is to know two languages” (xxxvi) and insightfully points out how “Kerouac revises the sentiment to make it more upbeat. This elision is pure Kerouac: the surface of pleasure shown to the public belies the tremendous toil and craft undertaken behind closed doors” (xxvi). Cloutier’s remarkable collection of previously unknown works by Kerouac in French, discovered in 2006 when the Kerouac...