- Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory by Hassan Melehy
Hassan Melehy’s groundbreaking study begins with a simple yet overlooked fact—Kerouac, originally from the French-Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts, was a native Fran-cophone speaker. The author reintroduces his readers to Kerouac as not only an astute reader and craftsman of literature, but also a transcultural author whose work explores tensions between roots and travel, settlement and motion, home and the road.
Kerouac, Melehy argues, has yet to receive full and due credit for his contribution to literature. His writing demonstrates critical engagement with the Western canon, a testament to his brief time as a student at Columbia. In Dr. Sax: Faust Part Three (Chapter 4), Kerouac expands on Goethe’s legend by setting it in his Massachusetts hometown. The narrator’s Francophone community, Melehy argues, is paradoxically unsettled—exiled both culturally and linguistically in Anglophone New England. Connecting with his cultural heritage, Kerouac also turned to French sources of literary inspiration. In Satori in Paris (Chapter 5), scenes of drunkenness and bodily pleasures, Melehy argues, serve a Rabelaisian function by leveling socio-economic and national distinctions and imagining a utopian, equalizing space of cultural exchange.
Disagreeing with the characterization of Kerouac’s work as un-literary or sloppy, Melehy analyzes the author’s honed techniques such as spontaneous prose, automatic writing, and sketching (Chapter 3). Though the Beat author’s fascination with jazz, as the term Beat itself suggests, has been criticized for appropriating African-American culture, Melehy focuses instead on how Kerouac’s use of jazz shaped the mechanics of his poetics, notably in Visions of Cody.
In The Town and The City and On the Road, the narrators’ journeys, Melehy shows, convey a sense of exile and dispossession that is rooted in Québécois cultural survivance (Chapters 1–2). Kerouac’s native French informs his literary experimentation in English as he expresses cultural otherness by destabilizing the English language itself. This linguistic experimentation ties to Kerouac’s [End Page 169] understanding of travel, and even writing itself, as an experience that creates new cultural connections, challenges fixed notions of identity, and reveals the inherent, though often hidden, diversity of America. Melehy convincingly explores Kerouac’s “off-whiteness,” or how his otherness challenges American racial boundaries. Readers, however, may still take issue with Melehy’s argument that Sal Paradise’s problematic identification with African-Americans and Latinos in On the Road is a denunciation of the limits of whiteness and white society that seeks to permeate and transcend those racial borders. Finally, the author of this study misses an opportunity to analyze more deeply the thematics of exile and cultural alienation in Satori in Paris in which the narrator searches for his ancestral ‘home’ in Brittany. Addressing the parallels between Québécois and Breton cultures, both marginalized and exiled in their own right, would offer another key iteration of Kerouac’s poetics of territory and exile.
Melehy’s work is a timely and vital contribution not just to Beat Generation scholarship, but also to Francophone studies more broadly as the field tends toward inscribing Francophone Literatures in global and transnational paradigms.