Everything belongs to me because I am poor.
— Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody
‘Name one historical figure you’d like to have dinner with if you could go back in time and why.’ I’m always a little uncomfortable with this type of social media game that pops up every now and then. Another version is, ‘Turn to page 51 of whatever you are reading at the moment and leave the first sentence along with the name of the book and author.’ I guess sometimes people just need a pretext to bring up their own interests without seeming self-centered.
I must admit I find the question a little difficult to answer. And would I really want to have dinner with any of the usual people who come to mind? Queen Victoria for example. What in the world would we have to talk about? Would I even be allowed to look her in the eyes, much less sit at the same table? Or George Washington? I suspect I’d be rattled by the clattering of his wooden teeth. Maybe the explorer Cartier — he’d be a bit more up my alley. Or Chief Pontiac – one of my ancestors is said to have been a close friend and confidant of Pontiac’s. Would he remember mon arrière arrière arrière arrière (etc) grand-père Pierre Meloche?
I tend to want to answer the question with the right name — the cool name. I want to be able to show off my knowledge of history, something more than “I’d like to ask Queen Victoria what it was like to be the grandmother of Europe.” I’d need to bend the rules a bit.
There is actually one historical person who has long been a figure in my imagination: Jack Kerouac. But I know that I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him. Jack Kerouac just does not seem like the kind of guy you sit down with for a meal. I think I’d rather go for a long walk with Kerouac in New York City or maybe in his hometown of Lowell. I’d like to see the sights of Pawtucketteville and hear how it was that ‘ti Jean Kerouac came to be the great (Franco-American) writer of his time. I’d like to hear about his family’s journey, straight from the source.
Jack Kerouac first entered my imagination over two decades ago. I was in my late 20s. Until then I had avoided Kerouac’s books. Or should I say “book” — like most people, for me Kerouac and On the Road were definitive references, one for the other. And what I had heard about the book I associated with things I didn’t understand or appreciate. I didn’t want to be a Beatnik. I wasn’t into drugs. I didn’t have a car and I couldn’t afford to travel anyway. Maybe I had internalized the message of a previous generation, that there was something bad about the book, that it sullied the minds of those who read it.
But one particular Summer when the sun had thoroughly heated my small south-facing brick apartment to baking temperatures, I finally picked up a book by Kerouac. During the off hours between my day job at the University and my evening job at an indie magazine store on Main Street in Ann Arbor (long since out of business), I took in the cool air of a local cafe and began to read Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City.
I took to this novel very quickly, reading chapter after chapter. I related personally to so much about the book. I began to sense that Kerouac had been mischaracterized in culture, that I was viewing him through stereotypes instead of through the experience of reading him. In The Town and the City I saw the Great American Novel in action. I could really relate to that because I too was writing the Great American Novel (still unpublished and… more of a novella…) But there were other layers to the work that fascinated me and began to work their way into my conception of who Kerouac was and what his work might say to me. There on the pages of this novel were people uncannily familiar. The French Canadian Martins, Catholics, the home, the food, the soul, the loss and pain of it all; I saw myself stumbling down New York’s streets just like him.
Later I found a second Kerouac work that made me realize what I had been missing all along. It revealed that the caricature of Kerouac that made me long avoid On the Road masked a deeper reality, one that flew in the face of the narrative of Kerouac as a Bisexual Buddhist Beatnik. In Visions of Gerard I found an archetypal French Canadian whose work spoke of a deeply Catholic mystical experience, an outsider who in real life had told the world that “Beat” referred to Beatitude. Throughout a long and bitter winter the Dulouz family watches the sickly Gerard sink further into weakness and visions, finally becoming the true saint he was adored as in life. I had found in Kerouac’s oeuvre, a dark French-Canadian mourning tale that nearly every French Canadian family has known, in some cases many times over.
It was through Visions of Gerard that Kerouac truly entered into my consciousness, becoming a figment of my imagination: an untrue fragment in the true story of my own family. That’s why I don’t imagine Kerouac at a dinner table discussing literature. I imagine Kerouac getting drunk with my father at the tavern down along the highway; then my mother’s disapproval of this old cousin or friend of his, from the war maybe, and her secret crush on this dark Frenchman like her husband. I imagine she’d have a tourtière warm when they came stumbling home.
I’d forge a great romance between Kerouac and one of my lovely French-Canadian aunts sometime after the war, a great love coming to nothing over the objections of a saintly grandmother. I’d swap in Kerouac to replace the fey old priest (featuring in too many family stories) on the photo dated July 1966, my baptism. He’d be an extra godfather standing in along with my grandmother/godmother and my brother/godfather. And like too many of the generations of my father’s family, Kerouac would disappear too, die too young a year later, leaving me with no memory of my father’s sad old (imaginary) friend: gone like his cousin, his father, and his son ’round 50.
Although I am still not a fan generally of On the Road I have come to appreciate it for what it represents, the long continuous scroll, recording a great journey for a generation. Kerouac, like many people who share his French Canadian ethnicity, was the product of journeys. We can generalize that the immigrant experience, the journey to America or Canada, is something most of us have in our family history. I believe it underlies a certain optimism inherent in our national identities.
But a fundamental part of the story of who we are disappears if we ignore the particular. For Kerouac, that ‘particular’ was his French-Canadian ancestry and his first language, Joual. And even more particular were the Breton and Indigenous roots he mentioned in his writing, two ancestral origins that are deeply embedded in the French Canadian experience. These two points of reference are noteworthy still today, to the extent that many French Canadians (and Franco Americans) identify with both of these ancestral origins in a way they do not identify with Normandy, Paris, or the Alsace.
When Kerouac lamented in 1950 “Your mention of my mother and father warmed my heart. Because I cannot write my native language and have no native home anymore, and am amazed by that horrible homelessness of all French-Canadians abroad in America” he did so against a backdrop of life in his Petit Canada of Lowell, Massachusetts where he spoke Joual with his family and other members of the French Canadian community.
The homelessness was not, I believe, a pining for the “proper” place of a French-Canadian in the Quebec his parents had left. The rootlessness of On the Road comes perhaps from no longer regularly speaking the language of his ancestors. The French Canadians of New England were unwelcome in many corners; French Canadians in the Great Lakes became “American” not by choice but by treaty and they too became marginalized. It is a very sad paradox: to not feel fully American despite ancestry among the first Europeans on the continent as well as Indigenous ancestors.
It follows then that a “homeless” people will relate to their ancestry by describing their journeys, by describing journeys in general, by continuing to journey. To best explain my own ancestry, I would have my finger on a map so as to trace the many waterways that bore my ancestors throughout North America. These early French Canadians and French Métis didn’t stop in Quebec. Their journeys were many, from Quebec to Sault Ste. Marie, to St. Louis and back to Detroit or embarking to New Orleans. Thousands of miles by canoe through many cultural landscapes. If I close my eyes and begin to think of my ancestors, a vision of rivers and shorelines emerges, a vast map of discovery and return, an eternal retracing of routes.
This life of journeys is eloquently described by another Franco-American writer, Annie Proulx, in her memoir Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place. She recounts the paths taken by her own ancestors and in turn finds her place in North America. Researching for her work, she is faced with genealogical data. But the data she found masked the experienced reality of her wandering ancestors. In a sense, she begins to journey with them and in so doing she does not just find a physical place to call home, but more deeply, she finds her place in society; and she comes to understand that connection to a place does not necessarily mean just a permanent rootedness.
Kerouac resonates generally because he was a great writer. He evokes a freedom and lifestyle attractive to many people. He is an important literary figure as the founder of a ‘school’ of writing. He went beyond the mundane to explore new literary streams of thought and helped us see the world a bit differently.
Kerouac resonates with (some) French Canadians because his life was emblematic of our historical and cultural experience. He is someone to be proud of. He is a reference point for the ‘journeying’ French Canadian who understands his “homelessness” as we live “abroad” (like a spirit) in America. He resonates like a wanderer eternally revisiting home, retracing his journeys each time, seeing more deeply as he returns and returns again. His sacred touchstones are our own: ancestry, holy ghosts, paths ahead, and love.
My manners, abominable at times, can be sweet. As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind. I’m a wretch. But I love, love. — Satori in Paris