October 10, 2012
The name on his birth certificate is Jean Louis Kirouac – that’s the most common spelling of the name in Quebec, which is where his parents were from. His father, Léon-Alcide, continued to work as a printer for a Francophone newspaper, L’Étoile, after emigrating to the United States. Jack himself was called Ti Jean by everyone – in a neighborhood in Lowell, MA called “Petit Canada” – and reverted back to that name on his gravestone. He grew up speaking joual, a working-class Québécois dialect; learned English only at age 6; and didn’t speak it confidently till his late teens.
I’m reminded of Edwidge Danticat, whose first languages were Creole and French, and who spoke almost no English till age 12. Even though she now writes in English, Danticat not only actively supports Creole literacy programs but also does occasional pieces in Creole for the Haitian radio.
Kerouac has always been assumed to write only in English, until two unpublished French manuscripts were discovered in the New York Public Library. One of these was La nuit est ma femme, written between February and March of 1951. The other, a novella of about 50 pages, entitled Sur le chemin, was written in Mexico City in December 1852.
On the Road would eventually be translated as Sur La Route, not Sur la chemin, but those 50 pages remain pivotal. Gabriel Anctil, the journalist who discovered the manuscripts, wrote in the Quebec newspaper, Le Devoir, that “Kerouac transforms the French language, fits it to his own hand, changes the spelling of some words and makes up others to create a musical and playful joual that appears in many ways to be unique in French-language literature.” This lowbrow dialect is not for everyone; but that is how On the Road began – in French, and in the vernacular.