September 15, 2013

Author Q&A: C'est Jack

Joyce Johnson's biography of Jack Kerouac delves into the impact the Beat writer's Franco-American identity had on his life and work.

By TOM ATWELL Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Jack Kerouac is mostly remembered for one book, "On the Road," and as one of the prime writers of the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac

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Joyce Johnson

In "The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac," Kerouac's one-time lover Joyce Johnson describes the long journey that developed him as a writer as he wrote in his second language (English), and how he found the voice that he used in "On the Road" by using the sounds and rhythms of his native French-Canadian tongue.

While earlier Kerouac biographies used his friends and contemporaries as sources, Johnson also used the Berg Collection of Kerouac's papers at the New York Public Library as a source to provide information about his thoughts about being Franco-American. Johnson had a romance with Kerouac in 1957, and wrote "Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters 1957-1978" based on their correspondence.

In "The Voice is All," Johnson says Kerouac is as much a Franco-American writer as a Beat writer, and added in a recent telephone interview that a still unpublished novella that he wrote in French-Canadian, "La Nuit Est Ma Femme," still needs to find a publisher.

The Penguin Books paperback of "The Voice is All" was published earlier this month, is priced at $18, and is 490 pages long. 

Q: You describe the Little Canada of Lowell (Mass.) in the 1920s to 1940s where Kerouac grew up. That would not have been much different from Little Canada in Lewiston or the French-Canadian areas of other Maine mill towns.

A: I don't know much about those towns. I do know that a lot of French Canadians settled all over New England. There was a high concentration of them because of the textile mills.

Q: You call the language he spoke Joual, a term I had not heard. What is that specifically?

A: It's called Joual up in Quebec, and here they just call it the French-Canadian language.

There were regional differences between people who settled in America and that language and the people who remained in Canada. The language kept changing and picking up new words, depending on where people were.

For example, in France, the potato is pomme de terre, but in French Canadian, it is patate.

When Jack was growing up in Lowell, it still was not a written language. Jack was one of the first people to try to a write that language down, which he did shortly after finishing "On the Road" in "Visions of Cody." People might be especially interested in some writing he did in the French Language that preceded "On the Road," a novella called "La Nuit Est Ma Femme," which was never published. That book needs to be published, if only for its interest to scholars. 

What he was doing in "La Nuit Est Ma Femme" was to bring into his writing his real internal voice, which was French, and that French sound was what gave his voice such a distinct quality. 

Q: And that voice was quite different from the Thomas Wolfe-like writing he did in "The Town and the City?"

A: Because he was not a fluent English speaker until he was in his late teens, and he had a very early ambition to be a writer, he knew he had to learn English and write in the correct English way. His writing, in a way, was a translation going on inside his head from French into English. He didn't let the French sound come into it until 1951. 

Q: You say Kerouac is as much a French-Canadian writer as a Beat writer. Could you explain that?

A: The French Canadians have always claimed him as their writer. After he wrote "On the Road" and all of those books, he wrote about his Lowell childhood in "Dr. Sax," "Visions of Gerard" and "Maggie Cassidy," which are really a product of the childhood of a Franco-American. He did one last book, "Satori in Paris," in which he went back to Paris to try to find his Breton ancestors. It wasn't a successful quest, but he was obsessed, especially in his later years.

(Continued on page 2)

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