Deni Ellis Béchard writes: The real-life backstory of Jack Kerouac’s unpublished novel is classic beat generation. It was December 1952, and tensions were running high as Jack and his friend Neal Cassady — the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road — drove from San Francisco to Mexico City.
Whereas Neal was looking for adventure and a chance to stock up on weed, Jack was in a difficult period. His first novel, The Town and the City, published under the name John Kerouac in 1950, had met with lukewarm reviews and poor sales. In April 1951, he had written On the Road on a (now famous) 120-foot-long scroll, but hadn’t been able to find a publisher. He was thirty and had been laid off by the railroad after a bout of phlebitis in his leg.
Kerouac decided to convalesce in Mexico City with William S. Burroughs, who would later author Naked Lunch. Three months earlier, Burroughs had performed a William Tell act with his wife, Joan, while they were drunk and accidentally shot her in the head, killing her. Shortly after Kerouac’s arrival, Burroughs skipped bail and fled the country. Neal Cassady went home. Alone, living in a rooftop apartment in Mexico City, Jack wrote a short novel over the course of five days.
The first line reads: Dans l’moi d’Octobre, 1935, (dans la nuit de nos vra vie bardasseuze) y’arriva une machine du West, de Denver, sur le chemin pour New York. Written in the language of Kerouac’s childhood — a French-Canadian patois then commonly spoken in parts of New England — the line has an epic, North American ring. Kerouac would later translate it as “In the month of October, 1935, in the night of our real restless lives, a car came from the West, from Denver, on the road for New York.”
The novel’s title is Sur le chemin — “On the Road.” But it is not the On the Road we all know (which would be translated in France as Sur la route). It was the On the Road of Kerouac’s vernacular — chemin being used in the title to mean both “path” and “road.”
Over the course of his literary career, Kerouac redefined the archetype of the American man, and he has since become so integral to American culture that his identity as an immigrant writer is often forgotten. He was born in 1922 as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac to parents from Quebec. He spoke French at home and grew up in the French-Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts. In one of his letters, he wrote, “The English language is a tool lately found . . . so late (I never spoke English before I was six or seven). At 21, I was still somewhat awkward and illiterate sounding in my [English] speech and writings.”
In 1954, Kerouac created a list of everything he had written and included Sur le chemin among his “completed novels” — even though it would remain in his archives for more than six decades before publication was finally arranged this year. Sur le chemin and his other French writings provide a key to unlocking his more famous works, revealing a man just as obsessed with the difficulty of living between two languages as he was with his better-known spiritual quests.
In particular, they help explain the path — le chemin — he took as he developed his influential style, which changed the way many writers throughout the world have thought about prose. To this day, Kerouac remains one of the most translated authors, and one whose work is shared across generations. His unpublished French works shine a light on how the voice and ideas of an iconic American figure emerged from the experiences of French-Canadian immigrants — a group whose language and culture remain largely unknown to mainstream America. [Continue reading…]