Skip to main content

Kérouac: Joual Royalty

The great American novelist, poet, the so-called King of the beats, Jack Kerouac - or as he was known in his French Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts, by his birth name Jean-Louis Kérouac or simply by his nickname Ti-Jean. His jazzy second novel, On the Road (1957), is an iconoclast literary masterwork, often referred to by critiques as one of the more influential pieces of writing in the postwar era.

Image Source:

But alas, what many people do not know is that Kerouac had initially written On the Road (1957) in French - or quite specifically - the form of Canadian French often referred to as Joual. In fact, Sur le chemin was the title Kérouac gave to the initial and original version of the work which he penned in 1952 while in Mexico. It is Gabriel Anctil, a Canadian journalist, who made this unexpected discovery while gaining access to the author's manuscripts in 2007 (see article interview with Anctil in Le Monde  "Sur le chemin" un inédit de Jack Kérouac écrit en français). Alongside this, there was also found another unpublished French novel, La nuit est ma femme.   

Cover image of the 50th anniversary edition On the Road: The Original Scroll (2007)
Kérouac's Sur le chemin is apparently written in much the same style as its later English parallel version, being all at once innovatory, jazzy, catchy and filled with cool prose and with smoke you can almost smell in between the lines the huffs and puffs as the author pored over it...Sur le chemin (1952), although and oddly even if it remains unpublished, is a literary work which has the particular distinction of being the first literary work to have been written in Joual. In the province of Quebec, Joual literature would only emerge a little later, in the 1960s with authors such as Michel Tremblay.

Here's an extract that appeared in Le Monde (2008/09/08) of Sur le chemin (1952):

"Dans l'mois d'octobre 1935, y'arriva une machine du West, de Denver, sur le chemin pour New York. Dans la machine était Dean Pomeray, un soûlon ; Dean Pomeray Jr. son ti fils de 9 ans et Rolfe Glendiver, son step son, 24. C'était un vieille Model T Ford, toutes les trois avaient leux yeux attachez sur le chemin dans la nuit à travers la windshield."

Kérouac's language is clear, for he wrote in an unbridled language, unrestrained by any artificial language laws, orthographic constraints, or any other fakeries. In short, his was Joual as it was spoken as his native language in New England, not even Joual as it was spoken in Quebec. He had made the language his own by being loyal to the sounds and words of his childhood and his native tongue as he had learnt it.

Sadly though, when he had tried to reconnect with his French Canadian culture and roots by visiting the set of a popular Quebec TV show, Le sel de la semaine, when Kerouac was interviewed in French... Well, essentially at one point he is openly mocked by the Quebecois audience present there. (Watch the vid:

This gives you an idea of his reception in French Canada. Kerouac was somewhat of a curiosity, albeit a sensational American one on the one hand, while on the other he spoke Joual... For many snotty francophones at the top of the social pecking order in French Canada, it just seemed too weird to hear a great American novelist come to Canada and speak in everyday French - and I imagine this is why "Sur le chemin" (1952) remains unpublished, except for some brief extracts that have appeared as a freakshow to this linguistic curiosity. No posthumous recognition in French Canada for Kerouac's literary contribution and innovation. We don't even get to read it. Sur le chemin (1952) will remain in the Kerouac vaults, in New York city, until some brave Francophone publisher goes and rescues these precious pages to make them known to all.         


  1. I never thought that much about the length of time that people have been speaking Joual, but it certainly has been quite some time! Fascinating discovery of his French works, though! If I remembered more French, I'd probably try to read whatever excerpts are available.

  2. Some Quebecois linguists have regarded Joual as not merely a Montreal urban dialectal phenomenal, but rather instead the term has been used in regards to the creolisation/hybridization process of the popular form of French spoken in Quebec. For the most part, Quebec French has inherited most of its linguistic features from the Oil family of languages in France, e.g. Normand, Saintongeais, 17th century Parisian French... Anyhow, I say above creolisation/hybridization of the popular Quebec French language, but there's actually been many virulent debates among Quebecois linguists about this creolisation process. Some say Joual doesn't qualify as a "creole" per se since evidently although defeated by the English, the Quebecois were certainly never enslaved to their English overlords - unlike the case of other forms of creoles (e.g. Haitian Creole) which were developed by slaves. Therefore, some linguists would rather use the term "hybridization" instead "creolization" - and in these cases the term Joual can be applied to certain socio-historical 18th and 17th century discussions surrounding popular forms of French in Quebec. And since Kerouac's parents were born in the province of Quebec at the end of the 19th century before moving to the U.S.A., this means despite the fact Jack himself was born in 1922 Lowell, Massachusetts, the term Joual used to describe the form of Franco-American speech there reflects the French Canadian place of origin/birth of most of the French speakers in New England.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Acadian Prehistory: From Medieval Religion, the Angevin Empire... and leaving Poitou behind

William S. Burroughs and Cut-Up Writing

I think William S. Burroughs was on to something. Aside from Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was another one of the influential authors of the Beat Generation that in the 1950s and 60s found popularity - if not notoriety in Burroughs' case - in his experimental writing styles. Burroughs was introduced to the cut-up technique of writing, which basically means he would quite literally "cut-up" a strand of linear text into segmented pieces with one or a couple of words a piece, and then simply reorder them in whatever fashion he saw fit.

Burroughs experimented with the cut-up technique at great length and it suited him fine, for he found that by doing so he could somehow alter reality - or even foretell future events. The Nova Trilogy, published in the early 1960s were a series of three experimental novels published by Burroughs in which he made use of the cut-up. The Soft Machine was the first book in the trilogy - published two years after his groundbreaking Naked Lunch- , and it…

The Divine Serpentine: A Cross-Cultural Survey of the Hindu Nāga Worship & the Judaeo-Christian Interpretation of Moses’ “Copper Snake”, the Nehushtan