Once I learned that Jack Kerouac was Franco-American, I wondered how I had never figured it out on my own: his boxy, square head and dark eyes; his clean part; his humor and his melancholy, intertwined; the alcoholism that killed him; his visionary uprootedness. Suddenly, knowing his origins in a Massachusetts mill town, Ti-Jean Kerouac, seemed familiar, a black sheep uncle who died too young for me to meet him.
But like that uncle who died too soon, it’s hard to separate mythology from reality. Who knows who he was really. Although Kerouac’s life has been well documented, the aura of Beatnik cool around him usually overpowers fact.
In 1987 Acadian poet and playwright Herménégilde Chiasson made the film, Jack Kerouac’s Road – A Franco-American Odyssey. While it is dressed up with the same romanticized sense of tragedy that always tends to obscure Kerouac, I enjoyed this film because it gets at how Kerouac’s background and French-Canadian roots might have influenced his work. The importance of his Frenchness can be overstated (and the importance of his drunkenness, understated) by those who want to claim Kerouac as one of their own, but I share the link to the film (which can be streamed on the National Film Board site) because there are many ways in which Kerouac seems to me like a typical Franco-American and a typical first-generation American: a desperation to escape the past, combined with the knowledge that escape is impossible; a dream of redemption; a search for identity that itself becomes an identity.
We’re about to enter the fourth week of fundraising to support the DVD production of Piecework: When We Were French, which explores some of these same ideas. Have you made your contribution yet?