I am French Canadian, born in New England. When I am angry I often curse in French. When I dream I often dream in French. When I cry I always cry in French, and I say: “I don’t like it, I don’t like it!” It’s my life in the world that I don’t want. But I have it. I am still curious, I am still hungry, my health is excellent, I love my little woman, I am not afraid to walk far, I am not even afraid to work hard as long as I don’t need to work 60 hours a week. I can’t get up in the morning but when I have to I get up. I can work 40 hours a week if I like the job. If I don’t like it, I quit.
My family and my women have always helped me. Without them, I think I may well have died in the snow somewhere – mayhap yes, mayhap no. I never like alone for long. I dream. One day I will be a man like other men. Today I am a child and I know it and I spend my time thinking. I am supposed to be a writer. I published a book, I received $1900.00 for 4 years of work on that book. Before that I spent 10 years writing other things that I was never able to sell. It’s possible that one day, once I have gone over to the other side of the darkness to dream eternally, these things, stories, scenes, notes, a dozen impossible novels, half finished, will be published and someone will collect the money that was supposed to come to me. But that’s if I am a great writer before I die. (pp. 65-66; from the opening paragraphs to “The Night is My Woman” (originally written in French as La nuit est ma femme; translated by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, based on a partial self-translation by Kerouac))
Before The Road was La nuit est ma femme (“The Night is My Woman”). Before the 1951 scroll version of The Road was transformed into the published novel, there was a short detour outlined in Sur le chemin (“Old Bull in the Bowery”). Before there was Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation writer, there was Jean-Louis Kérouac, a child of French Canadian immigrants to Lowell, Massachusetts, who did not learn to speak English until he was six and who continually inhabited spaces between two worlds, with his shared languages serving as a bridge and occasionally as a partial eraser of boundaries of thought and concept. In the recently published Library of America volume, The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings, editor Todd Tietchen, with assistance from translator Jean-Christophe Cloutier, reveals through several never-before published (or translated) manuscripts, essays, and journal entries the various proto-Kerouacs that led to the final publication of The Road and to his latter works such as The Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody.
The Unknown Kerouac begins with a short five paragraph piece Kerouac wrote in a 1946 journal on his experience hearing Frank Sinatra sing live. Tietchen introduces this short essay by noting how Kerouac’s observation on how Sinatra’s ability to vocalize moods of melancholy and loneliness may have had a connection to how Kerouac came to explore these same moods in his own writings shortly after. The concluding sentence, does in a way, hint at what Kerouac, then 24 years old, would go on to explore in his writings, first journal pieces and later fiction:
To young America, serious, sad, and wistful [Sinatra’s singing], it is no caterwauling, it is the poetry of its time, and in it, in the longing of Sinatra’s soft tones and prayerful sustaining notes, is contained most of their own youthful melancholy. (p. 3)
Many of the pieces that follow during this early 1946-1950 period, such as “America in World History” and “Private Philogies, Riddles, and a Ten-Day Writing Log,” reveals Kerouac’s growing interests in Shakespeare, Joyce, Spenser, Rimbaud, and surrealism. The writing in these essays and journals is full of staccato bursts of thought and energy, tightly constructed, with little verbiage to weaken the flow of images and reflections. It is during this time that the nascent On the Road began to emerge, but it is a piece that lurks in the background of these writing logs, something that is nebulous, something toward which Kerouac is reaching toward, yearning to grasp, yet not then fully able to do so. Contained within these journals are references to eschatological matters, to apocalypses both private and universal, to revelations that await their moment. This is most evident in his “–Riddles–”:
Answer this: –
Who is it from whose source of life flows blood, yet lives and laughs?
What is the beautiful sound that emanates from the house of the angels?
How may I encompass a star?
ANSWERS NEXT PAGE.
1. A young child whose mother is menstruating.
2. Church music, as a rule.
3. By creating a puddle of my own in which I can catch the reflection of any planet. (pp. 49-50)
Yet these early pieces, critical as they may be to understanding Kerouac’s mindset as he began work on The Road, provide only small glimpses of insight. To a greater understanding of how his experiences helped shape and hone his concept of his most famous work, there are two short, embryonic texts originally composed in French, “Night is My Woman” and “Old Bull in the Bowery,” the reveal the most about this “unknown” Kerouac. Take the passage from “The Night is My Woman” quoted at the beginning of this review. There we experience a narrative that in key aspects (tone and character) resemble that of On the Road. Yet it is not Sal Paradise nor Dean Moriarty that we see here. Instead it is a French Canadian-American narrator, one whose life mirrors so closely that of Kerouac’s, whose narrative helped Kerouac realize just what sort of road/life voice he wanted to capture. “The Night is My Woman” is an unfinished novella; there is no true conclusion, only a pause in the developing life of the narrator. Yet even in its unfinished state, there is a palpable energy to the piece, albeit an uneven one, full of herky-jerky shifts in intensity. It certainly is a fiction that makes the reader wish for a longer, more polished piece and considering that it is in origin a translated story (Kerouac did a partial translation, which Cloutier incorporates into his excellent translation) makes it all the more revealing about how Kerouac’s use of language and imagery is in its origins a mediation of sorts between his conversing in English and dreaming in French.
“The Night is My Woman” likely served as a direct impetus for the 1951 “big scroll” version of On the Road, but between that draft and the final 1957 published edition, Kerouac continued to tinker with characters and their backstories. In late 1952, he wrote a short account of Paradise and Moriarty during the Depression years over the course of five days (he would later do a partial translation in 1954 that was scattered in several notebooks during this time period) that became “Old Bull in the Bowery.” In it, Kerouac claimed to Neal Cassidy, could be found the “clues” to several narrative histories explored in On the Road. While many of the themes introduced here did not make it into the final On the Road, two scenes from it were later inserted into Visions of Cody. “Old Bull in the Bowery” is not as unified of a text as was “The Night is My Woman,” yet despite the nearly inchoate nature of certain passages, it definitely reveals an author who dips again into his own adolescence in order to explore how to improve the setting, voice, and tenor of On the Road.
The remaining sections of The Unknown Kerouac contain more disjecta membra than anything else in that by themselves they do not reveal much that isn’t already covered in the earlier sections in regards to Kerouac’s thoughts and development of themes and characters in his 1950s fictions. Yet there is one late manuscript, the 1968 fragment “Beat Spotlight,” that was begun shortly before Kerouac’s death. In it can be seen Kerouac’s ambivalence toward his fame and how others have interpreted his life through his fiction. It abruptly ends too soon for much to be said definitely on its quality of prose or thought, but there certainly are enough glimpses here and there to make a reader regret that Kerouac never lived to finish this tale. The Unknown Kerouac concludes with a 1940s noir novel that Kerouac and William S. Burroughs had begun in 1945, first titled And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks, with Burroughs and Kerouac alternating chapters, before Kerouac began revising it later that year, changing its title to I Wish I Were You. This short novel is a curiosity more than a good noir novel, although there are moments where Kerouac in the revised version published here does manage to capture a sense of place and time. It is a curious coda, however, as the writing and thoughts expressed therein do not correlate well with the other pieces in this collection. Despite being the longest fiction presented in The Unknown Kerouac, I Wish I Were You might be the weakest and least interesting piece published. Although it is not outright poor, it certainly detracts from what otherwise was a very harmonious collection of newly-published (and translated) non-fiction and fiction that helps reveal quite a bit about one of the mid-20th century’s most important American writers. Despite this misstep at the end, however, The Unknown Kerouac certainly is a book that readers of Kerouac’s more famous works might find to be essential to their understanding of Kerouac.