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Roots Always Precede Routes: On the Road, through a Glass Darkly



Cet article explore les strates souterraines de On the Road, d’une part, en adoptant trois angles d’approche (le rapport dialogique errance-enracinement, l’ethnogenèse et la géographie culturelle), et d’autre part, en intégrant le roman dans un projet plus vaste, le projet « Route » qui permet une lecture de la genèse du roman publié en 1957 et de sa version originale, le Rouleau, publiée cinquante ans plus tard. Cet article analyse les rapports entre espace, identité, errance et nation, et tente de proposer une lecture de la présence invisible de l’ethnicité franco-américaine de l’auteur comme fils conducteur des proto-versions de On the Road et des thèmes abordés (l’errance, la cartographie de l’espace et la quête du père et de la patrie perdus).

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1In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, James Clifford questions the concept of culture and studies the various instances of traveling. He explores the routes that cause and enrich border and cultural migrations and consequently the different practices of migration, modes of transfer and bi- or multi-cultural experiences. One specific sentence in Clifford’s study­ — “Dwelling was understood to be the local ground of collective life, travel a supplement; roots always precede routes” (Clifford 3)— throws an interesting light on the portrayal of ethnicityin On the Road, all the more so as this ethnicity is almost invisible to the surface reading of the novel. In his preface to Kerouac’s Crooked Road, Tim Hunt concludes:

We have much to learn from the way [Kerouac’s] French Canadian upbringing left him suspended between two categories—neither a person of color nor a white middle-class American—and unable to resolve either the dissonance between the period’s rhetorics of ethnicity and class (by which, because he was white, he was in the cultural and social mainstream) or his sense of marginality—his sense that he was finally an alien and an outsider. (Hunt xxvi)

  • 1  For further development, see William Boelhower’s introduction to Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Se (...)
  • 2  See Victor Greene’s essay “Old Ethnic Stereotypes and the New Ethnic Studies.”

2When one thinks of the novel’s treatment of ethnicity and race, one hardly expects to be tackling the French Canadian invisible presence as the guiding line for the novel’s draft and themes. And yet, Kerouac’s ethnic background deserves investigation to approach the writing and thematic development of this road picaresque. On the Road (OR) can be read as a projection of Kerouac’s development of his American identity crisis, which he interrogates through the triad father/son/space (America). Indeed, the novel mirrors the author’s problematic as far as his identity at the crossroads of many American cultures is concerned ―a crisis itself at the core of the famous meditation upon the great ethnic question and the cauldron of the American character.1 In Through a Glass Darkly, William Boelhower remarks that the point of the question “What is an American?” is not the answer but the question itself (Boelhower 20). As regards Kerouac, such a question must find an answer, an imperative dictated by his hyphenated identity. Writing then becomes for him the space where his identity dilemma is staged, where his cultural in-betweenness seeks a central place to be, since as Victor Greene pointed out, “it [is] difficult for the second generation to exist on the fringes, or the margin of both worlds” (Greene 331).2

3This essay shall aim at offering an ethnic reading of the novel from the point of view of Kerouac’s French Canadian culture and at bringing to the surface a whole palimpsestic French Canadian text which is part of a traveling heritage but which also calls for self-location on the North American continent, as well as for discovering one’s roots out of this French Canadian transcontinental North American predicament. It is mostly from a cultural and historical point of view that the French Canadian ethnic issue will be considered here.

  • 3  This is in keeping with Boelhower’s assumption that being American and being ethnic American are p (...)

4If in his road novels, and most particularly in On the Road, Kerouac tries to map American restlessness and wandering,3 he explores more than roads and territories, as the incipit suggests:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning but never taking off. (3)

  • 4  Such a view is shared by Quebec geographer Eric Waddell who noticed that the use of a series of te (...)

5Sal Paradise’s journey across America is clearly heralded as a potential way out of a situation of aporia and presented as a rebirth, staged through the mapping of American historical and cultural origins. For, in trying to map American restlessness and nomadism, Kerouac loses himself in an exile that is to lead him, through a study in American ethnogenesis, into becoming the archeologist of his own lineage. This is not without echoing a most common theme developed by Canadian author Clark Blaise, i.e. that many were the American writers of French Canadian descent who tried to know themselves and describe “the restless in my father and in me” (Blaise 228). Such restlessness has its roots in a specific place, Quebec itself. As far as he is concerned, Blaise confides that the sadness in his life is being a native of nowhere, coming from no place, no people. And when he tries to locate where no place is, he just assumes it must be over the border (id.). The border is itself problematic, as Bruno Ramirez underlines, since “it was the presence of a nearby legal border that turned mobile Canadian into ‘migrants’” (Ramirez 187). In fact, the problem Americans of French Canadian descent have to cope with in their search for their origins, for the old country where their parents and most of their North American ancestors were born, is precisely linked to the geographic identification of Canada as a territory of reference. In a letter to Yvonne Le Maitre following the publication of The Town and the City, Kerouac wrote: “[I] am amazed by that horrible homelessness all French-Canadians abroad in America have” (Charters 228),4 and later even defined himself as “a North American exile in North America” (ibid. 381). On the Road testifies to this declaration. Hence the interest in highlighting what the novel suggests about the roots of the various road trips Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter ego in the novel, makes across the North American continent, about his Ulysses syndrome.

  • 5  Morissonneau operates in the Quebec cultural geography studies and was one of its most active memb (...)

6Sal Paradise’s various trips across the United States shall be considered in relation to Clifford’s argument that roots always precede routes, thus questioning the protagonist’s impulse to move in the light of a French Canadian ethnic tradition. In narrative discourse, Boelhower explains, this search for roots takes the form of an extended mnemotechnical strategy whose rhetorical tropes are very closely monitored by a genealogical and topographical process, whereby the ethnic subject goes through the national map in order to return to local origins (Boelhower 87). Moreover, according to Quebec geographer Christian Morissonneau, the very economic and social circumstances since the colonization suffice to determine the French Canadian tradition of motion and nomadism.5 He adds, though, that this people of passage and not of settlement doesn’t occupy space but travels the length and breadth of the country, and ascribes to this popular nomadic tradition the impossibility to see emerge a clear territorial consciousness. On a literary level, this migrating culture finds in writing the possibility to express the refusal of a naturalized organic home and an experience in wandering and exile. Such a perspective is very important to understand, for instance, Sal Paradise’s desire to read the American continent (102), to possess it and conquer its geography and history, since to quote Adrienne Rich: “a place on the map is a place in history” (Rich 1984). Could, then, the call for the West, this westward movement that gives On the Road its impulse and direction, be considered as the fictional transposition of a problematic centered on the threefold isotopes: identity/ethnicity, geography, history? How could a dialectics of individual and collective ethnic history underline the incapacity to define one’s identity in relation to the territory as a stimulus to this geographical quest for freedom? In dealing with this geographical quest for freedom, with this cartographic and historical act, one should not forget that such a quest was first and foremost impelled by the lack or rather the loss of a fixed home, by homelessness. Therefore, Sal’s urge to move in the novel should be understood as a means of self-location ―a reality that the circularity of his trips emphasizes.

  • 6  The concept of French America has emerged in the 1980s and refers to a French archipelago stretchi (...)
  • 7  With the English conquest of Canada, the European sediments stop using the Great River and the Fre (...)
  • 8  The Kerouacs belonged to this third pocket.

7Reading On the Road in such a light implies contextualizing the French Canadian mobility in terms of race, ethnicity and diasporic migration and considering the French Canadian community as a community scattered across the North American continent from a center of diffusion that is the Saint Lawrence River area. This diaspora, whose motherland is an undefined territory with floating intangible borders, has created itself a floating identity within a culture that considers family as the symbol of continuity. The concept of French America actually calls for two myths: for the Americans of French Canadian and Acadian descent, it calls for the myth of a native French Canadian land; for Quebeckers, it calls for the myth of great spaces to discover and possess. In Kerouac’s novels though, the myth of the North is displaced by the myth of the West. In the footsteps of Dean Louder’s research on the concept of French America,6 Alexandre Germain established a parallel between the history of the French Canadian mobility on the American continent and the forming of a delta lay-out, whose canal is the inverted flow of the Saint Lawrence River. His analysis brings forth various useful key elements to a French Canadian reading of Sal Paradise’s journey in On the Road and Kerouac’s treatment and portrayal of race and ethnicity, as well as of specific encounters with individuals or natural elements. According to Germain, the image of a large French Canadian delta, whose seaway would be the inverted flow of the Saint Lawrence waters, allows a sedimentary perception of history that perfectly translates its susceptible burying under recent historical layers, hence the need to unearth some forgotten aspects. Yet the sedimentary structure left by the French Canadian migration was never thick enough to cover the whole landscape: “their identity is floating and the depth of its link with the continent has been buried under a sea of different cultures.” Therefore, three delta pockets can be isolated. The first, emerging from a pioneering context, is composed of European elements of French origin who settled on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. The second, shaped by a colonial context, left its geographical marks with the erection of forts and trading posts around the Great Lake region and the Mississippi Valley.7 Eventually, the third pocket is characterized by the New England, Midwest and Western Canada expansion.8 Therefore, one must now consider such a cultural geographical and geological interpretation of the French Canadian diaspora on the North American continent as highly relevant to the ethnic approach and the themes Kerouac tackles in On the Road, namely Sal Paradise’s relationship with the other ethnic minority groups (such as the Afro-Americans and the Mexicans) he meets along the road, or the idea of fatherland (as “the land of the father”) together with the quest for the missing father, which will be developed further down.

8Germain’s approach thus helps understand the very concept of invisible ethnicity as applied to the Franco-American community in the United States, as well as the potential French Canadian heritage in mobility, homelessness and self-location that a whole subtext in On the Road reveals. Hence, understanding Sal Paradise’s quest is understanding the character’s alter ego’s floating identity and, most of all, understanding it both as free and as unstable, looking for itself through a glass darkly.

9Kerouac’s ethnic crisis in On the Road occurs, for instance, at these very moments when Sal Paradise loses all spatial references and compares himself to a (wandering) ghost. These moments metaphorize the ethnic subject’s constant negotiations and interpretations of physical, geographical or etymological othernesses that bring him back to his liminal state. Such is the case in the following passage:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing a hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was half way across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon. (17)

10The identity crisis is here symbolized by this brief moment when Sal is nothing but the ghost of his own life ―an image he uses recurrently throughout the novel (59, 83). And, as the example shows, the conditions for this split are constant, i.e. the contact with a foreign space/place. The confrontation forces Sal to redefine himself according to this place and to reinterpret a cultural displaced territory. In On the Road, as it was the case in The Town and the City, the expression of this identity crisis and of this loss of cultural landmarks coincides with a culture shock metaphorized, on the one hand, by the protective enclosure of the ethnic background and, on the other hand, by the endless unknown wilderness of the American landscape.

  • 9  The On the Road project is largely developed and analysed by Tim Hunt in Kerouac’s Crooked Road: D (...)
  • 10  See Isaac Gewirtz’s Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road, chapter 3 “On the Road Proto-Versions (...)
  • 11  Excessive though the image may be, Kerouac recurrently presents his alter egos as umpteen christic (...)

11Before going any further, it should be reminded that the 1957 On the Road edition was part of a larger attempt at writing the Road book,9 the many published versions of which are Pic and Visions of Cody. As for the proto-versions of On the Road, they have never been published.10 In a personal entry for May 19, 1950, in the Road-Log, Kerouac recounts a marijuana-induced vision which took the form of a scolding “French Canadian older brother” claiming to be “un ambassadeur du Bon Dieu,” but whom Kerouac identifies as his “original self,” and who came to accuse him of attempting to suppress his Canuck identity (Gewirtz 80). Kerouac responded to this spectral admonition by giving a French background to the chief protagonists of the various drafts produced later in 1950 (ibid. 91-102). One “Road” version focused on Wilfred “Freddy” Boncoeur’s travels (the protagonist’s travels) with the “scolding older brother” of Kerouac’s vision. This Freddy is modeled upon the aspects of Kerouac’s psyche that the brother had rebuked (ibid. 93-94). The character of Freddy is to be found in yet other versions and a cast of French Canadian family characters appears. And the French Canadian emphasis remains strong in these proto-versions. In the fall of 1950, “On the Road was to be a novel as much about French Canadian life and culture inextricably bound up with America’s history and destiny, as it was about the reflection of that destiny in the lives of the book’s protagonist and his circle of friends” (ibid. 96). These proto-versions are very useful to trace the French Canadian identity Kerouac erased from the 1957 edition only to shift the ethnic identity issue to an Italian-American named Salvatore Paradise, whose only ethnic identification is his name. But Salvatore Paradise, as a name, can also be understood as an onomastic symbol of the author’s identity crisis at the crossroads of two memories. In her study of the oral history of Lowell’s Franco-Americans, Brigitte Lane speaks about Kerouac’s confrontation as a child to two conflicting cultures but also to two conflicting cultural memories by the way of school: the French Canadian memory of the Jesuit school (his family and ethnic memory) and the memory of public school (his national totalizing memory) (Lane 168). Lane defines this situation as some cultural schizophrenia at the very foundation of his identity ―his private, family and ethnic culture, on the one hand, and his surrounding public national culture, on the other. She concludes that one can hardly find a clearer cultural crucifixion (ibid. 169).11

  • 12  See letter to Allen Ginsberg, August 26, 1947 (Charters 120).

12Besides, though Sal Paradise’s name might have been inspired by a Ginsberg poem,12 another origin could be suggested in relation to this French Canadian treatment of the concepts of motion and nomadism on the American continent. Indeed, one cannot but think of Louis Hemon’s male character, François Paradis, in Maria Chapdelaine —a nomad, a woodsman whose only fault is his temerity. He is used to working and living in the woods, a territory he knows perfectly. Sal Paradise does follow the path trodden by François Paradis but on a cemented or urban trail where nature is but passed by. Unlike Paradis, he is not brave but rather a pale copy of his French Canadian cousin. For him as well though, the territory is a source of fascination, at times causing terror in him, at others the ecstasy of epiphany.

  • 13  The West (OR 58) and Mexico fulfil such a function in the novel, since they are liminal spaces (27 (...)

13It is indeed also mostly when faced to these virgin stretches of land that the poetics of loss is displayed.13 When confronted to vast silent landscapes, the signs that Sal Paradise scatters about are as many projections of his own puzzlement, as many answers to decipher. Yet, despite his need to explore these foreign geographical territories, synonymous with freedom and rebirth, he remains on the margin, uprooted, as if suspended before falling down. Therefore, his very position as a narrator on the margin, as a displaced traveler should maybe be reconsidered, which recalls what Boelhower wrote about ethnicity: “in a society of irreversible technological advance, ethnicity ―the practice of digging up cultural origins― is a way of staying behind, of getting off the road, of rediscovering place” (Boelhower 64). In many ways, Sal Paradise rather than being on the road is off the road, he hardly takes a walk on the wild side of the road but rather looks for safer spaces (132). Moreover, the circularity of his trips not only points to a symbolical interpretation of his journey but also defines him as the post-modern primitivist figure of the nomad who moves around in complex, constrained travel trajectories. His nomadism is nothing but a regulated practice of travel within a known world: “I had my home to go to, my place to lay my head down and figure the losses and figure the gain that I knew was in there somewhere too” (106). Sal Paradise’s special status in the novel largely depends on his position: that of an observer, of a theorist, to use Clifford’s terminology. One of the first scenes stages a triangular relationship of power:

That was the night Dean let Carlo Marx. A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of the hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes—the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx. From that moment on I saw very little of Dean, and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. (7)

14Here the conflict that structures the myth and seems to be translated by the clear opposition between the two archetypal character of Dean (the nomad) and Sal (the settler) is rendered more complex by the arrival of a third element: the Dostoievskian intellectual character of Carlo Marx. The shift from the duet to the trio forces the interpretation of Sal’s character: a complex character torn between the wilderness (embodied by Dean) and the world of culture that Carlo, the Eastern intellectual, personifies. A similar scene is to be found later on in part one:

They sat on the bed crosslegged and looked straight at each other. I slouched in a nearby chair and saw it all … I told them that I was thinking they were very amazing maniacs and that I had spent the whole night listening to them like a man watching the mechanism of a watch that reached clear to the top of the Berthoud Pass and yet was made with the smallest works of the most delicate watch in the world. (48-50)

15In fact, if the novel only wants to keep the nomad/settler couple in this rewriting of the American myth, Sal Paradise’s position as a narrator is central in these scenes. Sal is both attracted by the wilderness of the continent and the stability of cultural New York. The position he prefers, though, is that of the margin or rather of the border ―that liminal place where he captures the spirit of contemporary America: “rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining” (54). If Sal often describes himself as naïve, it is this very naivety that allows him a personal view of contemporary America.

16Analyzing the word from the point of view of Greek terminology, a theory is a practice of travel and observation, in the form of a man sent by the polis to another city to witness a religious ceremony. It is a product of displacement, comparison and a certain distance. In order to theorize, one leaves home. Somehow, the character of Sal Paradise could be interpreted as a modern theorist: “I saw myself in Middle America, a patriarch. I was lonesome. Nobody was there” (179). Like any act of travel, Clifford says, theory begins and ends somewhere. In the case of the Greek theorist, the beginning and end were the home polis, which in On the Road is nothing but New York, or rather that fixed element New York is associated with, even though she is almost absent from the whole novel, Sal’s aunt: Mémère Kerouac, Jack’s mother. But Sal’s goal is primarily to see thanks to his “mapped movements,” in this buried map of America, the topography of an ideal America: a ghostly and dreamy topography of America as it could have been. On the Road then becomes the attempt at writing this poetics of continental drift, revealed by these drifting floating logs: “the endless poem” (255), also metaphorized by the rag rug “woven of all the clothes in [his] family for years” that Sal’s aunt has just finished when he comes back home after his first trip West, and which is said to be “as complex and as rich as the passage of time itself” (107).

17Reading On the Road in a continental literary context also allows insight into the author’s desire for America as well as his desire to write his own American novel (his “endless poem”) as an alternative means to anchor his roots. But above all, it allows a closer view into the novel through the deconstruction of a double referential space: that of the parish (the parish locus) and of the family, i.e. the French Canadian parish and its microcosm, the French Canadian family. According to Morissonneau,

[l]’homme québécois has little more parish consciousness than frontier consciousness. The true locus of his continuity is more temporal than spatial: it is the family … The extended family is what creates the true network of migration, integrating the individual wherever he goes … Yesterday, the family, today, more often the “gang”—but always the same group, sharing common meanings and symbols. The gang is comforting because of its homogeneity. It is a homeland writ small, a moveable homeland, and it provides a basis for solidarity—however weak its anchoring in history—and negates geography. Thus the people preserve their identity through their very instability. (Morissonneau 27-28)

18Such a statement could be read as a clue to Kerouac’s desire to reconstruct within the Beat Generation some continuity, of a special nature though, since this reconstruction of a community identity results precisely from an identity clash and testifies to the passage from a French Canadian identity to the failure to integrate the American nation, which Kerouac expresses by this mystic quest for a promised land in On the Road.

19Having brought back to the surface this erased, though not lost French Canadian identity through a series of micro-analyses, we may now isolate and analyze the concept of motion in relation to the novel’s treatment of the American myth. Sal Paradise’s journey is a means to interrogate the map, which results in a genealogical act; as a map reader, Sal goes through his own cultural image reflected in the mirror of the map. If, then, motion/mobility is perceived as a means of resisting the concepts of family and home, the novel would then set mobility as the quest for an absence: a fatherland/homeland, in its etymological meaning of “the land of the father.”

  • 14  In the proto-versions, the search for the absent father is a recurrent theme and the missing fathe (...)

20As such, this quest for the father figure or rather for a fatherland (patria) could also be linked to a French Canadian tradition of mobility. In all the palimpsestic versions of On the Road published so far (Pic and Visions of Cody), the father is an absent figure:14 “Either you find someone who looks like your father in places like Montana or you look for a friend’s father where he is no more” (OR 180). Yet, this absence gives the whole narrative its impulse and is even materialized by the book Sal Paradise is writing: nothing else but The Town and the City (ibid. 8). The novel was Kerouac’s first published novel and was written after his father’s death —a novel he defined in his letters: in the name of the father. In his April 19, 1947 letter to Hal Chase, Kerouac expressed his bulimic and gargantuan relationship to America: “My subject as a writer is of course America, and simply I must know everything about it … my purpose is Balzacian in scope ―to conquer knowledge of America” (Charters 107). John Clellon Holmes said of Kerouac that “he loved America the way immigrants used to, he believed in its promise, he was profoundly hurt by what its current destiny seemed to be” (Holmes 22). On the Road is a five parts’ song on the American (Western) myth theme, on the desire to cover this gigantic continent, to encompass it, to be fused with it, to decipher it in order to identify and locate oneself. The means to achieve this is motion, traveling across the continent. In “Travel and Theory,” Clifford defines travel first as a figure of different modes of dwelling and displacement, of trajectories and identities, of storytelling and theorizing in a postcolonial world of global contacts; but also as a range of practices for situating the self in space or spaces grown too large, a form both of exploration and discipline; but above all, quite paradoxically, as a means to anchor oneself, to locate oneself. What is location then? If Clifford argues that it is not a matter of finding a stable home but rather of being aware of the difference that makes a difference in concrete situations, of recognizing the various inscriptions, “places,” or “histories” that both empower and inhibit the construction of theoretical categories, it is in Sal Paradise’s case and in Kerouac’s a matter of anchoring oneself, of finding a fixed home.

  • 15  See the April 19, 1947 letter to Hal Chase (Charters 107).

21As the letters and the beginning of the novel show, his approach of the American continent is first and foremost encyclopedic: “I’ve been poring over maps of the United States in Paterson for months, even reading books about the pioneers and savoring names like Platte and Cimarron and so on, and on the roadmap was one long red line called Route 66 that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles” (12). One must wonder if, in tracing back the genesis of this country, i.e. the United States, a country that possesses, obsesses and fascinates him, the author’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, will manage to possess it, to belong to it, and if Kerouac will manage to write his own genesis in the continent’s and anchor his wanderings. It is obvious from the start that the road trips follow the main steps of the conquest, which corresponds to the writing of history and of the Western conquest, to the re-creation of the primordial history of the discovery of the continent. His trip West is motivated and oriented according to the different historical readings about the Western conquest and the birth of the American nation.15 His vision is oneiric; his readings favor identification to the first pioneers moving westward, to the Promised Land, and evoke the emergence of the American nation freed from its European tutelage. They all echo the different attempts at writing and possessing this virgin land through historical and political texts as well as through maps drawing the line of the Conquest cadastre (OR 105). Each trip he plans is based on the projection of a mythic crossing of the land reenacting the discovery of America. The first trip already forecasts the outcome of the following trips. Though disastrous, its beginning serves the French Canadian reading of the journey suggested here (12). Sal Paradise follows the wrong road and, instead of going West, he goes North ―a direction the ghost of the Susquehanna himself heads toward but never reaches. Quite interestingly, this misdirection would have led him towards Canada, the place of Jack Kerouac’s ethnic descent. For this modern conquest of the land, Sal Paradise chooses as a partner Dean Moriarty, “his Western kinsman of the sun,” the archetypal hero of the West, the icon figure who invades the whole novel from beginning to end. If, in most of his trips —”horizontal trips”— Sal is accompanied by Dean, some of them he makes alone; both are of a very different kind. In fact, Dean imposes a frantic pace that prevents Sal from any real contact with the land —”With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it” (205)—, for Dean’s impulse to go on the road does not have the same meaning as Sal’s: “He drove by the birth county of his forebears without a thought” (112). The trips Sal makes by himself are more personal ones —”vertical trips”— trips he can accomplish but by himself. It is on some of these that I shall insist since a considerable criticism has been written on the picaresque couple Dean-Sal’s trips across America. Sal’s trips are somehow determined by the following statement: “Here I was at the end of America ―no more land― and now there was nowhere to go but back. I determined at least to make my trip a circular one” (78). This circularity mirrors in a way the writing of an already marked out territory, of an American continent itself another closed space. Sal Paradise is then definitely what Clifford calls the post-modern primitivist figure of the nomad who moves around in complex, constrained travel trajectories. Staying on the road is the only means to pursue the illusion of a space to discover: a space within. Introspection will then lead him to a confrontation of his own destiny as a North American exile searching for his roots. Most of the parallel underground readings imposed on him are often accompanied or forced by encounters of a special nature, with marginal and ethnic figures that all partake of Sal’s deciphering process of his complex North American identity.

22In his first trip back East, Sal embarks on a journey in the belly of the earth. His route goes further South into California, where Sal meets Teresa, the Mexican girl, thanks to whom he is reunited with the American land: “it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth. If I felt like resting I did, with my face on the pillow of brown moist earth” (96). Having left Dean’s frantic pace behind, Sal now embraces the time of the Earth: “I was a man of the earth, precisely as I had dreamed in Paterson” (97), thanks to Terry’s Mexican relationship with Mother Earth. But whenever there is a confrontation with someone from another ethnic background with whom he shares some kind of intimacy, he ends up leaving as if there was some danger, as if they represented some obstacle in his quest for Americanness. Even Dean somehow represents a danger.

23He then resumes his route eastward going deeper and deeper South, towards another origin, another tropism: drifting along the river. His route parallels the Mississippi’s. In Saint Louis, the drifting of floating logs inspires in him a new poetics of space: “We arrived in St. Louis. I took a walk down by the Mississippi River and watched the logs that came floating from Montana in the North ―grand Odyssean logs of our continental dream” (103). These floating logs unroll the manuscript of the continental dream, of this one-way odyssey that is the American epic; they also symbolically evoke the French Canadian continental drift and Kerouac’s destiny as a French Canadian exile. Couldn’t this drift also evoke indirectly the French Canadian log drivers who belong to the transcontinental river mythology? Could it be a metaphor for the French Canadian people’s drift from the Saint Lawrence delta —the seaway from the Saint Lawrence to the Mississippi writing the one-way odyssey of the French Canadian epic? In such a light could these reflections on mobility, wandering and the search for a fatherland in On the Road be linked to the history of the French Canadian wandering on the American land? Throughout the novel, it seems that Kerouac develops this problematic and metaphorizes the impossibility to come back to the origin by introducing either characters who appear but briefly or thwarted directions. This is mostly the case with the Ghost of the Susquehanna whom Sal meets just after his continental reverie along the Mississippi waters ―a reverie on the origins.

24The Ghost of the Susquehanna walks towards Canada —the original center of French Canadian diaspora— but never manages to reach it, for he never takes the right road. This drifting character seems to be en route towards this original place but never makes it. Not surprisingly then, he answers the driver who stops for Sal: “‘Can’t tell me I don’t know my way around here. Been walking this country for years, I’m headed for Canady’” (104-105). It must be pointed out that he appears in the different versions of the Road book. In On the Road:

It was the night of the ghost of the Susquehanna. The Ghost was a shriveled little old man with a paper satchel who claimed he was headed for “Canady”. He walked very fast, commanding me to follow, and said there was a bridge up ahead we could cross … as far as I could see he was just a semi-respectable walking hobo of some kind who covered the entire Eastern Wilderness on foot, hitting Red Cross offices and sometimes bumming on Main Street corners for a dime. We were bums together. We walked seven miles along the mournful Susquehanna. (103-104)

25The meeting with the Ghost is not fortuitous since it happens when Sal is homesick and wants “to get home” (103). In Pic, as Slim and Pic are crossing the Susquehanna River, an old man with a tiny suitcase hurrying along passes by them saying: “‘Walk a little faster if you want to keep up with me, for I’m goin to CANADY and I don’t want to waste time.’ Well, he wasn’t even caught up with us and talked like that, but soon enough he passed us. ‘Can’t lag, son, can’t lag’ he said, and was looking back. Me and Slim hurried on after him quick” (Pic 224-225). After a six miles’ walk with the old man, convinced that sooner or later they would get to that place beyond the bridge they were headed to, Slim and Pic give up and the old man concludes: “I just misjudged you boys like I misjudged that young man three years ago, that’s all I done. I’m ready to go on if you ain’t” (ibid. 228). Consequently, Slim comes up with the conclusion that he is nothing else but the River’s ghost:

Shoo, that was some kinda ghost of the river, he’s been lookin for Canady in Virginia, West Virginia, West Pennsylvania, North New York, New York City, East Arthuritis and South Pottzawattomy for the last eight years as far as I can figure, and on foot, too. He’ll never find the Canady and he’ll never get to Canady because he’s goin the wrong way all the time. (ibid. 229)

26As for the bridge the old man pretends to be bound for, he will never find it, which stresses the impossibility of linking spaces together, of connecting identities, of fusing man and fatherland. For Tim Hunt, the Ghost “reveals to Sal that the father is as lost as the son and that each son must confront his own inadequacy and mortality, must become his own father” (Hunt 18). The episode is also mentioned in Visions of Cody: “me and the Ghost of the Susquehanna walking, walking for the bridge that was never there Ah me” (108). In Pic, though, the old man mentions a young man he met three years before. At this stage, one can wonder who this young man is. According to the various elements gathered along the three novels as well as in the letters and diaries, couldn’t one suggest that this young man is precisely Sal Paradise? If Pic’s first draft was written as Kerouac was working on Visions of Cody, he revised and corrected the novel before he died. Therefore, such a reference could then be understood as an intertextual reference to the On the Road Ghost of the Susquehanna episode. Moreover, if we consider the fact that he is but a ghost among others in the Duluoz Legend’s ghosts gallery, he could easily be interpreted as a double for the writer, a symbol of his condition and, most of all, of his condition as a representative of a well-defined community (the French Canadians) searching for its roots on the American continent.

27It is indeed the quest for a fatherland that Dean, but most of all Sal, are undertaking. On one starlit night, for instance, the sky turns out to become a metaphor for Sal’s own exile: “A cricket kept me awake for some time. At night in this part of the West the stars, as I had seen them in Wyoming, are big as roman candles and as lonely as the Prince of the Dharma who’s lost his ancestral grove and journeys across the spaces between points in the handle of the Big Dipper, trying to find it again” (222).

28More than a picaresque novel, the writing of On the Road can thus be read as an attempt to exhaust the American continent:

I want to say things that only Melville has allowed himself to say in “The Novel.” And Joyce.

I’m not interested in The Novel, but in what I want to write about. I want, as in 1947, to bust out from the European narrative into the Mood Chapters of an American poetic “sprawl” — if you can call careful prose a sprawl. If this is not agreeable to the public, what can I say? As an Architect I will nevertheless see that all is solid in this. (Brinkley 242)

  • 16  Rebirth symbols are scattered throughout the novel, which begins quite logically in July (11).

29This exhaustion is articulated around the archeology of the belly of the Northern American continent. Writing then filters the underground layers of contemporary America to find the howl, that prenatal groan. The writing and exploration of the land become archeological, hence the recurrent use of the polysemic verb “to dig.” It also mirrors the sad song Sal becomes the voice of —the patriarch (OR 179), the prophet (“go moan for man”). It takes the shape of a solo articulating the declaration of independence the novel aims at writing.16 It is indeed a blues song on the theme of wandering Kerouac manages to transpose and incorporate into the writing of his text America:

“On the Road” is my vehicle with which as a lyric poet, as lay prophet, and as the possessor of a responsibility to my own personality (whatever it rages to do) I wish to evoke that indescribable sad music of the night in America — for reasons which are never deeper than the music. Bop only begins to express that American music. It is the actual inner sound of a country…

There’s a noise in the void I hear: there’s a vision of the void; there’s a complaint in the abyss — there’s a cry in the bleak air: the realm is haunted. Man haunts the earth. Man is on a ledge noising his life. (Brinkley 262)

30Even before the writing of On the Road, Kerouac was very much interested in the American idiom and all its various forms, especially the most popular and musical ones. This musical ecstasy/epiphany (OR 206) expressed through IT in the novel is a more powerful means than the road to gash the American continent open and enter the belly of the earth: “ Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy” (241). It is vertical and not horizontal like the road and it will serve Sal’s underground ethnic quest. The recreation of the American myth —the writing of this American ethnogenesis— will only be possible thanks to this endless bop poem or prosody, indirectly mirrored in the rhythm of Kerouac’s spontaneous, oral and popular native French Canadian “joual.” It is through other voices from the margin that Sal Paradise and, Jack Kerouac through him, will find the way to express his ethnic quest, his displacement ―this shift from center to periphery and the attempt to relocate oneself at the core of things, at the core of American history. Moreover, through this spontaneous bop prosody, Kerouac wrote his act of linguistic independence: “I’ve invented a new prose, Modern Prose, jazzlike breathlessly swift spontaneous and unrevised floods… it comes out wild, at least it comes out pure” (Charters 449). Not only is this new idiom of American prose the only vehicle to capture the wilderness of contemporary America but it is also a pioneering act by which Kerouac comes to master the American language and create a new language at the crossroads of American languages.

31Such an everlasting obsession to be reconciled with one’s destiny, to anchor one’s roots, to trace one’s continental genesis back is part of the New World imagination. The obsession is all the more pressing when, like the author, the dialectic of nomadism and settlement is an inheritance. Yet, beyond heritage, the question remains above all that of searching for an identity buried under the Others’ America.

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Blaise, Clark. “Latin Americans of the North.” Le Québec et les francophones de la Nouvelle-Angleterre. Dean Louder (dir.). Sainte-Foy, Québec: Presses de l’Université de Laval, 1991: 227-237.

Boelhower, William. Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford U.P., 1987.

Brinkley, Douglas, ed. Windblown World. The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954. New York: Viking, 2004.

Charters, Ann, ed. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1957. New York: Viking Press, 1995.

Clifford, James. Roots: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997.”

— “Notes on Travel and Theory.” “Traveling Theories, Traveling Theorists.” Inscriptions5 (1989). 12 March 2007.

Germain, Alexandre. “L’identité enfouie d’un Franco en terre d’Amérique: réflexions suscitées par la lecture de Jack Kerouac.” 8 September 2005.

Gewirtz, Isaac. Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road. The New York Public Library in association with Scala Publishers, London, 2007.

Greene, Victor. “Old Ethnic Stereotypes and the New Ethnic Studies.” Ethnicity. New York and London, England: Academic Press, December 1978, vol. 5: 328-350.

Hemon, Louis. Maria Chapdelaine : récit du Canada français. Bibliothèque québécoise, [1916] 1990.

Holmes, John Clellon. Letter to Joy Walsh. 28 February 1972. Moody Street Irregulars: A Jack Kerouac Newsletter 20 & 21: 22.

Hunt, Tim. Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Kerouac, Jack. The Town and the City. New York: Penguin Books, [1950] 2000.

On the Road. Penguin Books, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, [1957].

Satori in Paris and Pic: Two Novels. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

Visions of Cody. Penguin Books, [1972] 1993.

On the Road. The Original Scroll. Penguin Books. Modern Classics, 2008.

— 1949 Road-Log, holograph in pencil and blue pen, in spiral ledger notebook, April 27, 1949-July 24, 1950, 51 leaves; Kerouac Archive, Box 55, envelope 2. New York Public Library, Berg Collection.

— “On the Road écrit en français,” holograph in pencil on lined, three-holed paper, January 19, [1951], 10p. (5 leaves); Kerouac Archive, Box 2, folder 41. New York Public Library, Berg Collection.

Lane, Brigitte. “Histoire Orale des Franco-Américains de Lowell, Massachusetts: mémoire, histoire et identité(s)”. Francophonies d’Amérique 5: 153-172.

Morissonneau, Christian. “The ‘Ungovernable’ People: French Canadian Mobility and Identity.” French America. Mobility, Identity, and Minority Experience Across the Continent. dir. Dean Louder and Eric Waddell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U.P., 1993: 15-32.

Ramirez, Bruno. Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the United States, 1900-1930. Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 2001.

Rich, Adrienne. “Notes towards a Politics of Location.” Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985. New York: Norton, 1986.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity. Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford U.P., 1986.

Waddell, Eric. “Kerouac, le Québec, l’Amérique … et moi.” Un Homme Grand―Jack Kerouac at the crossroads of many cultures―Jack Kerouac à la confluence des cultures. Pierre Anctil, Louis Dupont, Rémi Ferland, Eric Waddell (eds.). Ottawa: Carleton U.P., 1990: 1-18.

Waddell, Eric and Dean Louder, dirs. French America. Mobility, Identity and Minority Experience Across the Continent. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U.P., 1993.

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1  For further development, see William Boelhower’s introduction to Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature (1987).

2  See Victor Greene’s essay “Old Ethnic Stereotypes and the New Ethnic Studies.”

3  This is in keeping with Boelhower’s assumption that being American and being ethnic American are part of a single cultural framework where both subjects share the problem of origins —a problem he locates in the perennial crisis of dwelling, of habitare, in the United States (Boelhower 9-10).

4  Such a view is shared by Quebec geographer Eric Waddell who noticed that the use of a series of terms, such as homelessness, being abroad in America or restlessness, was recurrent in the works of American writers of French Canadian descent. See his essay “Kerouac, le Québec, l’Amérique… et moi.”

5  Morissonneau operates in the Quebec cultural geography studies and was one of its most active members in the 1970s. He is mostly known for his book La terre promise: le mythe du Nord québécois (1978), which aims at studying mobility as one of the characteristic features in the foundation of Quebec identity. The Quebec mobility can be traced back to the very origins of New France where the migrants added to their nomad heritage the influence of a huge wild space.

6  The concept of French America has emerged in the 1980s and refers to a French archipelago stretching from Canada to Haiti via New England and Louisiana and of which Quebec would be the hub. It results from the analysis of the geographical factors that have allowed French culture to prosper on the North American continent up to these days, beyond the distance and displacement of the French linguistic and cultural communities and beyond their diversity. It refers to the links uniting these very communities within a French space, and through which French culture would have spread its power on the North American continent scale. The concept of French America is developed through the spectrum of cultural geography.

See for further details the reference study directed by Dean Louder and Eric Waddell entitled Du continent perdu à l’archipel retrouvé: le Québec et l’Amérique française (1983). An English translation has been published under the title French America. Mobility, Identity and Minority Experience Across the Continent. The aim of this study was to reveal a forgotten French America by highlighting the network that united the French territories on the North American continent through history, thanks to a series of analyses on the ways these French communities have come to take position on the North American territory.

7  With the English conquest of Canada, the European sediments stop using the Great River and the French Canadian sediments concentrate for a period on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.

8  The Kerouacs belonged to this third pocket.

9  The On the Road project is largely developed and analysed by Tim Hunt in Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction, especially chapter 2 (From Fact to Vision: The Road Book): 83-142. To quote Hunt: “Begun 9 November 1948, On the Road was three and a half years in writing, and in that time Kerouac worked on at least five distinct versions of the book. The one ultimately published as On the Road in 1957 by Viking is the fourth of these versions.” (Hunt 77).

10  See Isaac Gewirtz’s Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road, chapter 3 “On the Road Proto-Versions: Drafts, Fragments, and Journals.”

11  Excessive though the image may be, Kerouac recurrently presents his alter egos as umpteen christic figures ―Sal Paradise being one of them. Werner Sollors also highlights the fact that ethnic writers have a keen conscience of their duplicity and adds that the human being with a double identity in literature is related to Christ and superman rather than to average mortals” (Sollors 249).

12  See letter to Allen Ginsberg, August 26, 1947 (Charters 120).

13  The West (OR 58) and Mexico fulfil such a function in the novel, since they are liminal spaces (272, 276) where one is confronted to loss but also to rebirth. The road to Mexico is also the road to discovering old roots, to digging older civilizations by entering the belly of American civilization (280-281)

14  In the proto-versions, the search for the absent father is a recurrent theme and the missing father an important part of the plot. In a third “Road” draft in his Workbook, called “Gone on the Road,” the main theme is the protagonist’s search for his father. In the ten page manuscript entitled “On the Road ÉCRIT EN FRANCAIS,” the novel begins, as would The Original Scroll, with the death of the protagonist’s father.

15  See the April 19, 1947 letter to Hal Chase (Charters 107).

16  Rebirth symbols are scattered throughout the novel, which begins quite logically in July (11).

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Référence électronique

Peggy PACINI, « Roots Always Precede Routes: On the Road, through a Glass Darkly »E-rea [En ligne], 8.2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2011, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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ATER, Université de Cergy-Pontoise. Docteur de l’Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne et spécialiste de Jack Kerouac, elle a publié divers articles sur la géographie littéraire, la mémoire, la diglossie et l’ethnicité dans l’œuvre de l’auteur.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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