The Unknown Kerouac Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings

Todd Tietchen, editor; Jean-Christophe Cloutier, translator
Library of America
504 pp. $35

Reviewed by Lewis J. Whittington

nolead ends The Library of America's definitive collections of Jack Kerouac's writing continue to reveal his full impact on the American literary landscape. The Unknown Kerouac comprises unpublished private journals and newly translated stories written originally in Canadian French, Kerouac's first language. It is astonishing to consider that the originals of what became On the Road were written in French.

The Unknown Kerouac reveals the full scope of Kerouac's artistic ambitions, starting early. In his personal journals, full of confessionals, poems, and musings, we see his blueprint for the kind of American writer he wanted to be. Editor Todd Tietchen introduces each story in the context of Kerouac's life and details how some of these early writings anticipate later work.

He was born Jean-Louis Kérouac in Lowell, Mass., in 1922. His parents spoke French at home; Jack learned no English until he was five. A star student and athlete in high school, Kerouac entered Columbia in 1940, excelling in French and literature courses. He was sidelined in a football accident, and a year later he was in a Navy boot camp at Newport, R.I., disastrously as it turned out: He was sent to psychiatric observation for repeated "insubordination." During the '40s in New York, he became friends with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, John Holmes, Lucien Carr, and other writers and poets of the so-called Beat Generation. His literary heroes included Dostoyevsky, Melville, and especially Marcel Proust.

This volume includes the first English translations of the novellas The Night is My Woman (La nuit est ma femme) and Old Bull in the Bowery (Sur le chemin). The latter is an unfinished 1952 memoir of the "escapade of mistakes," his ride as a kid with Neal Cassady in 1935, along for the ride with male relatives on a desperate trip in New York. Thus began On the Road.

"I Wish I Were You" is a noir portrait of his New York contemporaries in the '40s. Published posthumously in 2008, it was his earliest portrait of his encounter with New York bohemia. Startling in its psychosexual frankness, Kerouac rewrote this version with Burroughs.

This collection is an essential volume for Kerouac fans and for those who have read only his most famous book. It's a chance to rediscover a brilliant writer before, during, and after that mythic trip On the Road.

Lewis J. Whittington writes about books and the performing arts.