Author’s Note: The first thing I want to do is to split this into two chapters, the first for Kerouac’s lineage proper, the second for the first years in Lowell. At the time of writing this section, there was little to go on, so, it can certainly be expanded with new information not only from Kerouac’s archive, but elsewhere.
In posts to come, items from this chapter will be isolated and then worked through as far as I (or anyone else) can take it. Anybody named that assists will always be credited.
THE KEROUACS OF NASHUA (January 1720-1925)
Urbain-François Le Bihan attended a wedding in the year of 1720, the first record of the earliest of Jack Kerouac’s ancestors to come to the New World. That year he had attended a wedding in Huelgoat, a town in northwestern Brittany. After the wedding reception, Urbain-François went to the Auberge Fournel, a local tavern, with the bride’s sister Constance, the groom, and several other members of the wedding party. They were sitting at a large table above the kitchen when Constance suddenly noticed that her money in a purse had vanished. For no other reason than that he was sitting there, she turned toward Urbain and accused him of theft. Urbain was brought down to the kitchen and physically searched. As the party continued its deliberations in the stables, suddenly someone shouted that the money had been located under the very table where they had been sitting only moments before. Despite Urbain-François’s innocence, the Barthelemys, a local family of a distinctly lower social station, were outraged and were certain that Urbain had stolen three purses as he walked along the road to the village of Saint-Pol and had also taken forty sols from a man named Plassart. Since their shouting had attracted a drunken crowd from the tavern, the motley group proceeded to undress Urbain, looking for stolen loot. Nothing was recovered.
Standing by the belief that his son was innocent, the wealthy notary François-Joachim Le Bihan de Kervoac brought the accusing crowd to court in the autumn of 1720. The accusers retracted their claim, claiming that too much drink had affected their memory. The family honor of Le Bihan de Kervoac was ultimately restored. Possibly the incident was nothing more than a social-class conflict. However, scholars will never know for certain since the legal documents of the Civil Tribunal for the Royal Court of Châteauneuf, Huelgoat, and Landeleau have vanished for the period between January 11, 1720, and March 2, 1723.
After the fifteen court sessions it took to deliberate the case, the troubled Urbain-François Le Bihan disappeared from all known records in Huelgoat. It is certain, however, that he had set off toward the English Channel to settle across the North Atlantic in New France. “The son of the notary of Huelgoat managed through his cleverness, audacity, and exceptional courage to make an impression at the highest level of government in his new country. Alexandre de Kervoach, ‘coureur de bois,’ hunter, fur trader, and voyager, had ambition when he arrived in Canada and managed to rise to the top where he rightly belonged,” writes PatriciaDeigler.1
Among the mountains of Quebec, beside the flowing St. Lawrence River and its islands, a wedding ceremony took place on October 22, 1732. Monseignor de Samos, the coadjutor of Quebec, had granted a marriage license to Maurice-Louis Le Brice de Karouac and Louise Bernier in the presence of Nicolas Jean de Kerverzo. Maurice-Louis Le Brice had found some trade as a merchant in Kamouraska, Quebec, since his arrival in New France despite the formal training he received as a notary. Researchers of Kerouac genealogy had assumed that Maurice-Louis had one older brother, Alexandre de Kérouack, who also lived in Canada. It was also assumed that he had all but disappeared from history after signing a church document at the christening of his third “son,” “Maurice-Louis.” However, subsequent research by a Canadian genealogist has unearthed a different finding.
There was no older brother. Owing to inconsistencies with the very literate Maurice-Louis Le Bris de Karouac’s usage of his name, various documents bear variants of the name. Maurice-Louis used the surname “Le Bris” only on three occasions over a period of five months during his nine-year stay. Simply put, tracking his whereabouts becomes difficult when one is unfamiliar with the casual adding and dropping of the articles of his full name. At some point during those nine years in Canada, the Christian name Alexandre was adopted and just as suddenly shed. Seemingly, Maurice-Louis had created a new identity, calling himself “Maurice-Louis Le Bris de K/voac” or the more Anglicized Louis and the alternate spelling of Keroac. On November 30, 1733, Maurice-Louis wrote a five-page letter from his home in Cap Saint-Ignace to Governor Beauharnois seeking assistance to denounce a church robber.2 He got his wish, for Beauharnois passed the request along to a Superintendent Hocquart, who issued a command on December 3, 1733, that “order is given to all Captains and other army officers to give assistance to Alexandre Le Breton from Cap Saint-Ignace . . . to help capture the man.”3 By July 1735, Maurice-Louis had decidedly dropped his original Christian name and referred to himself simply as Alexandre, still using Keroac as his official surname.
Why was the youngest son of the family, Urbain-François, using the particle and surname de Kervoac, and not one of his two older brothers, Laurens and Charles-Marie-François, who were still living in Brittany? It was the custom that a son use the particle and surname only after the death of his father.In the case of François-Joachim Le Bihan de Kervoac, who had died in 1727, his two older sonsfound it necessary to attach to their family name another surname after the particle de. Out of this custom, the surname of Le Bihan was allocated to both. For each of them, it was an important choice, for they were notary-solicitors like their father. When the occasion arose to register with France’s Royal Court of Justice, they would have to do so using their official title and signature at the same time. Out of these circumstances, the particle and surname de Kervoac was available to the third son. Urbain-François, now living in New France, was too far away from both his native land and his father. Feeling confident that the physical distance would give him this liberty, he decided to use the surname even though his father was still alive.After François-Joachim Le Bihan de Kervoac died in 1727, neither of the two eldest sons ever claimed the particle or the surname “de Kervoac.” Quite obviously it proved that the family knew who was now using it.4
On March 5, 1736, thirty-year-old Maurice-Louis Alexandre Le Bris de Keroack died of an illness after a long, harsh winter, leaving two able-bodied and vigorous sons to perpetuate the Kerouac name (in all of its variants). Jack Kerouac unwittingly touched upon this piece of history in his novel Satori in Paris (1966):
Well, why do people change their names? Have they done anything bad, are they criminals, are they ashamed of their real names? Are they afraid of something? Is there any law in America against using your own real name?
“I had come to France and Brittany just to look up this old name of mine which is just about three thousand years old and was never changed in all that time, as who would change a name that simply means House (Ker), In the Field (Ouac)?” 5
In North America, as in France, there are at least seven different ways to write the Kerouac surname: Kérouac, Kéroack, Kirouac, Kyrouac, Keroach, Kérouack, and Kirouack. Many of the later descendants were illiterate. Subsequently, in some of the older church records of Montreal, names inscribed into the ledgers were spelled wrong, including the more infrequent Carouac, Carunoac, and Keloaque, all of which shared Breton origins. The source of the prefix Ker is explained by Patricia Deigler of the Genealogical Centre of the Finistère (in the town of Quimper, Brittany):
“KER, the first syllable of our name, means house or village. In Brittany there are no less than 18,000 surnames and place names starting with KER. Interestingly enough, old Breton people often used to write a K followed by a stroke: K/ which stood for KER. So in our family too the signatures would vary and we found: K/voac, K/uoac, K/voach. The pronunciation of the surname is also of interest: K/voac would be pronounced: Kerouac, where v = u (in English it is pronounced OO) Even more tricky: the letters ‘v’ and ‘u’ in the Breton language could simply be left out when people wrote their name. In our case, that would give: Kéroac!” 6
In 1941, nineteen-year-old Jack Kerouac wrote an imagined character sketch of his grandfather that he titled “The Father of My Father.” He had to resort to his imagination, for young Jack never met the Kerouac patriarch.
Jean-Baptiste, or “Honest Jack,” according to Jack’s youthful account, stood five foot ten and was, by the accounts of his contemporaries, built like an oak tree. According to Kerouac, “Honest Jack” regarded his Catholic faith, like most of his countrymen, as an important part of his character and at times dared to shake his fist at thunderstorms as lightning jabbed fingers into the ground upon which he stood. This, of course, is highly charged with Kerouac’s fecund imagination and is remarkably indicative of the young writer’s tendency to mythologize a relatively mundane existence into a larger-than-life anecdote. The teenaged Jack also injected a not-so-flattering side of his grandfather’s life in a seemingly transcribed recollection from his mother: “The old man! My Goodness, everyone in the town knew that your father’s father was crazy! Absolutely crazy! A nut! And cruel! Oh my but how could such a man exist! He drank and drank and drank, killed his wife and himself with his drinking, leaving behind a snarling pack of cubs that were Kerouacs.”
Jean-Baptiste Kirouac moved from Canada to the southern border of hilly New Hampshire, in Nashua, sometime in 1890. He left behind everything but his language, ethnic heritage, and devout Roman Catholicism to tie his identity into the complex social fabric of America. Kerouac imagines:
A whole story in itself, the story of Emil [pseudonym for Leo Kerouac], his mad brothers and sisters, the whole troop coming down from the barren farm, to the factories of U.S.A.—Their early life in early Americana New Hampshire of pink suspenders, strawberry blondes, barbershop quartets, popcorn stands with melted butter in a teapot, and fistfights in the Sunday afternoon streets between bullies and heroes who read Frank Merriwell.7
Jean-Baptiste found his calling, at first working at odd jobs, and finally (after working as a carpenter’s apprentice) mastering the carpentry trade that supported his wife and their surviving ten children for the rest of his short life.
On December 16, 1906, a Sunday afternoon, Jean-Baptiste Kirouac died an “instantaneous” death, just two days after his fifty-eighth birthday. His obituary was telling of his social standing: “The deceased was widely known and his straightforward, generous character made him dearly loved by a large circle of friends.”8
Twelve of their fifteen children were born before Jean-Baptiste and Clementine’s move south. The last three were born in Nashua. Between 1892 and 1896, the Kirouacs suffered heartrending tragedies, losing five of their children, ranging from four-month-old Marie Ann, a victim of cholera, to fourteen-year-old Bernadette, who died of dropsy.
Jack Kerouac’s aunt Louise Kirouac Michaud worked as a dressmaker for most of her years and, according to her nephew, was particularly well read, reading everything from Arthur Rimbaud to Stendhal. At times Jack exclaimed that she was his favorite aunt.9 Kerouac described Louise’s sister, Caroline Kirouac, as the sister who turned out “sublime,” as she joined the Sisters of Charity in Montreal. Her devotion took her across Sisters of Charity missions from the American Midwest to the Northwest, caring for the poor and infirm.10
Two years after Jean-Baptiste’s death, on September 24, 1908, his widow succumbed to “heart failure” and not, contrary to her grandson’s account, the cumulative effect of stress over her husband’s drinking through the years. Jack’s father, Joseph Alcide Leon Kirouac, the youngest son of the surviving ten children, Anglicized his name simply to “Leo” and chose to spell his last name with an “e” instead of an “i.” Working amid cluttered tables of ink and paper and a wide array of printing presses at Nashua’s leading newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, Leo learned the primary trade that supported him for the rest of his life. An apprentice printer, he soon developed a mastery that exceeded that of his coworkers. (Until 1912, Leo worked as a writer and printer for the weekly L’Impartial, a French daily newspaper that reached “the French-American Population of New Hampshire and New England.”) After Leo had worked devotedly for five or six years, Louis Biron, owner of the Telegraph, sent him south to Lowell, Massachusetts, to manage another newspaper that Biron had acquired. It was L’Etoile (The Star), a French Canadian daily newspaper that reported the political and social goings-on in Lowell; it was the leading, most enduring French newspaper up until the 1940s. Leo was twenty-three years old.
The Lowell office in which Leo worked was small, hot, and cluttered, not given to aesthetics and comfort but to economy of space, with printing presses taking priority over office space. An iron radiator at the bottom of the windows perpetually hissed steam and clanged as if being hammered by monkey wrenches. Mail and incoming articles were separated in long, boxed partitions along the wall; two little desks were outfitted with Underwood typewriters. Visored and cigar-smoking, Leo was a loyal and competent manager responsible for selling ads, editing text, and overseeing the physical layout of a weekly community newspaper. When Leo first arrived in Lowell, he lived with his married sister, Emma Vaillancourt, who was a mill operator. By 1915, he was confident enough in his ability to support himself that he boarded at a private residence on Ennell Street in the Centralville section of Lowell.11 That year he also began making regular trips back to Nashua to court a French Canadian girl named Gabrielle Levesque.
Gabrielle Levesque was born in St. Pacome, Quebec, on February 4, 1895. Her mother, Josephine Jean Levesque, died a bit more than a year later, on March 6, 1896. Gabrielle’s father, Louis Levesque, was remarried when Gabrielle was eight to a woman named Amanda Dube. They were a family, Gabrielle admitted, without “booklearning” or “culture.”12 On June 3, 1911, her father died of cardiac arrest and was buried two days later at the Saint Louis de Gonzague cemetery in Nashua. This left Gabrielle, the eldest daughter in the household, as sole supporter and housemaid not only to her siblings but also to her two half-sisters. For the next few years Gabrielle worked in the cramped, hot setting of the mills that peppered the New Hampshire valley. Despite this arduous and stifling life, she remained, as Kerouac recalls in The Town and the City, a “cheerful, rosy-cheeked, affectionate kind of woman in whom scarcely a trace of the effects of a tragic lonely girlhood were evident, save for an occasional air of grim quiet that orphans have in moments of reflection.”13 When she found a job at a Nashua shoe factory, Gabrielle moved out on her own to a nearby boardinghouse; “at the age of 14 there she was, at dawn, walking to the shoe factory to work till six that evening, till Saturday evening, 72-hour workweek, all gleeful in anticipation of that pitiful Saturday night.”14 It was while she was working at this factory that she met Leo Kerouac. In October 1915, approximately five years after the death of her father, Gabrielle had found a new father figure: five foot five, vigorous, blue-eyed, robust Leo, now twenty-six years old and working as an insurance salesman.15 They were wed on October 15, 1915, at the Saint Louis de Gonzague Church, with Joseph Kerouac standing in as Leo’s best man and Gabrielle’s aunt Lydia Harpin serving as maid of honor.16 Leo took the twenty-year-old Gabrielle back to Lowell after they married. Almost one year later Gabrielle gave birth to their first child.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Lowell was a hodgepodge of textile mills, five-and-dimes, banks, printing presses, theaters, restaurants, shoe shops, and storefronts. Although it was far from a teeming metropolis, the city still had enough work to offer for those determined and ambitious enough to find it. According to city directories, Leo found work as an insurance agent at 8 Merrimack Street. Whether Leo worked two jobs or simply resigned management of L’Etoile cannot be determined, but his listing as an insurance agent continues for several years. He and Gabrielle lived near the agency at 476 Merrimack Street in a rented furnished apartment in what is now known as the Lowell Sun building in downtown Lowell’s Kearney Square.
The Kerouacs’ first child, François Gerard Keroack (as spelled on his birth certificate), was born on Wednesday, August 23, 1916, in Blanchard’s Private Hospital in the neighboring town of Dracut. The next day he was baptized in Saint Jean de Baptiste Church, where younger brother Jack would have his funeral mass fifty-three years later. By fall 1917, the Kerouacs had moved once more, to 648 Merrimack Street, and after a year moved out of downtown Lowell altogether, settling in Centralville on Lupine Road. Two years after Gerard’s birth, a little girl they named Caroline (and commonly referred to as “Nin”) was born on October 25, 1918. On March 12, 1922, the Kerouac family would complete itself with the birth of Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac.
In 1843, the citizens of Centralville signed a petition for annexation. Lowell city hall quickly denied the request. Eventually, their persistence paid off, and in 1851 Centralville joined the rest of the city. Soon after the annexation, Centralville’s population began to grow, the increase mainly due to French Canadian and Polish tenants who rented the scattered bungalows and cottages constructed by landowners (many of whom were also the owners of the factories in which their tenants worked). By 1890, approximately eight thousand people resided there. Some Kerouac biographers label Centralville a “slum.” On the contrary, Centralville was regarded as one of the more affluent neighborhoods. If there was a Lowell slum, it was located across the river, on the outskirts of downtown. It was called, derogatorily, “Little Canada.” But Kerouac may have been pleased to learn that twenty-nine years earlier, Centralville was overflowing with “hoboes” who begged door-to-door for cash and food. Many of them traveled on foot, hopped trains, or hitched rides on the farm wagons that came to Lowell from the north and from Boston. By the turn of the century, Centralville was cleansed of its vagrancy problems and was transformed into a section of the city for the moderately to superbly affluent.17 Before long, the topography of Centralville began to reflect the stark contrast between its wealthier residents (factory owners and white-collar workers from the Locks and Canals Company) and those less fortunate inhabitants of a lower social status. Its higher elevations boasted larger, stylish homes that loomed above the tight rows of crowded tenements clustered near the river, which housed people who seemingly lived only to toil under the shadow of the Boott Mill Tower clock.
In the beginning Centralville was primarily residential. Late in the nineteenth century, Centralville already boasted three grocery stores, a women’s clothing store, a butcher, a blacksmith, several carpentry shops, and a carriage maker. Churches and social clubs with exclusively French Canadian membership were soon erected. The Kerouacs immersed themselves in a city that for the most part had already reached its economic prime.
“Comes the cankerous rush of spring, when earth will fecundate and get soft and produce forms that are but to die, multiply. . . .”18
It was March, and Lowell’s long, cold winter was coming to an end. Gabrielle Kerouac was in the final stage of pregnancy with her third, and last, child.
On March 12, 1922, a fair, mild Sunday in Lowell, police made a liquor raid on a Bunting clubhouse. Twelve policemen restored order while Greek residents held their semiannual meeting at the Jefferson Street church. Such was the daily life, for better or for worse, that made Lowell much like its larger urban counterparts: illness and vice were rampant. It was a day hardly befitting the romantic mysticism attached to it by Jack Kerouac in his writing.
In the weeks before the birth of Jean-Louis de Kerouac, an unusually high mortality rate plagued the city: more than one hundred perished in the preceding three weeks, most from sporadic cases of diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and influenza. That Jack was spared nature’s brutal process of elimination is miraculous. Dr. Victor Rochette, who tended to most of the Franco-American babies in Centralville, helped deliver Jean-Louis in the comfort of the family’s Lupine Road home. The birth itself was unremarkable in that it attracted scant notice in the local papers; the village papers gave more mention to deaths than to births. One notice was printed in the Kerouacs’ native French Canadian tongue, “Le 12 mars. à M. et Mme. Leo A. Keroack, 9 Lupine Rd, un fils.”;19 another in English, “March 12—[ . . . ] to Mr. and Mrs. Leo A. Keroach, 9 Lupine road, a son.”20 All too aware of the recent spate of infant deaths in the city, Gabrielle and Leo Kerouac watched warily for any hints of illness that might threaten their newborn son.21
The two-family tenement, numbered 7 and 9, on Lupine Road was the first of several residences for the Kerouacs. The house was equipped with a tiny yard just big enough to contain the three children and a wash line that they shared with the duplex’s other tenant. At different times, the Kerouacs lived on both floors (Jean-Louis was born on the second floor).22 Kerouac claimed that his mother could hear the sounds of the river as she gave birth to her last child, a dubious claim at best. Contradicting this claim, Lowell’s chief newspaper, the Lowell Sun, reported on March 12, 1922, the conditions of the thawing river:
“MERRIMACK RIVER ABOUT NORMAL — Several sheets of ice, not very thick and easily broken, drifted away from a point opposite the lower Gage icehouses on the river, at 10:20 this morning, moving quickly down the swift current and leaping over the Pawtucket dam to the rocks below. It wasn’t a noisy plunge this time, the ice breaking into small pieces as it shot over the cap of the dam. The ice appeared to be very thin and the remainder of the river ice in the vicinity appears to be far from thick. The water was no higher this morning than yesterday. There is no evidence yet of any flood, and much of the river ice above the lower fields is said to be getting thin.”23
As Gabrielle held the child in her arms, amid the erratic rhythm of dripping pine trees and ice melting from the tenement’s eaves, a late winter sun set in a crimson smear over Lowell,24 thus implanting into the recollections of both mother and son one of Jack’s dearest recollections: “I was born. Bloody rooftop. Strange deed. All eyes I came hearing the river’s red; I remember that afternoon, I perceived it through beads hanging in a door and through lace curtains and glass of a universal sad lost redness of mortal damnation . . . the snow was melting. The snake was coiled in the hill not my heart.”25
In his writing, Kerouac’s “snake,” the underlying evil that plagues humanity in his novel Doctor Sax, is ever present in workaday Lowell. Traditionally, the serpent is connected with original sin, the accepted orthodoxy in the Catholic religion that everyone suffers the consequences of Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In the drama of his birth, Kerouac had set the stage for a “strange deed,” the mysterious process of the emergence of life; he realized later, when reading various Buddhist texts, that to be born only means to suffer. This credo was already emblazoned on the family crest decades before the first Kerouacs reached the North Atlantic shore: “Aimer, Travailler, et Souffrir” (Love, Work, and Suffer). In a 1950 letter to Neal Cassady, Kerouac considers the remote possibility of recollecting his birth and its impact on his artistic and religious sensibilities. His birth occurs to him in a “peculiar eternity-dream vividness,” prompting him to feel a connection to “late-red-
afternoons.” This memory made him think he had seen the afternoon of March 12, 1922, with “eyes a few hours old.”
In the dark interior of Centralville’s Saint Louis de France church, on March 19, 1922, Jean-Louis Kirouac was baptized according to the rite of the Roman Catholic Church by the Reverend D. W. Boisvert. His sponsors, or godparents, were Leo’s brother Jean-Baptiste Kirouac, a shoemaker, and his first wife, Rosanna Dumais Kirouac.26
By the spring of 1923, Leo was successful enough as an insurance agent to acquire his own printing shop, which he opened at 26 Prince Street and called theLowell Spotlite. The Lowell Spotlite, besides printing for downtown businesses, produced an eight-page weekly that covered the theatrical goings-on in downtown Lowell.27 At this time, vaudeville and silent films were all the rage across the country, and Lowell was no exception. Numerous theaters were strategically placed around town, offering mostly vaudeville performances. (“High-brow” entertainment, such as opera, symphonic concerts, or Shakespeare, was more likely found in larger, more cultured metropolises like Boston.) The influence of early silent and talking films on Kerouac would later be seen in some of the more visual aspects of his writing.
Lowell’s Northern Canal was bordered by Little Canada, where Franco-Americans lived in ghettolike conditions in crowded blocks of tenements. It is a cruel irony that industrial capitalism had given them the opportunity to raise large families but little else. Gabrielle thought it a matter of pride that her family had never resorted to living there, although they did live nearby at one point in Kerouac’s youth (on Maiden Lane near Lowell City Hall).28
The social mores and language of Lowell’s Franco-America endeared its people to Kerouac. In 1950, he wrote a letter to Yvonne Le Maitre (who had written favorably of his first novel, The Town and the City, in a Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper) commenting upon using his native tongue as an approach to speaking English: “All my knowledge rests in my ‘French Canadianness’ and nowhere else. The English language is a tool lately found. The reason I handle English words so easily is because it is not my own language. I refashion it to fit French images.”29 Later he was comfortable enough to write some poems, an extended sequence of “Mary” (an early version of Maggie Cassidy drafted in four small notebooks), and an unpublished novella, La nuit et ma femme, in his native language.
Kerouac felt that, because they were Caucasian, his forebears successfully hid their “real sources,” the fact that they were Canadians, in order to succeed in America: “Isn’t it true that French Canadians everywhere tend to hide their real sources. They can do it because they look Anglo-Saxon, when the Jews, the Italians, they cannot.”30 But their white skin gained them no favoritism in Lowell. The hardships of day-to-day living were constant—especially when set against the backdrop of the country’s constantly shifting demographics, economics, and politics. Beyond the provincial drama of Lowell, the world at large was taking on a more ominous hue. Kerouac’s coming-of-age coincided with an important era for America, a period when it would be cast into the world’s civil unrest and the darker forces of evil embodied by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin. But Kerouac lived out his “childhood glee” unaware of the forces that would later shape him and his generation.
Sometime during the last few weeks of a very harsh winter in 1925, the Kerouacs moved from Lupine Road to a Victorian cottage several blocks away, at 35 Burnaby Street, keeping within the Centralville enclave. Leo also moved his business; the Lowell Spotlitewas now renamed Spotlight Printand relocated to 463 Market Street.31
The Kerouacs stayed at the Burnaby Street residence for part of the year before moving to 34 Beaulieu Street, located one street away from the family’s Catholic parish. This address was advantageous to the family for it placed the children closer to Saint Louis de France Church, where the children would attend grammar school. Perhaps the single address that had the greatest significance for Jack Kerouac, it was, as he recorded later in Book of Dreams, the imposing “house of dreams,”32 site of the memory upon which all his others were built, that of Gerard slapping his face:
Just before he died he slapped me in the face. It is the last thing before he died. It was a gray morning, my sister was going to school, breakfast was being removed from the table. Gerard sat at his erector set before the magnificent structure of his brief career: it was huge, towering, a crane of some sort, arranged and hung in strange new ways and calculated to do a thousand strange feats. The contraption was on the edge of the breakfast table. Had he been older I’m sure he would have his second cup of coffee right then, he was so eager for his morning’s work. But I had to come along and grab at his little arrangements: knock a subsidiary structure down, push the little wrench to the floor, whatever it was, disturbing him so suddenly that with understandable rage he impulsively tightened inside and his hand shot out and slapped me in the face. “Get away from here!” he cried. I mooned over that in the parlor. Gray vultures of gloomy day were feeding at the rooftops of time, I could see it outside the curtains. Gloom, grayness, faucet-ticking.33
Contrary to all the memories Kerouac claimed he had of his brother, he confided to his sister Caroline in 1945 that “all I remember about Gerard, for instance, is his slapping me on the face, despite all the stories Mom and Pop tell me of his kindness to me.”34
Beaulieu Street, like much of Centralville at the turn of the century, was a motley collection of wooden cottages, most bordered by wooden picket fences and decorated with a bathtub-enshrined Virgin Mary stepping on the coiled snake representing Satan, dandelions sprouting between sporadic beds of grass, and trash cans bordered by gravel sidewalks. Nearby sat the Saint Louis de France rectory, school, and church, all constructed of brick and granite. The church was a gloomy edifice that barely topped the homes that squatted near it. Having little to no money when it was built in 1904, 696 families, primarily from West Centralville, settled for a basement-level church with unassuming stained-glass panels that, by chance and not by design, echoed the humility of its members. In 1907 it officially opened, staffed by ten Sisters of the Assumption, who taught 460 students.35 Kerouac’s memories of the church and school are unequaled in their clarity:
“[F]irst you see the nun’s home, redbrick and bright in the morning sun, then the gloomy edifice of the schoolhouse itself with its longplank sorrow-halls and vast basement of urinals and echo calls and beyond the yard, with its special (I never forgot) little inner yard of cinder gravel separated from the big dirtyard (which becomes a field down at Farmer Kenny’s meadow) by a small granite wall not a foot high that everyone sits on or throws cards against.”36
Jack would later dream of the basement of the school turning into a cave, for to him it appeared “dungeon-like” and was pervaded by an aura of “damp gloom.”37 The nuns of Saint Louis de France were severe and strict in appearance, determinedly living up to their intimidating reputation if only to garner the respect and obedience of their young Catholic charges. The knuckles of many were rapped by wooden rulers in the main office. In the basement, the nuns combed the boys’ hair, slicking it back with water dripping from the “pisspipes”; the smell of pails of sawdust used to clean up spills was pervasive. Despite the women’s stern countenance, the institution supplied the cultural and social needs of Centralville, engaging eager volunteers to hold plays, recitals, parades, parties, fairs, club meetings, and dances. Leo and Gabrielle each volunteered their time to take part in such committees. Beneath the faith of the parishioners, however, there lurked an instilled hatred of Jews and Protestants. It was a simmering anti-Semitism and religious intolerance that escalated unchecked within the Catholic church. This was seeded deeply into Leo and Gabrielle’s social sensibilities and, sadly, passed on to their children.
Kerouac was an impressionable child, easily swayed by the stories that his older brother and sister made up for him. Gerard told Jack, according to his various writings, that there was an abandoned cemetery beneath the Beaulieu Street house and suggested that the spirits interred there would shake and rattle the house. In an era when the mortality rate of a factory town remained unusually high, the dead of Lowell dotted the memories of its children. Most were accustomed to attending the wakes and funerals of relatives and children who succumbed to contagious diseases or tragic accidents (many drowned in the swift currents of the Merrimack River).
But there were good times aplenty to offset Gerard’s dour disposition and persistent poor health. Visits to Leo’s brother Joseph’s corner store were weekly excursions for the Kerouacs; Jack remembered the barrels of pickles, the sawdust on the floor, and the smell of freshly sawed wood from a nearby lumberyard. There were also the drifting wisps of the
Cu Babs his uncle smoked; the memory ultimately found its way into the novel Doctor Sax (1959): “[I]t was Godawful the scene of marijuana-sheeshkabob cigarettes he smoked for his asthma, Cu Babs.” Kerouac remembered Uncle Joseph as an “extremely intelligent” man who could reel historical anecdotes off the top of his head. Jack also thought him the “saddest” of the family; he witnessed his uncle crying numerous times.38 At other times, Uncle Joseph brought his family to Lowell, where they all sat on the house steps socializing together.
Neighborhood bazaars and Saint Louis’s baked bean suppers anchored Gabrielle and Leo securely in the social bedrock of Centralville through the latter half of the 1920s. On weekend nights, they hosted relatives and neighbors at all-night parties in their parlor, singing French Canadian songs while Gabrielle played the piano in their parlor. The Kerouac children played with the other parish youngsters in the school’s recess yard or in the cow pastures of upper Centralville (where Jack remembered lobbing green apples into steaming cowpies). In the summer months the Kerouacs picnicked at Salisbury Beach, on the northern coast of Massachusetts at the New Hampshire border. Salisbury Beach was an ocean resort of scattered beach cottages and an amusement park. Beachcombers walked along the boardwalk and watched their children splash in the cold Atlantic surf. Gabrielle and Leo stuffed themselves with cartons of fried clams and split hot fried dough among the three children. These were happy years, few as they were, that persisted until the untimely demise of Gerard.
Chapter 1: The Kerouacs of Nashua
1. Patricia Deigler and Hervé Quéméner, Jack Kerouac, au bout de la route . . . la Bretagne. Éditions An Here, 177. February 11, 2000.
2. Patricia Deigler, “The Enigma of the Kerouac Ancestor Is Finally Resolved.” Lecture to the French-Canadian Genealogical Society, January 10, 2001.
3. Quebec National Archives. Fonds Gouverneur, French Regime, cote (R1), R1/1.
4. Quebec National Archives. Fonds Intendant, E1, Series E1, S1/11, ordinance.
5. Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris (New York: Grove Press, 1966), 72.
6. Deigler, “Enigma.”
7. Jack Kerouac, Visions of Gerard (New York: Viking, 1987), 79. The most popular dime-novel hero of his day, Frank Merriwell, the hero of Street and Smith’s Tip Top Weekly, was first introduced to readers on April 18, 1889. He typically relied as much upon mental as physical prowess. The books created a genre of humor/romance stories.
8. Steve Edington, Kerouac’s Nashua Connection (Nashua, N.H.: Transition, 1999).
9. Jack Kerouac to R. Dion Levesque, December 28, 1950, University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
10. Edington, Kerouac’s Nashua Connection, 22.
11. Lowell City Documents, 1916 (Courier Citizen, Lowell).
12. Jack Kerouac, “ . . . Legends and Legends . . .,” in Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings, ed. by Paul Marion (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999), 147.
13. Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2001), 18.
14. Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), 381.
15. Lowell City Documents, 1916 (Courier Citizen, Lowell).
16. Marriage certificate of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, October 15, 1915, Saint Louis de Gonzague Church record.
17. Mary Blewett, ed., Surviving Hard Times (Lowell, Mass.: Lowell Museum, 1982).
18. Jack Kerouac, Visions of Gerard, 74.
19. L’Etoile, March 27, 1922. Lowell, Mass.
20. Lowell Sun, March 25, 1922.
21. Lowell Sunday Telegram, March 19, 1922.
22. Lowell City Documents, 1922 and 1923.
23. Lowell Sun, March 12, 1922.
24. Lowell Telegram, March 12, 1922. Weather conditions are consistent with Kerouac’s description in Doctor Sax.
25. Jack Kerouac, Doctor Sax (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 16–17.
26. Baptismal record of Jack Kerouac in Saint Louis de France archive, Lowell.
27. Lowell City Documents, 1924.
28. According to a list Jack Kerouac had made of his childhood addresses, Kerouac Estate, Lowell, Mass.
29. Jack Kerouac to Yvonne Le Maitre, September 8, 1950, in Selected Letters: 1940–1956, ed. Ann Charters(New York: Viking Penguin, 1995), 228–229.
30. Kerouac to Yvonne Le Maitre, September 8, 1950, in Selected Letters: 1940–1956, 229.
31. Lowell City Documents, 1926.
32. Jack Kerouac, Book of Dreams (galley) (San Francisco: City Lights, 2001), 98.
33. Kerouac to Neal Cassady, December 28, 1950, in Selected Letters: 1940–1956, 259.
34. Kerouac to Caroline Kerouac Blake, March 14, 1945, in Selected Letters: 1940–1956, 87.
35. History of St. Louis de France (Lowell, Mass.: St. Louis Rectory, n.d.), http://www.stlouisschool.org.
36. Kerouac, Visions of Gerard, 24.
37. Kerouac, Book of Dreams, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001), 288.
38. Kerouac, Doctor Sax.