In 1957, the publication of On The Road created a sensation. It was hailed as a great prose poem of the United States; it was also reviled as an undisciplined mess. It immediately became an enormous bestseller. Since its release, it has been treated as one of the foundational texts of American letters. It has never been out of print.
Its author, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac—Jack Kerouac—became an overnight celebrity. The handsome, shy, charming devout Catholic was lionized as the voice of a new generation, the Beats. For his part, he thought of the Beats as “a generation of beatitude and tenderness.” But much to his distress, he and the Beats became symbols of reckless freedom, sexual licence and self-indulgence.
In 2006, the Kerouac archive was opened at the New York Public Library. Its contents were a revelation. Diaries, letters, essays and whole novels were found written in French. Kerouac, the avatar of the new America, was, in fact, Canadian. He was born in 1922 to parents who had fled Quebec in the great exode, seeking work in the U.S. Kerouac spoke only French until he was six and did not lose his accent fully until he was 20.
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