by David Homel
BETWEEN 1840 and 1930, 900,000 people left Quebec for the milltowns of New England. Among them were Jack Kerouac`s grandparents. Toasted as "the King of the Beats" by some, reviled for his right-wing, homophobic, Catholic ways by others, Kerouac was at home nowhere. Quebec has always had an uneasy relationship with him. Since he wrote in English, he was never accepted into the Quebec literary elite. He did travel to Montreal in 1967 to do an interview on Radio-Canada, two years before his death by alcohol, and it was a fiasco. His brand of French was unintelligible, and he was laughed at; he responded by getting drunk and disorderly.
In 1987, a conference took place in Quebec City that attempted to reclaim Kerouac as a quebecois writer. Un Homme Grand: Jack Kerouac at the Crossroads of Many Cultures (Carleton University Press, 236 pages, $34.95 cloth), edited by Pierre Anctil, Louis Dupont, Remi Ferland, and Eric Waddell, collects the essays that were presented as papers at the colloquium. In it, we learn as much about Quebec`s grasping for its own identity and about immigrant writers in the United States as we do about Kerouac -- but that`s just fine by this reviewer. It`s this process of literary identity-making that makes the collection so interesting. Though Kerouac fans will find little new analysis, and some of the essays are irritating in their attempt to ape his style, this book is a valuable opportunity to watch Quebec critics recovering Kerouac as one of their own, and to listen to Allen Ginsberg and Carolyn Cassady recalling the old days.