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The Breton Traveller

Jack Kerouac’s Search for his Roots

Much has been written about Kerouac’s apparent rootlessness being the driving force behind his travels and his writing. His search for his true roots was endless. In the final decade of his life it became desperate. Jack had learned, from his father and uncles, that their ancestor came from France to Canada in the 1700s. But Kerouac’s quest was confused. In his 1952 novel, Doctor Sax, Jack named his ancestor as ‘the honorable soldier, Baron Louis Alexandre Lebris de Duluoz [Kerouac],’ and this became Alexandre Louis Lebris de Kerouac in 1960, in the introduction to Lonesome Traveller. By 1968, writing to genealogist Howard Valyear, Jack gave the different name of Francois-Edouard Lebrix de Kerouac’h, but a month later changed the first names to Francois Alexandre. His ancestor, he maintained, was a soldier in Montcalm’s army who was also known as ‘The Little Prince’, since he was allegedly the son of the titular king of the Cornouialles district of Brittany, an area populated by Celtish people driven out of Cornwall, England, by Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century. A romantic myth, but, we now know, far from the truth.

The only evidence for the name of the ancestor was on his marriage certificate of 1732, where he signed it Maurice-Louis Le Bris de Kerouac. This implies a family name of Le Bris, originally from a place named Kerouac. But searches in France for such a family proved fruitless. When Kerouac was there in 1965 he learned that vital records held in Paris had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. As Jack described in Satori In Paris, he travelled on to Brittany and met a Pierre Lebris (called ‘Ulysse’ in the book) but discovered that he was part of another branch of a very large family, with no connection to Kerouac. Jack’s quest for his roots had led him up a blind alley where he would remain until his death four years later.

The Kerouac families of Canada and the USA, now numbering some three thousand members, continued the search for their ancestor. Investigations by genealogists in the village of Kerouac, some 15 miles east of Quimper, in southern Brittany, curiously found no evidence of a Le Bris family coming from that area. In fact, there was no trace at all of the name Le Bris de Kerouac in France. It apparently did not exist. Then, in 1999, a breakthrough. Patricia Dagier, a French genealogist employed by the Kerouac families of North America, discovered records of an old family called Le Bihan de Kervoac. Kervoac being the Breton spelling of Kerouac, this caused some excitement. The hamlets of Kervoac are near the northern coast of Brittany, close to the port of Morlaix. In fact, there is a cluster of three hamlets, situated on the south-eastern outskirts of the town of Lanmeur: Kervoac Huella, Kervoac Izella, and Kervoac Creiz (or, translating from the Breton: Upper, Lower, and Central Kerouac. Kervoac itself means ‘wet place’ in Breton).

The research by Patricia Dagier revealed that a Henry Le Bihan, a notary, was living in Lanmeur in 1609, when he married. His son, a merchant in Morlaix, followed the Breton custom of attaching the place of the family’s origins to his name, to become Auffroy Le Bihan de Kervoac, and his son, Laurens, maintained the tradition. Laurens Le Bihan de Kervoac moved some twenty miles south to become a procurator in the town of Huelgoat, marrying there in the 1660s and producing a son Francois-Joachim who became a rich notary in Huelgoat. This notary was the father of the Kerouac ancestor, Urbain-Francois Le Bihan de Kervoac, born in Huelgoat around the year of 1702.

In September 1720, Urbain, who was being trained to follow in his father’s professional footsteps, suddenly found his world turned upside down. Attending the wedding party of a friend, he was accused of attempting to seduce and then of stealing money from one of the female guests. Whether the claims were true or false, Urbain, as the son of a famous notary, not wishing to bring disgrace upon his family, fled Brittany and sailed for La Nouvelle France — Canada. On arrival, in an attempt to conceal his true identity, Urbain changed his name and became known as Alexandre. In Canada he travelled up and down the St. Lawrence river, making his living as a hunter and fur-trader. He seems to have adapted well to this new, hard life-style and to have had an aptitude for the exploration of his new country, acquiring the nickname ‘Le Voyageur’ (‘The Traveller’) at this time. His first appearance in official records was his signature as a witness to the wedding of a friend in 1727. This he signed as Hyacinthe Louis Alexandre Le Bihan de Kervoac, disguising his real first names, but preserving his original family name, presumably out of respect for his old friend. He also gave false names for his father and mother, in an apparent attempt to throw the curious off the true scent.

But Alexandre’s free and easy existence was to change in 1732. Arriving back in the village of Cap St-Ignace, some 40 miles east of Quebec, he was approached by members of the family of an unmarried twenty-year-old woman, Louise Bernier, who had given birth to a son, Simon-Alexandre, eight months earlier. The baby, she insisted, was Alexandre’s and so, a few days later, on October 22, 1732, he found himself being married to Louise. The records show that, presumably to save his family from further embarrassment, this time he signed his name as Maurice-Louis Le Bris de Kerouac. The name Le Bihan had vanished, never again to appear in  Canadian records. But why did he become Le Bris? One theory is that this was the name of one of his mother’s cousins, and a close friend of the family. Whatever, this change of surname was responsible for the total genealogical confusion which masked the true origins of the Kerouac ancestor for nearly 300 years.

The couple settled into the home of Louise’s parents, but his newly-found domesticity evidently did not agree with the flamboyant Alexandre, since he was missing, probably away on further travels, when his second son, Jacques was born in 1733. Shortly after the birth of his third son, Louis, in 1735, the couple left the Bernier home and settled in Kamouraska, a small village on the St. Lawrence river, a further forty-five miles east of Quebec. But Alexandre de Kerouac, as he was now known, was not to live there for long. He died in his mid-thirties on March 6, 1736. His wife Louise survived to the grand age of 91, and their eldest son, Simon-Alexandre, went on to father thirteen children of his own, becoming the main branch in the Kerouac family tree.

Some coincidences: one of Alexandre’s acquaintances in Canada was Joseph Martin, the very same name that Kerouac unwittingly gave to the character based on his great-grandfather, Edouard Kerouac, in his 1950 novel The Town and the City. And, ironically, in Chapter 32 of Satori in Paris, the book based upon his 1965 journey to France, Jack reads the name ‘Behan’ in the genealogy of Ulysse Lebris, without realizing its connection to the ancestor he was so desperately seeking. The final irony is that Jack had to cancel another planned trip to Brittany in 1967 with his Breton friend Youenn Gwernig because of his publisher’s demands that he completed work on Vanity of Duluoz. Their intended destination? — Huelgoat, the birthplace of Jack’s North American ancestor.

Jack Kerouac died in ignorance of his true French ancestry, but would no doubt have been fascinated to know the correct story of his Breton forebears, from whom he seems to have inherited many characteristics, including the travelling gene, even if the true facts differ considerably from the long-standing myths.

[ Copyright Dave Moore ]

Kerouac and the Outsider – A Puzzle

by Dave Moore

It was Horst who started it. Horst Spandler has been translating the 1971 Kerouac anthology Scattered Poems into German. Along the way he’s been asking others their advice on the meaning of parts of Jack’s poems. One such query I received, a few months ago, concerned Kerouac’s rather fine “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” (on page 29). Horst wanted to know whether the line which reads “sad today glad tomorrow: somber today drunk tomorrow” should really have “sober today” as that seemed to fit better.

As Ann Charters, the compiler of the anthology, notes at the back of the book, this poem was gathered from The Outsider magazine, 1962. A friend of mine had a copy of the relevant issue, #2, and provided me with a photocopy of the poem from page 68. Looking at this I could see that Horst’s intuition was right – the words should indeed be “sober tomorrow.”

I decided to check the remainder of the poem for possible typographical errors in the Scattered Poems version. I was surprised to find a major difference near the end. The line which in Scattered Poems reads:

“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of Ciardian poetry”

appeared in my xerox from The Outsider as:

“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of drawing room poetry”

This seemed too major a difference to be a mere typo. I asked others their thoughts, and whether they knew which was the correct version. A letter from a friend astounded me. He enclosed a photocopy from his copy of The Outsider #2, and in this one the line finished with “… of Beatnik poetry.” He also enclosed a xerox of the next page in the magazine, which was a drawing of two vultures observing a ship approaching some rocks. One bird is saying to the other: “So what if Kerouac is on board? You can’t believe everything Ciardi says.” This ties in with the mention of Ciardi in the Scattered Poems version, John Ciardi being a poet much opposed to the work of Kerouac and the other Beats.

But what was going on here? Three different versions of the poem from three different sources. I decided to cast the net wider, and contacted everyone I knew who might have a copy of The Outsider #2 and ask how their version read.

Over the following couple of weeks I was able to monitor the poem in over twenty different copies of The Outsider #2. Five more variant lines were discovered in the process, and the occurrence of each was as follows:

“… of Ciardian poetry”  4

“… of civilized poetry”  4

“… of chamber poetry”  4

“… of Beatnik poetry”   4

“… of drawing room poetry”      2

“… of Ciardi poetry”                   1

“… of Chinese poetry”   1

“… of wellbred poetry”  2

The Outsider was a small literary magazine that ran to just five issues in the period 1961-69. It was edited by Jon Edgar Webb and produced by the Loujon Press, the enterprise of Jon and his wife Louise (Lou) in New Orleans. Jon Webb died in 1971, and the Loujon papers are now held by the Northwestern University Library in Evanston, Illinois. I wrote there for advice and guidance with this puzzle, and although the very helpful librarian was unaware of the multiple versions of the poem, he was able to send me a copy of Kerouac’s original typescript of his poem to the Loujon Press, together with Jack’s accompanying note.

In Kerouac’s original, the line in question reads “… of Chinese poetry” and Jack gave precise instructions to the editor:
Dear John —

Be sure everything is linotyped the way I wrote it — There are no typos in my typewriter script — I mean, the punctuation, fucktuation, capitalization and NON CAPITALIZATION & spacing, etc. – I re-typed the poem twice to make every last spacing unsmudged as William the Conquerer’s Record — Yr. first issue of OUTSIDER was very valuable — Fuck Colin Wilson & all anti Christ poets

Jack Kerouac

Despite this, on Kerouac’s typescript the word “Chinese” has been circled in blue and a question mark placed near by. In pencil a line has been drawn towards the circled word “Chinese” and at the end of this drawn line the words “use alternate words” have been written, in a hand other than Kerouac’s and probably Jon Webb’s.

And alternate words were indeed used, as I had discovered. The Outsider #2 was published in the summer of 1962, but Kerouac was unaware of the alterations to his poem for at least two and a half years.

During 1964 the Italian translator Fernanda Pivano had been compiling an anthology of new American poetry and had been in touch with Kerouac for contributions of his own, and of his friends. The collection, Poesia degli ultimi americani finally appeared in November 1964 and included Kerouac’s “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” as well as several choruses from Mexico City Blues and Some Western Haikus. Fernanda sent Kerouac a copy of her book, and received the following letter:

January 11, 1965

Dear Fernanda — Thanks for the Christmas card and the anthology in the

mail — There’s a great mystery in it.  I really am tremendously curious to find out and I wish you would tell me: on page 246 is the end of my poem

(“Sept.16, 1961 Poem”), the second line from the top reads: “This is an

attempt at the easy lightness of civilized/poetry.”  But I had written

“Chinese” poetry and I go on to say that I shd. really “use my own way,”

ie., western instead of eastern.  WHO CHANGED THE WORD CHINESE TO

“CIVILIZED”?  And why?  How did you get that poem?  Was it that printed page from The Outsider?  And if so, was it already marked like that?  This is a case of altering my poetry without my knowledge, and I’m sure it wasnt you, but somebody did it.  Now you’re going to think I’m mad at you again but I’m not: I only want to know, out of great curiosity, how this unauthorized change came about, and who did it, and why.  As you see, it gives the suggestion that I dont consider myself civilized!  Just think how James Joyce would have hit the roof!  So long, Cara Nanda


It appears that Fernanda had used a version of the poem from a copy of The Outsider with “civilized poetry” (just as Ann Charters later used one from a copy with “Ciardian poetry”). Kerouac was naturally annoyed to learn that his poem had been altered by someone else without his knowledge or permission. I can’t help imagining how further incensed he would have been if he had known that multiple changes had been made and were in circulation in different copies of The Outsider #2.

I have so far traced eight different variant lines in twenty-two different copies of the magazine. It is known that 3000 copies of the magazine were printed by the Webbs, on a hand press, in an operation which took almost a year. Being hand-printed, it would have been relatively easy to change a word or two of type at any time, but why would anyone want to?

Maybe Jon Webb was just having some fun at Kerouac’s expense. Being of an older bohemian generation, he may have looked down on Kerouac and his buddies whom he possibly considered to be “the new kids on the block.” Or maybe he was attempting to stir up further trouble between Kerouac and John Ciardi? It’s maybe significant that no more work of Kerouac’s appeared in other issues of The Outsider.

Why did Kerouac not learn of a change to his poem until 1965 – did the Webbs not send him a copy of The Outsider #2? It’s probable that they did, and at least one copy has been found which contains Kerouac’s intended word “Chinese”, so maybe that was the version they sent him in 1962.

In 2003 Jeff Weddle published his PhD thesis for the University of Tennessee: “The Loujon Press: An Historical Analysis.” I contacted Jeff to ask if, during his research, he’d encountered anything about these unauthorized changes. Jeff replied that he had noticed a difference between Kerouac’s typescript of the poem and its appearance in his copy of the magazine, where the word appears as “civilized,” (and this is mentioned in his thesis) but he was unaware of the multiple variants.

In his thesis Jeff Weddle also notes that Jon Webb heavily edited and re-titled the piece by William Burroughs which appears in The Outsider #2 as “wilt caught in time.” According to Weddle, the published version “bears little resemblance to the author’s original submission.”

Again, since Weddle has apparently seen only one copy of The Outsider #2, it is possible that different variants of the Burroughs piece were published. Jeff told me that, while he was investigating the Loujon Press for his thesis, he had come across other examples of Webb changing texts. This is evidently an area which requires further research.

Does anyone out there have access to copies of The Outsider #2 with yet different versions of that line in Kerouac’s poem? Perhaps we can sample more than 22 of the 3000 copies known to have been printed.

And how about the William Burroughs piece? Maybe variant versions exist of that, too.

Let’s compare notes.

Dave Moore

On the Road… by John Kerouac?

On the Road original cover

Note the message in the top right corner:

Dear Mr. Wyn:

I submit this as my idea of an appealing commercial cover expressive of the book. The cover for “The Town and the City” was as dull as the title and the photo backflap. Wilbur Pippin’s photo of me is the perfect On the Road one … it will look like the face of the figure below.


This cover design, complete with explanatory note, was sent by Jack Kerouac to his publisher, AA Wyn, in 1952. Kerouac evidently had been less than impressed with the artwork adorning the cover of his first novel, The Town and the City.

Of course, it is now the year 2007 and we have witnessed dozens of On the Road covers from the novel’s various prints, editions and translations, with the most recent being the belated publication of the original and famous scroll that Kerouac produced in a three-week coffee binge of experimental writing.

We have seen the cover highlight various aspects of the novel, from drink to chicks to friendship to the road to the author himself, and to the later, more subtle, literary appreciation of On the Road.

But sadly we have never come to see Kerouac’s original idea for the cover come to, as evidenced the sketch opposite. The sketch shows a lone Sal Paradise traversing the open road, with LA, Texas, St. Louis, Denver, New York and Frisco crammed into one chaotic passing background.

The phrase ‘A modern prose novel’ also offers a little insight into Kerouac’s perception of his work: that of some contemporary reworking of a classical form. And indeed, Kerouac had spent a lot of time figuring out how he wanted to present his story of crossing America, before being inspired by Cassady’s letters to push forward with his notion of spontaneous prose. One could thus figure spontaneous prose to be what Kerouac wanted of the ‘modern prose novel’.

But perhaps the most obvious difference between Kerouac’s early vision of the cover of On the Road and the realised later versions is his stating of the author’s name as ‘John Kerouac’. Of course, The Town and the City was originally published under the name of ‘John Kerouac’, but for the rest of his writing career he went by the name of ‘Jack Kerouac’.

He was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac in Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, so there’s a little clue to his decision. He was raised speaking French, with English a second language, but in America. He was a Catholic and a rebel, a confused and divided man; his identity was always an issue for him. So to call himself Jean-Louis was to identify himself as different from those around him and those who may potentially read his work. John and Jack are Anglo names and more endearing to a 1950s readership, and therefore the better business bet. However, the formalities were dropped for his mad, bad and dangerous second novel, and perhaps Jack was chosen as a more working-class nomenclature.

(Image thanks to Dave Moore)