THE BRETON TRAVELLER — Jack Kerouac’s Search for his Roots
by Dave Moore
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 ]