Let’s face it, Franco-American writers never receive their due. They tend to get pigeonholed as regional writers, and they can’t take advantage of their differentness the way African or Hispanic writers can.
New England’s Franco-American writers, though, have had a huge impact on literature and philosophy. That, at least, should be obvious from the six Franco-American writers listed here.
Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Mass., on March 12, 1922, the son of Franco-American immigrants. Kerouac’s father was a printer who lost his shop in a flood; his mother worked in a shoe factory. French was his first language. Jack Kerouac didn’t learn to speak English until he was six, and he started writing his masterpiece, On The Road, in French. He grew up a serious student and a devout Catholic. As a child he was told his family motto was ‘Love, Work, Suffer.’ Before his death at 47 on Oct. 21, 1969, he published more than a dozen books that earned him a devoted following. Critics called him ‘the voice of his generation,’ and On The Road became the bible of the Beat Generation.
Jean de Crevecoeur
Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur was born in 1735 in Normandy to the Count and Countess of Crevecoeur.
He migrated to New France in North America at the age of 20, serving in the French and Indian War as a surveyor. He then moved to New York when the French lost to the British, took the name John Hector St. John and married an American woman. St. John subsequently bought a farm in New York State and wrote about life in the American colonies. (You can read Letters from an American Farmer here.) He befriended Benjamin Franklin and Ethan Allen, who suggested the town of Dunmore, Vt., rename itself St. John in his honor. St. John suggested adding the ‘bury’ to differentiate the town from the one in New Brunswick. He died in France in 1813.
Robert Cormier was born Jan. 15, 1925 in a tight-knit Franco-American community known as French Hill in Leominster, Mass. He spent the rest of his life there. When growing up he looked out his classroom window and saw his house on fire. The nun made him recite a rosary before he could run home. Cormier graduated from Fitchburg State University and worked for 30 years as a reporter for the Fitchburg Sentinel.
He also wrote 13 young adult novels and 100 short stories that made him famous. The New York Times described him as a nice, quiet family man, but he wrote novels with themes so dark that people thought them too disturbing for teenagers. Lists of the most frequently banned books usually include Cormier’s, The Chocolate War. Novels like I Am the Cheese and We All Fall Down deal with abuse, mental illness, violence, revenge and betrayal.
Grace Metalious led a short tragic life that began in 1924 on the largely Franco-American West Side of Manchester, N.H. Born Grace de Repentigny into a poor family, she married George Metalious, a school teacher in Gilmanton, N.H. She was a lousy housewife who drank, swore, wore baggy jeans and cheated on her husband. Grace Metalious rocketed to fame with her first novel, Peyton Place.
Peyton Place described the hidden seamy side of a small New England town. The critics panned it, but the public loved it – except for Gilmanton, N.H., on which Metalious based the book. Peyton Place became a staple of American entertainment as a movie, a sequel and a nighttime television soap opera. Fame made Grace Metalious rich and reckless; she burned through millions of dollars and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 39.
Henry David Thoreau
Most people know Henry David Thoreau for Walden, his account of his two years, two months and two days living in a simple cabin in the woods. But his essay Civil Disobedience, with its message of nonviolent protest against an unjust government, perhaps had a bigger impact. It influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. He also wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry, journals, books and essays. His writings about nature inspired the environmental movement.
Thoreau was born in Concord, Mass., in 1817, to John Thoreau, the son of French Protestant immigrants, and Cynthia Dunbar, of English descent. He never married and often didn’t have a job; when he did, he taught school, surveyed or did odd jobs for Emerson. His influence endures beyond the other members of the Transcendentalist circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing.
Will Durant and his wife Ariel wrote the 11-volume Story of Civilization, one of the most popular works of history and philosophy ever. He was born in North Adams, Mass., to Franco-American parents who came to America as part of the Quebec diaspora. Ariel was born in Ukraine and migrated to the United States at the age of three. He studied at Jesuit schools in New Jersey, where he flirted with the idea of joining the priesthood. Will Durant met his wife while teaching her at the Ferrer Modern School in New York. He quit his job to marry her when she was 15.
She roller skated to their wedding at City Hall. The won the Pulitzer Prize for the 10th volume of Story of Civilization, and President Gerald Ford awarded them the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They did within two weeks of each other in Los Angeles in 1981.
Images: Robert Cormier By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3988962.
This story about Franco-American writers was updated in 2021.