The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, By Jack Kerouac
Was Jack Kerouac right to be so critical of his own – until now unpublished – early scribblings, or was there some merit to his maiden voyage?
Sunday 27 November 2011
Another year, another "lost" Jack Kerouac classic.
Kerouac must be one of the most posthumously prolific authors ever. Following his death in 1969 at the age of 47, there came a flurry of poetry collections, a trend that was repeated in the early Nineties with fresh compilations such as Pomes All Sizes and San Francisco Blues.
A collection of early writing, Atop an Underwood, was produced in 1999 but it was 2002's publication of a never before seen novella, Orpheus Emerged, which heralded a period of mining of the unpublished Kerouac held by his estate, resulting in his play The Beat Generation (2005) and, two years later, the "unexpurgated" version of his classic On the Road, famously written on a continuous 120ft scroll of taped together sheets of paper in (according to Allen Ginsberg), three coffee -and-Benzedrine-fuelled weeks in 1951. Wake Up, a biography of Buddha, and Kerouac's collaboration with William S Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks were both published in 2008.
It is, however, The Sea Is My Brother which has perhaps the most significance, being the first novel Kerouac ever wrote, while a merchant seaman in 1942-43. It is a slight affair, and less than a third of the page-count of this volume, which is filled out with other early writings, and correspondence between Kerouac and his childhood friend – and eventual brother-in-law – Sebastian Sampas. Kerouac and Sampas were the heart of what Kerouac termed the Young Prometheans, the group of writers and thinkers based around his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, who paved the way for Kerouac's role in the creation of what would become the Beat Generation.
The novella follows two characters, old-hand seaman Wesley Martin and Columbia professor Bill Everhart, who hook up and ship out for Greenland carrying war cargo – a journey that Kerouac himself undertook on the SS Dorchester. The plot is minimal, and in both style and construction the novel betrays Kerouac's immaturity as a writer. There are point-of-view switches between characters almost at random, sometimes within the same paragraph, and no one in The Sea Is My Brother ever said a line of dialogue when they could have exclaimed, called, supplied, smiled, interrupted, added or so on.
If the execution leaves much to be desired, though, the novel does show the foundations Kerouac was laying for his future work. There are wonderful bursts of Kerouackian jazz-prose which break through the strictures of the conventional novel, and even then his ear for dialogue was sharp and naturalistic.
In the main characters we can perhaps see the emerging dichotomy of the youthful Kerouac – just 20 when he started writing the novel. Wesley Martin is the archetypal "vanishing American" of Kerouac's later work; the free-spirited, wandering hobo template upon which he later pressed all kinds of mystical dimensions and which found embodiment in Kerouac's soul-brother Neal Cassady, immortalised in On the Road as Dean Moriarty. Bill Everhart is the deep thinker; the classroom philosopher seeking true experience rather than received wisdom. Both could be contained within the young Kerouac, who simultaneously craved adventure and learning and had not yet reconciled how one could inform the other.
The question remains, though, whether Kerouac would ever have wanted such an immature work released. Presumably, at the height of his fame he could have had it published – but chose not to. Indeed, according to Gerald Nicosia's biography, Memory Babe, Kerouac branded it "a crock as literature". In Ann Charters's celebrated biog, Kerouac, she quotes him as saying The Sea Is My Brother was "more an example of handwriting than of a novel", pre-empting Truman Capote's famous criticism of On the Road as "typing not writing".
The reason for Kerouac's abandonment and rejection of The Sea Is My Brother lies in his discovery, while at sea, of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. He conceived of his own series of autobiographical novels – "one grand tale" – which led him to write his romans à clef On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Big Sur, for which he is rightly remembered.
Kerouac's time in the merchant navy is well documented, not least in his own final published work, Vanity of Duluoz. But that was written from the perspective of Kerouac in 1968, a year before his death, when the Beats had come and gone and he was living with his mother and his third wife, Stella Sampas, waiting for the years of drink to finally destroy him.
The real value in The Sea Is My Brother is that it shows that Kerouac didn't spring fully formed as the "King of the Beats", but had an evolution, a period of growing up and maturing, and that he – as any great writer must – certainly paid his dues.
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