Penguin £25

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Was Jack Kerouac right to be so critical of his own – until now unpublished – early scribblings, or was there some merit to his maiden voyage?

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but it was 2002's publication of a never before seen novella, Orpheus Emerged, which heralded a period of mining of the unpublished Kerouac held by his estate, resulting in his play The Beat Generation (2005) and, two years later, the "unexpurgated" version of his classic On the Road,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.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us