Follow Here To Purchase The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel

Author:  Jack Kerouac

Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (March 20, 2012)

ISBN-10: 0306821257

ISBN-13: 978-0306821257


I admit, I didn’t have high hopes when I learned Jack Kerouac’s apprentice novel, The Sea is My Brother, was finally going to be published. As the manuscript was written in 1943 when Kerouac was only 21, I expected a text that would largely only interest scholars who will want to troll through the pages looking for clues revealing insights into Kerouac’s development. To my surprise, the book is far more readable than I anticipated.

As with most of Kerouac’s canon, there’s not much of a plot. The book is roughly split into two parts. The first finds devil-may-care Merchant Marine seaman Wesley Martin wandering around New York where he ingratiates himself into a small group of friends who are out on the town. Within 24 hours, Martin beds one of the girls and impresses Columbia professor Bill Everhart so much that the latter impulsively decides to take a vacation from books and join the Merchant Marine himself. After a brief hitchhiking interlude between New York and Boston, the two new friends sign up on a ship. The rest of the book is essentially descriptions of Everhart learning what ship life is like, his musings about whether or not he’s made a good decision, and scenes of Martin’s happiness at being free from personal complications on land.

Even though Kerouac was young when he cranked out this tale, it’s very clear he had a gift for sketching characters and creating vivid settings. In fact, one major surprise is that a reader can get so engaged with what’s happening when so little is actually happening. Perhaps 70% of the book is conversation. Sometimes the dialogue reveals aspects of a character, sometimes the ramblings are over-written attempts to have the characters serve as mouth-pieces for philosophical points Kerouac wants to make. But, especially at sea, supporting players are captured in very tightly written passages like the blues-loving cook, Glory.  

Some of the scenes are perfect examples of what Kerouac could craft for dramatic purposes. For example, on board ship two seamen get into a scuffle which sets up a confrontation where Martin must explain to the victim of the fight that everyone on a ship must be part of a community, that there is no room for disharmony. This scene pulls the book together. On the other hand, Martin has an encounter with an ex-wife on shore that contributes little to establishing his character or motivations. It’s one of the many passages with unrealized potential.

Knowing this book is a flawed piece, the danger is trying to make too much of what can be found in it. Certainly, it won’t be hard for literary historians to find autobiographical references as that was essentially Kerouac’s stock in trade throughout his career. Jazz, alcohol, travel, independence, manhood, a buddy relationship, living life to the fullest, simplicity in life and other Kerouac tropes are aplenty.  I know it will be tempting for critics to seek deep, deep meanings and interpretations. But most shouldn’t take Dawn Ward’s introduction too seriously. One of her contentions is that the book marks the beginning of a writing method called “Supreme Reality.” Well, the book does mark the beginning of a creative path worthy of thoughtful consideration, but we don’t need mythologizing hyperbole. We got too much of that back in the day. In the end, I’d say we should be grateful this book is here to consider. The final surprise is that it took this long to see the light of day.

Follow Here To Purchase The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel