The release of Jack Kerouac’s “The Sea Is My Brother” is one of those signal publishing events: publication of a lost novel by a famous author whose corpus has by now been well established. As is happens, long before Kerouac reported from “On the Road,” he was on the high seas and at the tender age of twenty-one penned a novel based on his experiences in the midst of World War II.
And while this novel, appearing for the first time in its unedited entirety, will not motivate any fundamental re-evaluation of its author’s work, it provides a captivating preview into the author—and his works—to be. If it is flawed—naïve in certain respects, overwritten here and there, too simple in its plotting—“The Sea Is My Brother” is also a complete story, romantic, energetic, exuberant and even brash, qualities Kerouac never outgrew.
The book’s central character, Wesley Martin, is a twenty-seven-year-old Merchant Marine with a lot of past in his kit as he lands footloose and nearly penniless in New York City’s Columbia University neighborhood, en route to Boston for a brief reunion with his father and another planned tour at sea. He is hastily adopted by a circle of Columbia friends that includes thirty-two-year-old assistant English professor Bill Everhart, ripe for plucking from his pedantic existence for what he sees as Martin’s life full of meaning and high adventure.
In her most useful introduction, Beat scholar Dawn Ward gleans from Kerouac’s wartime journal that he saw both sides of his own personality in creating his two fictional characters. In writing his novel, Kerouac drew from his experiences on the cargo ship S.S. Dorchester in 1942-43. He himself had fled Columbia University because he could not keep his mind on his college studies. He wrote his manuscript in a burst of work after returning stateside.
Running through the story is the thread of ready male camaraderie, fostered perhaps by the just-waning depression but re-intensified by the uncertainties of war spreading across the globe. This condition helps explain Everhart’s sudden abandonment of his tame but stable life.
To the modern reader, extended monologues and verbal duals between characters about leftist principles and the relative merits of leftwing ideologies will seem quaint and almost alien. The last time you read about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War was probably in Hemingway, and it is jarring as well to recall that by 1943 Stalinist Russia was our military ally.
Ideology aside, Kerouac offers great snapshots of college life at the time, contrasted with intimate views of shipboard life. The raw recruit Everhart reacts to the prospect of life at sea with both fear and awe. Will they all die, their ship loaded with strategic materials torpedoed by a German U-boat? Will he be incapacitated by seasickness?
The ship is a strange but hard-steel reality, broken into decks and clattering galleys populated by men at work, its heart pulsing deep below in great charging pistons “so huge one could hardly expect them to move with such frightening rapidity.” The “shaft turned enormously, leading its revolving body toward the stern through what seemed to Bill a giant cave for a giant rolling serpent.”
He is surrounded by large and occasionally clashing personalities, though few as big as the cook Glory, who proclaims repeatedly in his basso voice the blues line “Everybody want to go to Heaven, but nobody want to die!” Inevitably there are conflicts, even physical ones. After a fight, one hand moans, “Nice way to start a trip! … We’re all goin’ down.”
Mumbled I’m-sorries break the tension; eventually all are brought around to the awareness that survival depends upon teamwork. The excitement of the ship getting under way submerges other concerns, and its great gun and crew and escort destroyer are reminders of the dangerous stakes.
Kerouac likewise artfully records the sweeping panoramas of water and sky that are the magnet to life at sea. Momentarily, Martin is offered a seemingly attractive conclusion to the issues on land he has been fleeing for a decade; Everhart considers abandoning ship.
Their story ends without neat resolution. And as observers, we must remind ourselves, as at the end of “Casablanca,” that these characters cannot know their fate; the specter of war dwarfs all. We today know how the war will end, but even we can only hope that our heroes survive. (Martin Northway)
“The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel”
By Jack Kerouac
Da Capo Press, 216 pages, $23