“Lost” Kerouac First Novel Published; The Writer – Promethean or Scholar?
Beat icon Jack Kerouac’s first literary opus is finally to be published in its entirety, no more than 70 years after its initial conception. Previously believed “lost” the whimsically titled The Sea Is My Brother, was saved from obscurity by the American writer’s brother-in-law, Sebastian Sampras, who was subsequently the focus of much of Kerouac’s attention throughout his early letters.
Alongside the collaborative effort with fellow ‘Beat’ William Burroughs—And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks—and the “original scroll” of the bohemian epic On The Road, The Sea Is My Brother is to join the writer’s growing list of posthumous publications.
Born from a short lived stint as a merchant seaman, The Sea Is My Brother details the experiences of hardened sailor Wesley Martin along with Colombian professor Bill Everett as they drink and philosophise their way to Greenland—a journey similar to one taken by Kerouac in 1942. The writer himself famously only served 8 days of service before being diagnosed with a “schizoid personality,” leaving him on the “sick list.” It was to be an experience that would have a significant enough impact on the mind of the young writer that it would eventually inspire his first novel.
And yet, how should one react to the resurfacing of yet another supposedly “lost treasure.” Described conversely as both ‘immature’ and instrumental in the ‘development of his writing process,’ it is not difficult to understand why Kerouac is so often deemed a writer prone to turbulent reception. Even the man himself would be the first to question the worth of The Sea Is My Brother, describing it candidly as ‘a crock as literature’; further evidence that when it comes to Kerouac, unanimity should never be expected.
The novel, discovered in the writer’s meticulously kept archive was received with a feeling of surprise having only claiming a brief mention in a letter to his brother in law. As such, it’s likely that this work could have easily been left to gather dust. Nevertheless, even those prone to criticism when it comes the Kerouac agree that against his more prestigious later works, The Sea Is My Brother could provide an interesting and enlightening example of a writer still struggling to find his niche.
But does this change what Jack Kerouac and ‘The Beat Generation’ as a movement have grown to represent? Does this hold any bearing on how an enthusiastic reader should receive this latest (and earliest) of Kerouac’s work? Cynically put, the once fast living, self-proclaimed iconoclastic writers have now become household names, their celebrity far exceeding their reputation as serious authors. As such, is The Sea Is My Brother nothing more than the capitalisation of a man celebrated for the romance of his lifestyle rather than the romance of his words? Indeed, even the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style that Kerouac championed for much of his life has famously been criticised as ‘typing, not writing.’
It’s true that even those not necessarily taken by the idea of a dog-eared copy of On The Road as the epitome of teenage literary enlightenment are familiar with the stereotype; the eccentric and impassioned writer, swamped somewhere within a large weather beaten overcoat, notebook tightly in hand. Kerouac, alongside his colourful ‘Beat’ contemporaries, were the living embodiment of all things ‘free’ and ‘eccentric’ making it easy to understand the appeal of their work to young teens, males especially. Their liberal attitudes towards sex and drug use, on top of the spiritualisation of the traveller—the ‘vanishing American’ as Kerouac would have it—struck the imagination of a generation devoid of direction and seeking to challenge the more stringent lifestyle of their parents.
Knowing this, surely the publication of Kerouac’s first literary effort will be received with open arms to those still transfixed with the romantic ethos of ‘The Beat Generation.’ Admittedly, it will traverse no new ground, nor serving to break the romanticised image of Kerouac as a literary hero—living fast; dying young. But why should this be a problem? For the ‘angel headed hipsters’ of the 21st century, The Sea Is My Brother will be treasured as a curious piece of history regardless of its stylistic flaws. Furthermore, it is Kerouac’s inflated celebrity that entices so many into the vibrant and exciting world of literature; surely this is no bad thing.
For the remainder of the literary community however, the question will continue to remain a relevant and interesting point of discussion; Kerouac—the eccentric Promethean or the scholar?