In the spring of 1943, during a stint in the Merchant Marine, twenty-one-year old Jack Kerouac set out to write his first novel. Working diligently day and night to complete it by hand, he titled it The Sea Is My Brother. Now, nearly seventy years later, its long-awaited publication provides fascinating details and insight into the early life and development of an American literary icon.
Written seven years before The Town and The City officially launched his writing career, The Sea Is My Brother marks a pivotal point in which Kerouac began laying the foundations for his pioneering method and signature style. A clear precursor to such landmark works as On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Visions of Cody, it is an important formative work that bears all the hallmarks of classic Kerouac: the search for spiritual meaning in a materialistic world, spontaneous travel as the true road to freedom, late nights in bars and apartments engaged in intense conversation, the desperate urge to escape from society, and the strange, terrible beauty of loneliness.
Unpublished in North America for nearly 70 years, Kerouac's first novel, written when he was 21, offers a tantalizing glimpse of the themes and characters that were to become his obsessions. During WWII, Wesley Martin, an itinerant merchant seaman on leave, stumbles around New York, from jazz clubs to the bars near Columbia University, where he meets Everhart, a young assistant professor "with the pasty pallor of a teacher of life." Over a drunken night, Everhart and his circle of hangers-on fall under the spell of Wesley's "brooding presence," after which Everhart takes leave from teaching and enlists with Wesley on his next sea voyage. In an exhilarating sequence that anticipates Kerouac's best remembered works, Wesley and Everhart bum their way to Boston to join the crew of a freighter bound for Greenland. The most interesting aspect of this work is how, amid the rough-hewn dialogue and formative instinct for motivation, Kerouac's rhapsodizing about the open road appears as an aspect of his talent fully formed. This section contains some of his first distinctive sentences: "Everhart couldn't sleep for an hour. He lay on his back and watched the richly clustered stars high above. A cricket chirped not three feet away. The grass was damp, though he could feel its substratum of sunfed warmth." Unfortunately, after this peak, the young Kerouac couldn't enliven the confined space of the S.S. Westminster. After this work, the motivations of his beat heroes would be more confidently elliptical. It would be another seven years before Kerouac's official debut, The Town and the City, and more than a decade until On the Road. While it may not be the Rosetta Stone of the beat movement, the publication of this flawed manuscript will be an event for his admirers.