'That's Not Literature, It's Handwriting'
Barnett, David, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Was Jack Kerouac right to be so critical of his own - until now unpublished - early scribblings, or was there some merit to his maiden voyage? Fiction The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel By Jack Kerouac Penguin Pounds 25
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but it was 2002's publication of a never before seen novella, Orpheus Emerged, which heralded a period of mining of the unpublished Kerouac held by his estate, resulting in his play The Beat Generation (2005) and, two years later, the "unexpurgated" version of his classic On the Road,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. …