An Early Moan from the Great Moaner: Jack Kerouac’s ‘The Sea Is My Brother’

It’s important to hear Jack Kerouac read his own work. It’s important to hear his musicality, his rhythms and oral nuances such as pauses, up-lilts and subtle injections of humor. His revelatory melding of the writing/reading voice and jazz improvisation allowed his East Coast American baritone to slip just as easily into Midwest colloquial twang, West Coast hipster slang, or French-Canadian patois.

Watch, or rather listen to Kerouac’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show, where he reads from On the Road. Steve Allen is so square he misses every important point. When Kerouac waves off Allen’s tired old question, “How would you define Beat?” with an off-handed “…well…sympathetic,” he provides a profound summation of the Beat aesthetic, both in the answer itself and in the dismissive, slightly irritated manner in which he says it. In one sense, he’s just beat tired of answering the question. How many ways did he have to say it? “It’s the beat of the heart, it’s be-at…” In another sense, the answer is the most profound possible: To think that an entire literary movement could be based on something as deeply simple as human sympathy. What ramifications!

That word, sympathy, is thus the clue and the glue to the various figures in the Beat generation. There are great stylistic and formal differences between, say, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, but there is also a comparable “moan for man” running through each of their works. As for William Burroughs, though his ectoplasmic iciness seems to exclude any sort of human contact, one detects more than a small amount of compassion throughout his work; no one can write that devastatingly of humanity without feeling a fair share of the pain himself.

Of course Kerouac had his pet precedents, such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wolfe. From this trinity alone, he inherited Biblical scope, literary adventurousness, a sense of fraternity and universalism, and a prodigious capacity for both joyous and gloomy recall. Though his first published book, The Town and the City (1950), was a very finely-realized Wolfean novel, with occasional glimpses of Kerouac’s more expansive voice, it lacked the immediacy of his later work. Third person never quite suited him. It was as if apportioning that voice over several characters, and saddling it with strict novelistic omniscience, somehow tamped down its power. One senses a straining at the reins.

Just as or possibly more vitally influential to Kerouac’s literary development was the writing and receiving of letters, particularly Neal Cassady’s infamous “Joan Anderson Letter”, a 17 page sex-and-speed screed, that was a what-else-but mad prototypical catalyst for Kerouac’s discovery of his true tense: the Effusive Epistolary.

A writer’s letters are often looser, more revealing — not just of the author’s private life, but of his or her worldview, attitude to form, etc. — and just more fun than “officially” released work. Henry Miller’s letters to Alfred Perles, or Thomas Merton’s to Robert Lax, or Flannery O’Connor’s letters to almost anyone, all display an insider’s confabulatory tone, humorous human to humored human, a quality necessarily streamlined, transmuted, or just plain muted in “official” works. (Letter writing by anyone is perhaps the lost art form, grossly superceded by the “message”, a word that implies brevity even without an “instant” in front of it. “Love letter”, for example, sounds so much more ample than “love message” or, even paltrier, “love tweet”.)

Recognizing the correspondence between Cassady’s pure verbal drive and his own Buddhist-inspired notions of first thought/best thought, Kerouac forged a recitative, voice-based form — Whitman’s conversational mode modified, vocalized — that retained the novelistic scope of 19th century candle-and-ink tomes, but also took a crucial and what I can only think to call plebian step away from them, no small thing for someone with Kerouac’s literary and canonical aspirations. How to maintain the tradition set by Melville et. al. and still depart from it? By departing from it! Only by submitting to and pushing the potentialities of the first-person speaking-voice transcribed did Kerouac flourish into the writer we now know and admire.

The recent publication of the “lost” novel, The Sea Is My Brother, provides early evidence of the restrictiveness of third-person-omniscience on Kerouac’s prose. Written in 1943, nearly ten years before The Town and the City (and 15 years before the publication of On the Road, 1957!), when Kerouac was a mere 21 years old, the novel is perhaps too late to qualify as “juvenilia”, though the absence and promise of development is there. I’m reminded of Charles Bukowski’s outraged letters to Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin on the latter’s releasing various, varied-in-quality John Fante novels after Fante’s death, likening it to kicking a man when he’s down. I must say, I’m grateful to Martin, as Fante, even bad Fante, is a personal favorite. Kerouac is as well, so the release of The Sea Is My Brother is welcome if not overwhelming.

There are plenty of Kerouac’s later themes in The Sea Is My Brother, the sea and brotherhood being the most obvious. The novel’s minimal storyline involves two men, Wesley Martin and Bill Everhart, who befriend in a bar and decide to ship out together with the Merchant Marine (Kerouac wrote much of the novel aboard ship). Wesley is a practiced sailor, Bill an English professor at New York’s Columbia University who dreams of breaking away from the academic shore.

In letters excerpted in the Introduction, Kerouac describes these two characters as his own “divergent personality-worlds… [M]y worldly side will wink at the wenches, blow foam off a tankard, and fight at the drop of a chip. My schizoid self will sneer, slink away, and brood in some dark place.” Despite the personal nature of this bifurcation — physical/intellectual or tough guy/literary man — it’s also easy to read Wesley and Everhart as fictionalized versions of Cassady and Ginsberg, respectively.

Though I believe Kerouac had yet to meet Cassady at the time of this book’s conception, the future “Dean Moriarty” of On the Road is anticipated in Wesley’s man’s-manliness and nonchalant disregard of human, especially female, propriety: “[Wesley] discovered he was holding an empty quart bottle as they climbed the stoop to the apartment, so he turned around and hurled it far up the empty street, and when the glass shattered and the girls screamed, he wanted to tell them that was what he thought of all the talk they had made tonight.”

Similarly, Everhart, “peering slyly through horn-rimmed glasses” conjures Ginsberg’s bookish breathlessness, as pages (and pages) are devoted to Everhart’s internal and external ruminations, all Left-leaning and filled with exalted wordiness: “The revolution of the proletariat is the only thing today, and if it isn’t, then it is something allied with it — Socialism, international anti-Fascism. Revolt has always been with us, but now we find it in force. The writing of this war’s peace will be full of fireworks…”

This, just a very small excerpt from Everhart’s speech and thought, displays the novel’s generally doctrinaire wartime concerns. Some of this speech sounds like early Beat rhetoric: “…the progressive movement makes no provision for the spirit: it’s strictly a materialistic movement, it is limited […] I say, spiritual movements for the spirit!”

This final, fabulous, and inevitable race of men will have nothing to do but practice culture, lounge around in creative contemplation, eat, make love, travel, converse, sleep, dream, and urinate into plastic toilets.”

Yet most of Everhart’s speeches and thoughts come in long screeds that, relevant and sometimes interesting though they may be, especially in light of Kerouac’s later conservatism (the man was appalled to see hippies sitting on an American flag-draped couch), often feel like over-cooked attempts at Dostoyevskian cross-communication:

“I think anti-Fascists live under [a] delusion…They think that by destroying Fascism, they destroy all evil in the world today, where, I believe, they only destroy what may be the last grand concerted evil. When that is done, disorganized, individual evil will still be with us…”

“Truisms!” spat Nick. “A child would know that!”

So much of this kind of talk gets thrown around, particularly, as above, between Everhart and a Communist named Nick Meade, it has the tedious effect of being just that: talk. Politics, at least overtly, is a topic virtually absent from the bulk of Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend (the name he gave his oeuvre), the writer having worked most vibrantly from the personal outward.

Eventually, all this political discussion overwhelms and, in some ways, becomes the narrative. As Kerouac spends too much time on the broody Everhart, rather than the more active Wesley (losing him for what feels like chapters) the novel’s action, such as it is, shifts to the interior, which, dramatically speaking, makes for very little sea adventure.

The strongest writing then is descriptions of the ship and the sea. Kerouac was always at his best when rhapsodizing nature and things he loved:

“[Bill] descended a steep flight of iron steps and stopped in his tracks at the sight of the monster [sic] source of the Westminster’s power… great pistons charged violently, pistons so huge one could hardly expect them to move with such frightening rapidity. The Westminster’s shaft turned enormously, leading its revolving body toward the stern through what seemed to Bill a giant cave for a giant rolling serpent.”

“…the keen, cold ocean and smarting winds convened to render the sun’s young light a primitive tinge, a cold grandeur surpassed only in the further reaches of the north […] This was it! That air, that water, the ship’s gentle plunges, the way a universe of pure wind drove off the Westminster’s smoke and absorbed it, the way white-capped waves flashed green, blue, and pink in the primordial dawn light…”

“Wasn’t it a dark, tremendous thing out there on the bow? […] Yes, he loved and watched the sea; yes the sea was dark and tremendous; yes Wesley knew it and yes, Bill understood.”

The exuberant quality of these passages mirrors Kerouac’s letters describing The Sea Is My Brother, and his own mental state at the time of its composition, often with a kinetic charge missing from the bulk of the book itself: “I am wasting my time and my health here at Columbia…it’s been one huge debauchery. I hear of American and Russian victories, and I insist on celebrating…Don’t you want to travel to the Mediterranean ports, perhaps Algiers, to Morocco, Fez, the Persian Gulf, Calcutta…perhaps the old ports of Spain… and the far-flung Polynesians… I don’t want to go alone this time. I want my friend with me… my mad poet brother.”

Already in this letter there is the kind of conjuration of poems out of place-names that will become such an important feature of his later work.

Also more lively are his youthful journal entries, as in this “character study” done aboard ship: “Eddie Moutrie is a cussing little bastard, full of venom and dark, haggard beauty, often tenderness. I envision him now, smoking with his contemptuous scowl, turned away, yelling derision at me in a rough, harsh voice, returning his gaze with blank and tender eyes.”

Compare the effusive freedom of such a journal entry as, “O Satan! Mephisto! Judas! O Benaiah! O evil eyes that glint beneath the lights!” with the careful, studied opening of The Sea Is My Brother: “A young man, cigarette in mouth and hands in trousers’ pockets, descended a short flight of brick steps leading to the foyer of an uptown Broadway hotel and turned in the direction of Riverside Drive, sauntering in a curious, slow shuffle.”

Certainly not bad, but yet, not Jack. Or not yet Jack.

A Bodhisattva

Kerouac is more present in other, more rolling passages, as in this earliest example of so much subsequent jazz discussion: “And then, in a bar on MacDougall Street, [Wesley] met up with six sailors who were broke […] One of the sailors, a husky, dark-haired pharmacist’s mate, talked all the time about Roy Eldridge’s trumpet and why he was ten years ahead of any other jazz musician except perhaps two others who jammed Mondays at Minton’s in Harlem, Lester somebody and Ben Webster; and how Roy Eldridge was really a phenomenal thinker with infinite musical ideas.”

One may also see some of Kerouac in playful exchanges between Wesley and a character named Polly:

“Where are you from?” pressed Polly.

“Vermont,” mumbled Wesley, his attentions fixed on the bartender’s operations at the tap.

“What’re you doing in New York?”

“I’m on the beach,” was the reply.

“What’s that mean?” persisted Polly in her child’s wonder.

“What’s your name?” posed Wesley, ignoring her question.

“Polly Anderson.”

“Polly Anderson–Pretty Polly,” added Wesley.

“What a line!” smirked the girl.

As is clear from this exchange, no one in the book ever just says anything:

“‘Thank you!’ sang the woman…”

“‘You know women,’ confided the fruitseller…”

“‘Right fine,’ echoed Everhart…”

“‘Moby Dick,’ recollected Wesley.”

This isn’t one conversation, mind you. Though that would be something, marveled the book reviewer.

Imagining Kerouac reading The Sea Is My Brother saves the book. Not only reading it, but writing it, as well. Burroughs famously said of Kerouac, “Jack was a writer. He wrote,” and that indomitable vocation is already evident in The Sea Is My Brother. Besides some youthful clunkiness, there is also the enthusiasm of youthful creation:

“[Fate] had made her day sunny and her night warm with the thrill and potency of mystery, had stolen to his side and for a moment of terrible glory, in the night, revealed to him her design or designs — that no man may know, but each may wait, wonder, and, according to the powers of his spirit, resist!”

“Wesley for his part, found George’s dilemma as amusing as he had Polly’s impatience earlier in the evening, so that now he stared with open-mouthed, wide-eyed astonishment at the former, an expression of amusement as droll in itself as anything its wearer would ever wish to see.”

“But the restlessness which had festered in his loquacious being through the years…a vague prod in the course of his somehow sensationless and self-satisfied days, now came to him in a rush of accusal. What was he doing with his life? He had never grown attached to any woman, outside of the gay and promiscuous relations he carried on with several young ladies in the vicinity of his circle.”

That last excerpt brings up another of the novel’s thematic undercurrents, fraternity edging toward homoeroticism. Obviously the word “gay” in the above context is meant in its 19th century sense of “happy” or “joyous”, but there are other passages more revealing of Kerouac’s famously ambiguous sexuality. Though there are a few women characters in the novel, including Wesley’s left-behind wife (a harbinger of much guilt to come), none of them are described with such longing tenderness as this depiction of a young sailor named Danny Palmer:

“Bill was astounded at the sight of him. The youth was, in truth, a beautiful male…his blond hair was matted heavily in golden whorls, his pale brow was broad and deep, his mouth full and crimson, and his eyes, the most arresting part of his appearance, were of a shell-blue, lucid quality — large eyes and long eyelashes — that served to stun the senses of even the least perceptive watcher…his thinness was more manifest from the stomach down […] He certainly was a handsome boy.”

Later Bill dreams: “Danny Palmer wore a dress and invited him to his bunk…”

And at one point, Wesley has an odd awakening of sorts: “He gazed at Polly and wondered about her: she had been behaving unusually well all night, to his thinking, but now she had betrayed her colors. Polly was a woman! But when he squeezed her arm, and Polly touched her lips to his chin, quietly saying ‘Boo!’ and tweaking his nose, he decided women had their virtues.” What magnanimous misogyny!

The common assumption is that Kerouac reads best when you’re young, at an age when the impulse to go, to do something, is at its strongest, and I agree to some extent. There are certain books and passages that just don’t resonate with me the way they did when I read them in my 20s. Leo Percepied’s quest for Mardou Fox in The Subterrareans, touchingly mopey and self-involved, seemed so important at 21, so close to my own obsessive quests. It’s a comforting revelation to have all of what you believed were only your own thoughts confirmed. And confirmed in the same rushing manner in which those thoughts pass through your head (a subtitle of one of Kerouac’s early journals: “GROWING PAINS or A MONUMENT TO ADOLESCENCE.”).

Yet if some of Kerouac’s drunken sentiment and gloomy self-pity seems youthful to me now, his formal innovations and achievements appear much more impressive. He may not have birthed an Immaculate Style — again, those obvious traces of Melville, Whitman, et. al. — but there is no question he liberated literature from strict academicism, creating through an amalgamation of influences a literary form whose relation to jazz cannot be stressed enough.

Like jazz improvisation, Kerouac’s style or voice is not adverse to “wrong” notes; a misspelling even can signal a new tack, just as an off or unexpected note may tilt a jazz player into new terrain. Any artist worth his or her salt knows that accidents often open up avenues.

This is why the momentum of Kerouac’s prose builds best in a single-sitting reading, just as one listens through a jazz solo or human conversation, both immediate once-only occurrences. The first thought is best because it’s the freshest. This doesn’t mean that other thoughts aren’t also best or even better. It just gives credence and value to the first-uttered. Think of everything one says in life once and only once. Isn’t that the best? But again, like jazz solos, there are constant, endless variations.

I would argue that Kerouac’s greatest achievement is the creation of the most compassionate of 20th century literatures; not just the adolescent fraternalisms or calls for equality, but the glee of rushing down the mountain with the good news, or as the good news, curious about humanity, forgiving, ready to report well and true; this despite his personal orneriness, and his drunk/sober/drunk/sober alcoholic binges, painted most clearly in Big Sur, where “Jack Duluoz”, feeling joyous, gets drunk, then wakes up hung-over and remorseful, then regains joyousness, so drinks to celebrate. And on and on, O woebegone Kathleen!

In Buddhism, there is the figure of a bodhisattva, a human charged with sowing compassion among other human beings. Kerouac took his role as bodhisattva seriously. Compassion was an early formative concern. A letter to Sebastian about The Sea Is My Brother: “I know you’ll like it, Sam; it has compassion, it has a certain something that will appeal to you (brotherhood, perhaps).”

In another letter Kerouac writes: “Into this book, I shall weave all the passion and glory of living, its restlessness and peace, its fever and ennui, its mornings, noons and nights of desire, frustration, fear, triumph, and death…” The book never quite reaches young Jack’s lofty hopes for it; that would require the entire Duluoz Legend. But in terms of On The Road’s divine mandate, “Go Thou across the ground, go moan for man, go moan…” The Sea Is My Brother is an early, earnest low moan from The Great Moaner.