An Early Moan from the Great Moaner: Jack Kerouac's 'The Sea Is My Brother'
Jack 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.
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--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.