On The Road And Out To Sea

  • March 6, 2012

Sarah Vogelsong looks at Jack Kerouac's early novel The Sea Is My Brother

by Sarah Vogelsong

In March 1943, a 21-year-old recruit at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Newport,  Rhode Island suddenly threw his gun to the ground in the middle of drill and walked off to the library. The recruit was eventually tracked down and admitted to the mental ward, where psychiatrists examined him diligently before shipping him down to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda for further evaluation.

At the Naval Hospital, doctors diagnosed their patient as suffering from a constitutional psychopathic state and a schizoid personality. Their report drew a portrait of an oversensitive, somewhat irresponsible young man—unremarkable save for one thing.

“Without any particular training or background,” the report states, “this patient, just prior to his enlistment, enthusiastically embarked upon the writing of novels. He sees nothing unusual in this activity.”

Indeed he did not. Because this patient, who received an honorable discharge from the Navy shortly afterwards, was Jack Kerouac. And the first of these novels, the one that Kerouac told doctors he had spent 16 hours a day writing before his departure for boot camp, was The Sea Is My Brother.

For years, only a few excerpts of this work were available to the public. A segment consisting of about 30 pages of the original handwritten manuscript appeared in Paul Marion’s 1999 volume Atop an Underwood (Viking). Otherwise, knowledge of the novel was limited to sporadic references in critical biographies and journal articles.

In November, however, Penguin Classics (UK) released The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, edited by Dawn Ward, a professor of graphic design and visual art at Becker College. Written during 1942–43, the novel predates the composition of The Town and the City, Kerouac’s first published work, by several years and reflects the author’s time in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the period of his young manhood before he encountered the Beats. Da Capo Press will release the U.S. version of the work on March 12, the ninetieth anniversary of Kerouac’s birth.

“A lot of smashing of bottles”

Although long classified as juvenilia, The Sea Is My Brother is far more. Kerouac wrote steadily throughout his adolescence, producing a wealth of journals, plays, sketches, and poems, but The Sea Is My Brother is the first work that he approached with the professional dedication that would mark all of his subsequent output.

“I am writing 14 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Kerouac wrote his Lowell friend Sebastian Sampas in March 1943, boldly predicting, “You may well read my book next summer, if you’re in America.”

Unlike Kerouac’s later books, which are told from the perspective of a single narrator, The Sea Is My Brother is split between two characters. Wesley Martin is a blue-collar sailor who has spent six years in the Merchant Marine. Ashore in New York City, he runs into Bill Everhart, a Columbia professor chafing at the staid conventionality of his life and wondering whether “frontiers from now on are to be in the imagination” and not reality.

On a whim, Everhart throws his lot in with Wesley, and the two hitchhike up to Boston and sign onto the S.S. Westminster, which is headed to Greenland with a shipment of war supplies.

Although UK critics have hailed the novel as a maritime work in the tradition of Melville, the Westminster doesn’t leave Boston Harbor until page 127 of the 158-page work. Kerouac often seems less concerned with nautical narration than with putting his personal experiences to the page and straightening out his philosophical confusion about life and his place in the world.

“The story is unmistakeably Kerouac in search of his voice,” says Benjamin Schafer, executive editor at Da Capo. “It may not be the kind of Kerouac voice that made him famous, but you can see the kernels of it, and you can especially see the preoccupations, the themes about freedom and conformity, about going along with what society expects of you—or not—and a lot of drinking, a lot of talking about ideas, a lot of smashing of bottles.”

He adds, “There’s a lot of smashing of bottles.”

Critics and scholars have generally agreed that The Sea Is My Brother’s value lies less in its literary qualities than in the contributions it makes to our understanding of Kerouac as both a man and a writer.

“Not a lot is known about this period of his life,” says editor Dawn Ward. “The Sea Is My Brother throws some light on this chapter.”

“An explorer in the literary sense”

Because The Sea Is My Brother was written before he came into contact with the writers who would one day be considered the Beats, the Kerouac of this period is largely unfamiliar to readers.

“When Kerouac is writing this in 1942,” Marion says, “he’s just at the beginning of his journey.” In 1942, he had not yet encountered Ginsberg’s supercharged poetics or Neal Cassady’s no-holds-barred stream-of-consciousness storytelling. His affections still lay with Thomas Wolfe and William Saroyan, an idealistic Armenian American writer.

What is so surprising about The Sea Is My Brother, then, is how much it anticipates Kerouac’s later work. Marion, one of the earliest scholars to work closely with the handwritten manuscript of The Sea Is My Brother, was struck by how familiar the narrative seemed.

“What I saw immediately,” he recalls, “was that it was a book that was a kind of forecast of what was to come, particularly in the structure of the story, [which is] built around these two characters that are not tremendously dissimilar from the two lead characters in On the Road. You have this more worldly character and the more sort of studious cerebral character. Instead of going on the highway, they go to sea.”

Most significantly, however, The Sea Is My Brother offers an early glimpse of the spontaneous writing that would become Kerouac’s hallmark and influence so many future American writers, from Tom Wolfe to Hunter S. Thompson. His story wanders from present to past and back again, pausing to marvel at the rosy sight of a sunrise, becoming sidetracked in philosophical barroom arguments, slipping from a description of a hitched ride to an exhortation of the Fates.

“The novel shows clearly that Jack was composing in this sketching sort of style,” says Ward. “It firmly grounds him as an explorer in the literary sense.”

It has long been believed that Kerouac’s association with the writers and artists who would become the Beats led to a series of creative breakthroughs that allowed him to produce the 120-foot-long scroll of On the Road in three weeks. Many regard Neal Cassady and the 40,000-word “Joan Anderson Letter” that he wrote to Kerouac in 1950 as the essential catalysts for Kerouac’s creative development. Kerouac himself encouraged this view, telling the Paris Review in 1968 that he “got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters…all first person, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed.”

But The Sea Is My Brother casts doubt on this story.

“It shows that this [experimentation] was occurring earlier, before Kerouac became involved in that scene,” Ward claims. Although the Beats unquestionably influenced the author, this contention would shift the focus of Kerouac scholarship away from the broader movement and its effect on the cultures of 1950s New York City and San Francisco toward the author himself and his own unique, homegrown genius.

“My mad poet brother!”

This fresh outlook on Kerouac might also help bring another aspect of his character and life back into the public eye: his association with Lowell. Of the fifteen novels published during his lifetime, one-third are concerned with this Massachusetts mill town where Kerouac was born and raised, and have no relation to the Beats.

The Penguin Classics version of The Sea Is My Brother, which was published exclusively in the UK, includes a large chunk of supplemental material compiled by Ward that sheds considerable light on Kerouac’s life in Lowell, and particularly his friendship with Sebastian “Sammy” Sampas.

Although often relegated to biographical footnotes, Sampas was a pivotal figure in Kerouac’s life. No part of the Kerouac myth may be more romanticized than the author’s friendship with Neal Cassady—that “sideburned hero of the snowy West” immortalized as Dean Moriarty and Cody Pomeray—but Sammy was the author’s original brother and teacher. He appears in some half dozen of Kerouac’s novels, and in Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac succinctly credits his friend for his life’s work: “Decided to become a writer under influence of Sebastian Sampas, local young poet who later died on Anzio beachhead.”

Ward’s supplemental material includes not only a selection of Kerouac’s early writings, but also a significant section highlighting the author’s correspondence with Sampas. The young men shared an interest in intellectual discussion and harbored literary ambitions, swapping their manuscripts back and forth for criticism and encouragement. Their letters are by turns combative, philosophical, and loving. Again and again they return to certain personal touchstones: a night they walked in the Lowell woods together and saw the sun rise, the time Sammy ran alongside Kerouac’s train until it pulled out of the station, their mutual love for Noel Coward’s “I’ll See You Again.”

So much did Kerouac associate this song with his friend that when news of Sampas’ death at the Battle of Anzio reached him, he wrote Sammy a final letter that he kept all his life: “Sebastian—It’s raining—and the song has come—I’ll See You Again. Where? Where, Sammy?”

In Marion’s mind, “it was a powerful soulmate connection. I think [Sampas] was his sort of intellectual twin.”

Charles Jarvis, a native Lowellian and author of the biographical memoir Visions of Kerouac, records a conversation in which Kerouac identified Sammy as one of the few constants in his life, saying “I’ve never changed my mind about him and what he meant to me.”

Beyond the emotional connection, the material collected in The Sea Is My Brother illustrates the great literary influence that the young poet had on Kerouac. Ward notes that “Jack uses a lot of the phrases, the descriptions, the effervescence of Sammy’s imagery” in the novel. Certainly the correspondence shows the range of both young men’s literary experimentation. In one heartbreaking letter, Sampas describes his barracks’-mates in terms that seem unmistakably Kerouackian: “Burks, another Texan, blonde and sad, smokes his cigarettes and tells us of huge sex feats in Amarillo, Brownsville, and Houston.”

What would have happened had Sammy lived? The question lends a deep poignancy to The Sea Is My Brother. After all, Kerouac had always hoped that he and Sammy might ship out to sea together like Wesley Martin and Bill Everhart, begging Sammy in 1942 to join the Merchant Marine with him: “Sebastian, come with me, come with me! [. . . ] I want my friend with me . . . my mad poet brother.”

The dream never came to fruition, but it haunted Kerouac his whole life. In his final book, Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac reflects sadly that “if Sabby [Sampas] could have got his Coast Guard papers on time and sailed on that ship with me he might have lived thru the war.”

“So hold on to your seats”

Sammy, of course, did not live, and Kerouac eventually abandoned The Sea Is My Brother after encountering Galsworthy and conceiving the idea of writing a series of novels that were interrelated in terms of both characters and themes.

“As far as I know, he did not submit the manuscript to publishers,” says Ward. “He turned immediately to The Town and the City.”

For years, the manuscript was lost, with the only references to it existing in Kerouac’s correspondence and a comment in Vanity of Duluoz that described the novel as “a crock as literature.” Much later, however, the handwritten work was unearthed in the Kerouac archives held by the Sampas family. (In a strange twist of fate, Kerouac’s third wife was Sammy’s younger sister, Stella, to whom his entire estate passed after his death. The Sampas family still maintains the archive in Lowell today.)

The U.S. edition of The Sea Is My Brother that will be released by Da Capo in March is a shortened version of the Penguin Classics work that includes the text of the novel and an introduction by Ward but eliminates the supplementary material on Kerouac’s early writings and his relationship with Sampas.

“We thought about [including this material],” Schafer says, “but we just wanted to publish the novella and not surround it with all the extraneous material which we thought might limit the audience to more of the academic, hardcore Kerouac readers. . . . There’s so many books of Kerouac letters and journals . . . and it just seemed to us best to let the novella stand on its own as a package and a work of art.”

Schafer is enthusiastic about the possibility of one day publishing a book about the Sampas-Kerouac relationship.

“Maybe a book of their correspondence,” he says.

Ultimately, though, whether readers encounter The Sea Is My Brother through the U.S. or UK edition, scholars and publishers agree that the experience will be rewarding.

“With Kerouac,” Marion says, “every new work that is brought to the public adds that much more understanding to him as a writer. . . and being able to see him developing in a piece like The Sea Is My Brother deepens one’s appreciation for his contribution as a prose stylist. . . . You can see him working towards the later larger, more complete and ambitious works.”

Marion cites another early Kerouac work, a short piece entitled “A Play I Want to Write,” in which Kerouac pours out his ambitions: “I will write a play about life as life is and I will wait till it hits me in the face before I write it. Then I will rush to my typewriter and write it. So hold on to your seats. It will soon come and I feel terrifically exuberated right just now.”

Indeed it came, again and again throughout Kerouac’s lifetime. And now, readers have a chance to see the beginning of that journey. The Sea Is My Brother, a manuscript that has long been adrift in the sea of Kerouac’s writings, has finally come home to port.

Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor from Richmond, VA. Her work has also appeared in The Neworld Review and Pleasant Living Magazine.

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