The Lost Novel: On Kerouac's "The Sea Is My Brother"

By Merve EmreMay 17, 2012

The Sea is My Brother by Jack Kerouac

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER BOOK overhyped by publishers as "the lost novel" of some long dead literary genius. This time, the dead genius in question is Beat writer Jack Kerouac, whose tale of a disgruntled Columbia University lecturer turned Merchant Marine, The Sea is My Brother, had fans, reviewers, and the marketing gurus over at Penguin and Da Capo alike beside themselves with anticipation. Never mind that in 1968 Kerouac dismissed The Sea is My Brother as "a crock," a "dreary attempt at Naturalism" that he vowed never to publish lest he embarrass himself. Never mind that this self-assessment is a pretty accurate description of the 145 pages in which Kerouac's nerdy protagonist, Bill Everhart, communicates his experience of the high seas through a string of eager epiphanies like, "By George! — he was learning more than he ever had in any class," and, "By George, the word has to be tolerance!" (In case you were wondering, "By George!" appears exactly five times in six consecutive pages.) Yes, there are flashes of Kerouac's more mature style throughout, and yes, there are some nice turns of phrase regarding the sunset and the ocean towards the end, but these moments are drowned out by Everhart's tortuous monologues on the state of American literature, socialism, and the Brotherhood of the Sea. To say that it's a bad book is not so accurate as to say that it's a boring book, all proclamation and no plot, sluggish and undramatic and too brainy for its own good.

But from the flurry of reviews that have surfaced in the weeks since The Sea Is My Brother was published, it's clear that no one really cares about young Kerouac's stylistic indiscretions. Quite the opposite: the novel's lack of aesthetic refinement has emerged as its strongest selling point for critics. Without pretending to anything resembling "craft" — that painstaking practice of working and reworking prose into a more technically perfect form — the primordial scribblings preserved in The Sea is My Brother offer us the fantasy of an unmediated encounter with a long lost historical presence. That presence is Kerouac himself, resurrected by his clunky, yet virginal, sentences as a man, a person, and a mind — what Paul Giles described in The Guardian as his "éminence grise aspect." Stilted prose be damned, Kerouac emerges as blood, flesh and bones, an embodied and conscious figure writ larger than life — larger than death, really — by his unwriterly conduct. In his unedited form, he's honest, he's pure, he's vulnerable. He's like, real, man.

Writing that is so untainted by labor and so untouched by technique doesn't have to be good to justify its presence in the world. It's enough that it's there. The lost novel's specter of authenticity is secured by the absence of artifice: raw thoughts and feelings are transposed into raw prose, and both are offered up to readers in an unapologetic display of aesthetic badness that is revered for its true-to-life content. It is this perverse but seductive evacuation of style that Sherwood Anderson allegorizes in his short story "The Lost Novel," the parable of a commercially successful writer who tries to mime the intensity of his love-hate relationship with his estranged wife in a novel. After months of combating his writer's block, he one day pours his heart out onto the page in an intense session of "automatic writing," only to wake up the next morning to find nothing but blank sheets of paper where his novel once was. This, the writer jokes, is the romantic essence of the lost novel: "what is to be the book builds itself up and is destroyed" in the process of reading it. The crude markings on the page are worn away by the ever-present aura of pain, longing, sorrow, regret, nostalgia, and other such genuine emotions, so that all that's left is intensity. 

These days, genuine emotion comes with a hefty price tag — $40 plus tax plus shipping and handling if, like me, you ordered Penguin's UK version of The Sea is My Brother before its U.S. release by Da Capo — but the experience is supposed to be worth it. At least, that's the line that publishers and editors have been feeding waning reading publics for the past decade or so, a boom period for the discarded drafts and aspirational scraps that have surfaced in the personal archives of the dead under the moniker "the lost novel." Unlike Anderson's metaphysical fable, in the publishing world there's no such thing as a truly "lost" novel. Any book worthy of the name has been found, published, and publicized with a degree of zeal otherwise most often reserved for celebrity tell-alls and the smutty chronicles of the undead. From Kerouac and William Burroughs's co-authored And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks to Truman Capote's Summer Crossing, Roberto Bolaño's The Third Reich, Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, and Jose Saramago's Claraboya, the "lost novel" appears again and again as both a contradiction in terms and a masterful publicity stunt. It replaces the labor of writing a good novel with the labor of marketing what is, more often than not, a bad one. Cast in the dreary light of publishing economics, this trade-off makes a good deal of sense. Names like "Kerouac," "Bolaño," and "Nabokov" are in no small part brand names and, as with any contemporary commodity, publishers can count on the overwhelming tug of brand loyalty to drive readers to buy even the most unredeemable dross. As far as publishing and marketing strategy goes, branded badness makes for a pretty safe bet.

In the case of The Sea is My Brother, what you buy is not just a stand-alone narrative or an emotional encounter, but also a vast collection of textual and photographic ephemera, a catalogue of a life lived in pursuit of a good story assembled by editor Dawn M. Ward with help from John Sampas, Kerouac's brother-in-law and the executor of his estate. As Ward told me in an interview, the manuscript itself was beautifully and carefully preserved by Kerouac until his death, and her presentation of it never skimps on the aesthetics of the book as a collectible object. From the imitation notebook paper of the cover to Kerouac's passport photos, Merchant Marine discharge certificates, poems, and letters to his Lowell friend Sebastian Sampas slotted in along the way, the fantasy of a direct encounter with the dead genius is encouraged by a heightened sense of material access — that the lined pages you turn were once touched by his hands, that his handling of these well-worn photographs once sparked the creative impulse whose issue is sprawled across the accompanying pages. Equipped with the raw materials of the artist, those of us with demiurgic tendencies can imagine ourselves as the artist, or at least as a very intimate participant in his moment of creation. (Alternatively, the academics among us can do their New Historical detective work without ever setting foot in the physical archive. Everyone wins.) This fantasy of participation is what an irate William Deresiewicz failed to appreciate in his 2010 review of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, when he called the perforated replicas of Nabokov's index cards "distractions" from the patchy text. They were, in fact, the main attraction. By shuffling Nabokov's index cards, rearranging his narrative, and toying with his word choices, they could access a process of literary production lost in the workings and reworkings of the ideal, finished object.  

Sadly, and for reasons unknown to Ward, the U.S. edition of The Sea is My Brother excludes all the archival goodies that makes the U.K. edition worthwhile, leaving only the story of Bill Everhart and his hard-drinking buddy Wesley Martin, the id to Bill's Columbia trained super-ego. Like Dean and Sal of On the Road, or Ray and Japhy of The Dharma Bums, Bill and Wesley's journey up the Northeast coast and into the recruiting offices of the Merchant Marines stages the same fantasy of unmediated experience and literary production that the lost novel does. Just as the genre of the lost novel depends on eluding hyper-refined prose, Bill wants to escape "the keen sense of distinction and taste which went with social life within academic circles." And just as Melville's Ishmael tells us that the whale ship was "my Yale College and my Harvard," for Kerouac a proper education means trading in the clannish meta-language of academic criticism for what he perceives as a more direct encounter with literature. Uncouth Wesley becomes the mouthpiece through which Kerouac ventriloquizes his critique of Bill's university training, and there is something immensely appealing in Wesley's confession that the only book he's ever read is Moby-Dick. "I read it real slow," he claims, "about five pages a night." Here, the languid pace of reading, slow enough to give any teacher cause for concern, stands in for practices of attention and absorption that escape both Bill's scholarly peacocking and his classroom pedagogy. "I'm not a happy man," Bill laments, "but I know what I'm doing. I know what I know when it comes to John Donne and the Bard; I can tell my classes what they mean." Reading for meaning — and teaching students how to read well-crafted poetry for meaning — stands as an inferior form of literacy to Wesley's meditative intake of Melville, which allows him to embody Melville's forms of intimacy, fraternity, and labor in his own career as a Merchant Marine. If the old adage is true, and those who can't do teach, then Kerouac's novel is a hesitant gesture to what words can and ought to do, separate from what the university teaches us that they ought to mean. For Ward, this is Kerouac's way of coming to term with his blue-collar roots. For us, it's an alternative form of schooling.

Setting style aside, then, there's a certain sociological value to The Sea is My Brother and the way our expectations of it as a "lost novel" reproduce Kerouac's stand against the university and its exclusionary practices of reading and writing and teaching. In his diatribe against the "distinction and taste" of academic circles, Bill sounds, to me, weirdly like a precursor to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who, some forty years after The Sea is My Brother was written, published his analysis of the French higher education system, Homo Academicus. Like Bill, Bourdieu vows to break with the "inside experience" of the university only to reconstitute "the knowledge which has been obtained by means of this break," giving us a true outsider's point of view on academic conventions. But also like Bill, Bourdieu's notion of a clean break largely proves illusory. After all, discursive habits die hard, and neither Bourdieu nor Bill can totally reverse the processes of socialization that place them firmly in the university. Stuck with the Merchant Marines, Bill is depressed by the uncritical naïveté of the sailors around him, breathing easy only in the company of another renegade Ivy Leaguer. "At least," he concludes on a very uncool note, "he had one friend to whom he could talk to, a polite, cultured youth fresh from Yale."


LARB Contributor

Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Ferrante Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday: New York, 2018), which was selected as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times, the Economist, NPR, CBC, and the Spectator. She is the editor of Once and Future Feminist (Cambridge: MIT, 2018) and a centennial edition of Mrs. Dalloway, forthcoming from Liveright.


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