Saturday 16 December 2017

Jack Kerouac's lost novel

Jack Kerouac outside on New York's Bleecker Street, Oct. 15, 1958. Photo: AP
Jack Kerouac outside on New York's Bleecker Street, Oct. 15, 1958. Photo: AP

Jack Kerouac wrote the definitive Beatnik novel On the Road. The publication of a lost first novel 'The Sea is my Brother' shows where his obsession with travel began, says Nicholas Blincoe.

Jack Kerouac seemed to have sprung from nowhere with the publication of On the Road (1957), the definitive "beatnik" novel. Kerouac’s intensely romantic view of the itinerant life-style – the life of a "bum" – as a mystical quest caught the imagination of a generation. Yet Kerouac was already thirty-five by the time of his success, rather too old to be a youth icon.

He had, in fact, published his first novel in 1950 (The Town and the Country) and spent the next seven years failing to get another deal. On the Road, and almost all of his other novels, were produced during these years, a period of creativity and poverty that seemed to drain Kerouac entirely. He was dead within twelve years, having drunk himself to death while living, unhappily, with his third wife and his aging mother. His years of travelling ended in inertia and depression.

The publication of a lost first novel, written when Kerouac was only twenty, reveals how early his obsession with travel began. The Sea is my Brother is as much of a "road" novel as his classic work in that it is filled with garrulous men on the move Indeed, the best parts of what is, in truth, a sketch of a novel focus on hitch-hiking in Kerouac’s US north-east.

It is often said that there are no second acts in American life. Kerouac barely had a first act, but his belief that the truth and the spirit of America belongs to the hobo has proved seductive, over and over, in a country that is defined by its expansiveness.

This edition of The Sea is my Brother includes other pieces of juvenilia as well as the letters Kerouac exchanged with his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas, a relationship as intense and as important to Kerouac as his better-known relationship with Dean Cassidy, the hero of On the Road

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