Publishers Marketplace reports that Harpers has agreed to publish “The Sea is My Brother,” a “lost” novel by Jack Kerouac, written in 1942 and based on his experiences in the Merchant Marine. According to the book “Desolate Angel” by Dennis McNally, Kerouac wrote the work while on the SS Dorchester, where he served in the galley.
The biography Jack Kerouac by Michael Dittman, which describes Kerouac’s somewhat rocky service in the merchant fleet, quotes Kerouac as describing The Sea is My Brother as being about “man’s simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies. Wesley Martin loved the sea with a strange, lonely love; the sea is his brother and sentences. He goes down. The story also of another man, in contrast, who escapes society for the sea, but finds the sea a place of terrible loneliness.” If it sounds familiar to fans of Kerouac, Atop an Underwood, the 1999 compendium of Kerouac’s early and unpublished writings contained “a substantial chunk of the third version of The Sea is My Brother,” according to the Kerouac fansite Jack Magazine.
The news, and the photo of Kerouac wearing a naval cap, made me think of other sea-going novelists. Start with Thomas Pynchon, who served in the Navy, as one of his few publicly published photos attests, and go on to Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, neither of which really served aboard ship but who both used the sea as settings for several books and stories.
Then there’s Herman Melville, whose service as a cabin boy and later as a crew member aboard a whaler informed “Billy Budd” and “Moby Dick,” and Joseph Conrad, whose adventures aboard merchant ships were turned into “Nostromo” and “The Nigger of the Narcissus;” and of course Heart of Darkness wouldn’t be the same without the journey upriver, based on Conrad’s own experiences as a boat captain on the Congo. And though his work isn’t highly regarded by academics, The Caine Mutiny by naval officer Herman Wouk is an engaging, well put-together piece of fiction. Several others, including William Brinkley, also wrote memorably about the Navy in World War II.
I also have to include a few notable others — shipwrecked writers. There’s Stephen Crane (The Open Boat) and John F. Kennedy (PT-109). And perhaps the most influential shipwrecked writer of all: St. Paul, who survived two.