- Becoming Kerouac
A paradox of the canonization of a recent author is that, as more and more of what he or she wrote ends up in print, doubts about his or her worthiness for canonization start to pile up. This is especially the case with an author like Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whose novels were praised in their time by some critics as art that defined a generation but dismissed by others as the worst writing ever to land on a bookshelf. The recent publication of The Sea Is My Brother, which Kerouac wrote in the spring of 1943 at around the age of twenty-one, could easily provide his perennial detractors with more evidence (Kerouac himself later called it "a crock as literature"). And those who appreciate him, finding in this book little of the craft and vitality of all the works that appeared in his lifetime, might be tempted to grant a concession to the detractors, especially if they remember him as an author to whom they were drawn during their own period of bohemian indulgence. But what this beginner's novel might rather offer is an extended look at Kerouac's vocation as a writer—during which he needed to learn the skills of writing, at the outset botching plot and character through obvious and awkwardly executed contrivances. Hence it might help free his work from the expectations imposed on it by his categorization as a Beat author, as though he were predestined to this niche. That is, the quite ordinary struggles of his early work might illuminate the development of his later "spontaneous prose" as the outcome of an apprenticeship, foregrounding the value of his mature writing as an extraordinary combination of realism and expressionism rather than the random musings of a wasted hipster.
The most striking aspect of the prose of The Sea Is My Brother, which Kerouac meant as reminiscent of Melville, is its constant display of overwriting. We witness the young author grab at adjectives and adverbs, avoid redundancy in dialogue sequences with all manner of inappropriate substitutes for the word "said," and move characters from one page to the next through the force of caricature. However, in these very procedures we also see him obsessively striving to reach a precision and passion of description. Passages like the following, from the point of view of the second protagonist, Bill Everhart, show not only Kerouac's nearly desperate efforts to nail down a description but also his overreach in providing his characters with a troubled and conflicted substance: "He had studied hard and proved a brilliant student. But the restlessness which had festered in his loquacious being through the years as assistant professor in English, a vague prod in the course of his somehow sensationless and self-satisfied days, now came to him in a rush of accusal." For its cumbersome phonic repetitiveness alone, the phrase "restlessness which had festered in his loquacious being" merits an honored place in a database of exemplarily bad word choices. The entire passage mainly communicates to readers that Kerouac, too, was once a novice in creative writing. But it also gives a glimpse of the elaborate sentences he soon thereafter began constructing, with their heavy yet nuanced dependence on modifiers: these became the rhapsodic, lyrical realism of The Town and the City (1950), capable of communicating both filth and joy, the minute details of life in a smaller and a larger city, and the inevitable effects of civilization and industry. This style continued its evolution into the prose artistry, some of the finest in the history of the English language, by which Kerouac made contact, in On the Road (1957) and subsequent works, with the American vastness that he sublimely termed the "ragged promised land."
The Sea Is My Brother already shows Kerouac's fascination with this vastness, with the road that was to him both the quest for an unknown home and the place of exile, a space with spiritual and metaphysical dimensions. Since the...