Academia and/or Life Itself: Jack Kerouac’s The Sea is My Brother

The Sea is My Brother is referred to as Kerouac’s “lost novel”. As a huge fan of On the Road, it took me a while before I got to my second Kerouac novel, this time, the very first one he ever wrote.

The Sea is My Brother is a dialectic on the tensions between academia and life itself, two topics the novel presents as being at constant odds with each other. It was written from Kerouac’s own struggle between the two—he writes in the preface of his “soul-searching dilemma”: “I am wasting my money and my health here at Columbia… it’s been one huge debauchery. I hear of American and Russian victories and I insist on celebrating. In other words, I am more interested in the pith of our great times than in dissecting Romeo and Juliet… Don’t you want to travel to the Mediterranean ports, perhaps Algiers, to Morocco, Fez, the Persian Gulf…”.

When the novel opens, we follow the character of Wesley, a wandering vagabond of sorts, a travelling seaman. He is the quintessential, never-maturing 19th century American hero. He travels from city to city, stopping only for women and drink, then disappearing without warning. Wesley soon bumps into a group of peers, among which is Everhart. After which, the novel slowly transitions into presenting Everhart as the co-protagonist. Everhart is the intellectual, the academic. During a round of drinks with the group, Everhart is the only one really talking–he talks his head off, airing his views about various political, economical and historical issues while Wesley is silent, unable or unwilling to participate. Everhart prides himself on this identity, declaring, “Englishmen still prefer Shakespeare while the world reads Everhart!” By espousing his intellectual abilities as an academic, he positions himself as a relevant figure of authority. Certainly, as someone who has held a successful and comfortable position at Columbia for years, there is no reason for him to doubt this. Here, Kerouac acknowledges the merit in academia—it enables its protégés to discuss ideas boldly, to situate themselves confidently within wider conversations, knowing that what they say matters. Kerouac shows here what can be gained from investing sufficient time and energy in academia.

Things change, however, when Everhart spontaneously decides to take a sabbatical from his academic profession and join Wesley. He gets himself a job in the cafeteria of a ship, a huge change from his usual lifestyle. In this new setting, all the pomp of being an academic does not matter. When faced with “life itself”, all of Everhart’s intellect cannot save him from the fact that he is but a lost little boy in a big world, the whole time just hiding behind papers and fancy words. His first test comes when Wesley gets thrown in jail, and Everhart has to navigate life on the ship for the first few days alone: he is terrified. Throughout those few days, he struggles constantly between wanting to go back to New York and continuing his cozy, contained life in New York. His urge to do so prompts him to contemplate his life as an academic, and how much his career path thus far has really served him: “Everhart began to realise why life had seemed to senseless, so fraught with fully lack of real purpose in New York, in the haste and oration of his teaching days—he has never paused to take hold of everything”. All the words so easily spouted earlier are revealed for what they are: simply words; a cushion against having to experience, or rather deal with, life itself. “A few shocks from the erratic fuse box of life, and Everhart had thrown up his hands and turned to a life of academic isolation. Yet in his academic isolation, wasn’t there sufficient indication that all things pass and turn to dust?” Here, Kerouac suggests that academia, for all its merit, is but a coping mechanism and a protection against life. This criticism is taken further then Everhart discusses fascism with a fellow shipmate. Everhart boasts of having written papers about the topic. He discovers, however, that the latter has actually physically fought them. This deeply triggers Everhart, who is thrown into tumult over whether he is an actual anti-fascist, if the only thing he has done to express that stance is write about it. He also struggles with being able to properly make friends on the ship and with holding his own when it comes to meeting and impressing people to whom academia is but a wordy non-necessity. For all his education, he is at a loss when it comes to these simple and basic human necessities.

The novel, or 158-page novella, ends just as the ship sets sail. The purpose of this text, therefore, seems to be to reveal the tensions between academia and “the pith of life”: is academia actually living? Or is it just an extremely well-worded excuse for living—a way to avoid struggling with life itself while boasting about the struggle with endless papers about life? Everhart is king of the classroom, but is reduced to someone who has but empty, impressive-sounding views on things that don’t matter when it comes to dealing with the difficulties of managing peace on a long voyage, or being face-to-face with life in all its mundane grittiness.

The Sea is My Brother still pays homage to American literary tradition, albeit in an off-handed, unflattering and ambiguous way. The voyage to sea is a clear nod to Moby Dick. Yet, in the one direct reference to it, the character who recommended the book is unnamed and is casually reported to have died. The reference ends there.

Wesley, the vagabond closely acquainted with life and supposedly the foil to the folly of academia, is increasingly revealed to be shallow, uncaring and irresponsible. In the few instances where he can be redeemed, such as when he gazes nostalgically out to sea in an exquisitely described setting, it turns out that he is there having lost all his money on women and booze. When his backstory with his wife is revealed, it is anything but redeeming: it is typical, ugly and reeks of his tendency to run from any sort of responsibility and ignore the humanity required in human relationships. Ironically, the character chosen to act as a foil to Everhart’s revelations about academia is a Rip Van Winkle type, with not much past, future or substance to boast about.

The novel is taut with the tension between academia and its supposed alternative, life itself. It asks questions about the necessity of academic institutions, questions those actually in them would rather avoid in their frenzy to publish ever more papers and clock more research hours in the attempt to get tenures and the possibility of having their voices heard in their respective already overcrowded fields. It is thought-provoking albeit circular and an honest look at what academia really is and offers.

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