Dharma Bums, The

by Jack Kerouac
(1958)
   Ann Charters says that the autumn of 1955, which jack kerouac spent in Berkeley, California, was probably “the three happiest months of his life.” This is the time period and the setting for Kerouac’s follow-up novel to on tHe roadThe Dharma Bums. Staying with allen ginsberg in his Berkeley cottage, Kerouac met many of the poets and artists of the emerging San Francisco Renaissance. He climbed mountains with gary snyder and passed around a jug of wine and yelled “Go!” as Ginsberg read the famous opening section of “howl” at the seminal Six Gallery Reading on October 7, 1955. Most importantly, Kerouac found a group of like-minded poets who were deeply into Buddhism, including Snyder and philip whalen. Snyder gave Kerouac the phrase that became the book’s title, dharma meaning “the path” or “the law” or “the practice,” and the word bums referring to the antimaterialism and humility of the followers of Buddha. In a more obvious sense, Henry Miller understood the title exactly when he said of the book, “We’ve had all kinds of bums in our literature but never a dharma bum like this Kerouac.” In typical fashion, Kerouac wrote the novel in 10 marathon sessions, fueled by Benzedrine. Today it is one of Kerouac’s most popular novels, and in the 1960s and 1970s it was a Bible for the “rucksack revolution” of the hippies. However, the book has been maligned as a quick cash-in on the success of On The Road. Oddly, the accusation that it was a “potboiler” was first made by Ginsberg, who hoped that Kerouac would not abandon his “spontaneous” style for the more accessible style of The Dharma Bums. When the book was viciously attacked in the press (Time magazine’s critic suggested the title be changed to “On the Trail: How the Campfire Boys Discovered Buddhism”), though, it was Ginsberg who brilliantly defended the book in the Village Voice, placing Kerouac’s style in the “plain-language” tradition of William Carlos Williams and likening its achievement to that of the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jean Genet. Today it seems apparent that Kerouac sacrificed some of his “spontaneous” methods to achieve a more noble goal—that of introducing young America to an alternative spiritual path in life. The hero of the novel, Japhy Ryder, is based on poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder. It is unclear how willing a role model Snyder was for the book. By the time it appeared, Snyder must have been aware that Kerouac’s previous hero, neal cassady (as Dean Moriarity in On the Road) was serving five years to life for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. In letters, Kerouac explained to Snyder the care he had taken to alter the facts about Snyder’s life to protect his anonymity. When the book appeared, Snyder was apparently thrilled, as were key popularizers of Buddhism such as Alan Watts, who even revised his lukewarm opinion of “Beat Zen” in his 1958 article “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen.” A few months after the book’s release, Kerouac sensed a silence from Snyder and wrote to him in Japan. Snyder replied that he “liked” the book but did not think that Kerouac understood Buddhism because of Kerouac’s strictures against love and sex: “Nobody ever said anything against love or entanglement but you.” The rest of Snyder’s response—in which Snyder jokes that all authors will have their “tongues torn out in hell”—is often quoted out of context to suggest a real enmity toward Kerouac. Kerouac replied that the book was not “as bad as you think” and that it was “just so fucking typical of what’s wrong with official Buddhism” that Snyder would criticize it. In the jacket copy Kerouac wrote for Viking, he stressed that the book should not be associated with the “beat” movement and that the Buddhism of the book represented “an exciting new way of life in the midst of modern despair.” He was very serious and hoped that the lifestyle that he depicted through these dharma bums would provide a model for young people and would eventually create a revolution in consciousness that would lead to a better world—the one common goal of all the Beat writers, it could be argued. However, by distancing himself from the Beats and by refusing to repeat himself in style or content, Kerouac frustrated a publishing industry that was ready to exploit his art for easy profit. Unlike On the Road, The Dharma Bums never made it onto the New York Times best-seller list.
   Ray Smith (based on Kerouac himself) narrates the story, which begins in Los Angeles in September 1955. Smith looks back on the events of the past few years, but the perspective is of someone who has grown more than the short number of intervening years would suggest. “I was very devout in those days,” he says, a practicing Buddhist dedicated to becoming “an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world.” He calls himself a dharma bum, meaning a religious wanderer, a phrase he later attributes to Japhy Ryder, the greatest dharma bum of all. Ray jumps a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco (“the Midnight Ghost”) and meets a little bum who shares a cold night with him and says a prayer by Saint Teresa. He, too, is a dharma bum, says Ray. At Santa Barbara, he leaves the Midnight Ghost and camps on the beaches, spending “one of the most pleasant nights” of his life camping, cooking out, and star watching. The book appears to contain descriptions of many of the happiest and most pleasant experiences in Kerouac’s life.
   Ray soon introduces the reader to Japhy Ryder, who was raised in a log cabin in Oregon and whose interest in Native American myth later led him to study anthropology. He specialized in Oriental religion and “discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen lunatics of China and Japan.” In a conversation with Ryder, Smith makes an important distinction about his own particular brand of Buddhism: Zen Buddhism, he maintains, is “mean,” with children being punished for not answering their master’s riddles; “old-fashioned” Buddhism emphasizes compassion, he says. Such sentiments are in part why Watts later revised his opinion on Beat Zen as angry. Smith arrives in San Francisco and Berkeley on the eve of the Six Gallery Reading. To get there, he hitches a ride with a blonde wearing a bathing suit and driving a convertible (see the title story of Kerouac’s Good Blonde). Smith takes up a collection to buy wine for the reading and sets the tone by yelling “Go” and drinking deeply. The readers include Alvah Goldbook (Allen Ginsberg), Ike O’Shay (michael mcclure), Warren Coughlin (philip whalen), Francis DaPavia (philip lamantia), and Ryder. Rheinhold Cacoethes (kenneth rexroth) is the master of ceremonies. Surprisingly, Smith does not find Goldbook’s reading extraordinary (though most accounts of the actual reading emphasize how Ginsberg stole the show). Smith likes the poetry of Ryder the best (Snyder read “A Berry Feast,” among other poems) because there was something “earnest and strong and humanly hopeful” about Ryder’s work, compared to the cynicism and daintiness of the other poets’ works.
   Smith moves with Goldbook into a Berkeley cottage. He visits Ryder’s “shack” about a mile away, up in the hills, and finds him translating the “cold mountain” poems of Han Shan (The Dharma Bums is dedicated to Han Shan, whose works Snyder translated). Han Shan is a 12th-century Chinese poet who, in Ryder’s words, “got sick of the city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains.” Han Shan becomes the model for the dharma bums. The book becomes a kind of how-to manual on dropping out of society and living a free lifestyle in the dharma-bum way. In fact, much of the book seems more or less calculated to provide a very seductive model of such an alternative lifestyle. Goldbrook and Smith see in Ryder “a great new hero of American culture,” much in the same way that Kerouac had already created a hero out of Cassady in On the Road. Ryder tells Smith, and by extension a whole generation of eager youth, “You know when I was a little kid in Oregon I didn’t feel that I was an American at all, with all that suburban ideal and sex repression and general dreary newspaper gray censorship of all our real human values.” Buddhism fills this void of meaning in his life. Ryder is a mountain climber, a poet, a visionary, and a scholar. He is also a legendary lover and introduces Smith to an oriental style orgy, which he calls “yabyum” sex, with a partner they all share named Psyche (identified in letters as a woman named Neuri).
   Famously, Kerouac describes a mountainclimbing trip he took with Snyder and a Berkeley librarian named John Montgomery (Henry Morley here). They scale a peak in the Sierras called the Matterhorn (40 years later Snyder returned there, and his picture atop the peak is on the front of the Gary Snyder Reader). This episode is among Kerouac’s funniest pieces of writing. Morley forgets his sleeping bag (a key error in the high-altitude coldness) and forgets to drain the car radiator to prevent it from freezing; he carries on a non-sequitur monologue that only Ryder and Smith can understand-just barely. Most of the men whom they see in the mountains are deer hunters, and they believe that Morley, Ryder, and Smith are lunatics for wanting to climb the sheer face of the Matterhorn rather than to hunt and drink. The humor thus makes the point that such simple acts arouse suspicion and derision in a world that values only violence and commerce.
   Smith and Ryder learn from each other in this section. Smith learns how to climb without exhausting himself by watching Ryder leaping like a mountain goat. He also learns basic lessons about ecology (Snyder was an early, prescient environmentalist) and how to write a haiku. From Smith, Ryder says he has learned how to write “spontaneously,” and years later Snyder would say of Kerouac that his spontaneous prose style was particularly adaptable to the writing of haikus, allowing Kerouac to write great haiku poetry without having to practice it for years. Similarly, robert creeley credited Kerouac with freeing him from poetic conventions through the practice of spontaneous writing. Ryder also says that Smith has awakened him to the “true” language of Americans—“which is the language of the working men, railroad men, loggers.” Smith’s most profound lesson from Ryder takes place during their frantic and exhausting final ascent of the last 1,000 feet of the mountain. Smith says, “I had really learned that you can’t fall off a mountain.”
   This mountain climb is arguably the most famous in American literature and also contains some of the best outdoor and nature writing by an American author. Few writers have captured the experience of hiking and camping with more zest and freshness than Kerouac. The tea that they brew on a high ledge is the “best” that he has ever had; the simple meal and pudding afterward makes the “best” meal that he has ever had. When they finally make it back down the mountain and reenter civilization, the breakfast that they eat is beyond compare as well. The final descent of the mountain captures the alternating moods of joy and peace and fear and exhaustion on their long hard climb and hike. At the bottom, Smith feels “happy,” a word seldom typed by Kerouac. Keith Jennison, Kerouac’s editor at Viking, said that the book made him “cry,” and it may well have been during these powerful, moving, and funny chapters.
   Back from their mountain climb, Japhy and Ray meet up with Coughlin and Goldbook, drink a lot of wine, and plot what they call the “rucksack revolution.” As Japhy explains, “[S]ee the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway. . . . I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks. . . .” Japhy’s vision has been justifiably cited as a forecast of the hippie movement of the 1960s, and although it is difficult to know the degree to which this book was responsible for the countercultural movement of the 1960s, it is undeniable that there is a link. Interestingly, the key member of the group here who would become a 1960s guru—Goldbook (Ginsberg)—says “balls on that old tired Dharma.” Ginsberg had not yet become a practicing Buddhist.
   As a contrast to the idealism of the “rucksack revolution,” Kerouac tells the story of the suicide of Rosie (Natalie Jackson), Cody Pomeray’s (Neal Cassady) girlfriend. Her vision of the future, also frighteningly accurate, is of a police state, and in her paranoia to escape from the police, she first tries to slit her wrists with broken glass and then jumps from a ledge to her death. Jackson’s suicide provides a good example of how much Kerouac fictionalized reality: In reality, Jackson had killed herself out of despair over having defrauded carolyn cassady of thousands of dollars to finance Neal’s horse-racing and gambling habit.
   After Rosie’s suicide—which in real-life was a reminder to the West Coast poets of how dangerous the East Coast “Beat” life could be—Smith needs to leave the dharma bums scene and return to his sister’s home in North Carolina. He and Ryder listen to an African-American woman preaching Christianity from the street corner, and Ryder challenges Smith’s love for Jesus. They part friends, though, and Smith jumps on board the Midnight Ghost back to Los Angeles. This trip is also described in a poem that Kerouac sent in a letter to Snyder. Outside of Los Angeles, Smith camps in the river bottom in Riverside, just beyond the burning smog of the city. A truck driver named Beaudry picks him up and takes him all the way to Springfield, Ohio. Beaudry sees Smith’s dharma-bum way of living and is convinced that his ideas are simple and sound, even if he himself cannot practice them. Later, Smith will write to Coughlin that he believes that their revolution really is spreading because of incidents such as this with Beaudry. Still, Smith is hardly a proselytizer of the revolution, wishing instead to step “around” it. When he arrives at his sister’s doorstep in North Carolina, he spies on his family through the window and concludes, “People have good hearts whether or not they live like Dharma Bums.” With his family in North Carolina—his sister, his mother, and his brother-in-law—he enjoys watching midnight Mass on television and reading from Saint Paul. He finds the disciple’s words “more beautiful than all the poetry readings of all the San Francisco Renaissances of Time.” Still, his daily meditation and dedication to doing nothing concerns his family and the neighbors, who wonder what he is up to. Tension is created between Kerouac’s Buddhist belief in life as illusion and the sadness of “trying to deny what was.” Here Kerouac’s genius for writing about levels of consciousness is showcased. The section on North Carolina ends with Smith having a profound vision of Dipankara Buddha (who looks like John L. Lewis, connecting him to Ryder) in which he learns the truth that “Everything’s all right. . . . Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” After this revelation, he finds himself able to enter a deep trance state that gives him the power to heal his mother’s allergy attacks. Smith backs away from such powers, not willing to shoulder the responsibility that they bring and also mindful of the prideful thoughts that the power instills in him.
   Smith decides that it is time to return to the West Coast to prepare for his summer as a fire lookout in the Cascades. He leaves North Carolina and hitches through the South and through Texas. In the mountains outside El Paso, he camps, and after a rowdy but unfulfilling night in Juarez, he returns to his campsite and realizes that “I had indeed learned from Japhy how to cast off the evils of the world . . . just as long as I had a decent pack on my back.” A tall-tale-telling Texan gives him a ride all the way to Los Angeles; once again, a ride stolen on the “Midnight Ghost” takes him into Northern California.
   Smith says, “If the Dharma Bums ever get lay brothers in America who live normal lives with wives and children and homes, they will be like Sean Monahan.” The Monahans (Locke and Linda McCorkle) live in a communal style and have very simple needs. Christine “was an expert on making food out of nothing,” and their two daughters are “brought up to take care of themselves.” Sean works as a carpenter only when he needs to, and the rest of the time meditates and studies Buddhism. Their communal style of living is the prototype of 1960s communes throughout the country. Ryder lives in a small hermitage on a hillside above the Monahan’s house. Smith rejoins him there, and a change seems to have taken place in Ryder: He says that he “ain’t happy little sage no mo and I’m tired.” When Smith tries to tell him about his meditations in the Carolina woods, Ryder says it is all “just words,” an attack that is essentially a questioning of Smith’s writing career. The next day, however, Smith’s enthusiasm has recharged Ryder, and he is back to normal. Living together again, it is clear that Smith’s Buddhism is not Ryder’s Buddhism, that they are “dissimilar monks on the same path.” Smith practices “donothing,” whereas Ryder’s Buddhism is active. They also disagree on sex, which Ryder is much more open about than Smith. Smith believes that sex is strongly connected to death, a position that Kerouac maintains in his letters to Snyder throughout the 1960s and that is the basis of their fundamental disagreement over Buddhist practice. They also fight over Smith’s heavy drinking, but this issue is resolved when Ryder goes to a Buddhist lecture and everyone becomes happily drunk on sake. “You were right!” says Ryder. In reality, it was Kerouac’s drinking that ultimately separated him from the West Coast Buddhists, and their attempts to help him stop drinking were unsuccessful.
   Ryder is due to leave for a year’s study in Japan, and his friends throw him a farewell party that goes on for days. Many of the San Francisco literati attend. Cacoethes holds forth with opinions on America’s greatest living poets, who include himself and Ryder but not Smith: “He’s too drrronk all the time.” Arthur Whane (Alan Watts) tells Smith that Buddhism “is getting to know as many people as possible.” Smith is amused to see Goldbook and George (Peter Orlovsky) standing naked and having a conversation with Whane and Cacoethes, both in suit and tie.
   Ryder and Smith abandon the endless party to hike one last time together in the hills above Marin. They share their future dreams, and Ryder tells Smith that his lifework will be a poem entitled “Rivers and Mountains Without End,” a book that Snyder finally published in 1996. Ryder/Snyder also followed through on his vision of having a “fine free-wheeling tribe in these California hills.” He also accurately predicts that Smith/Kerouac will ultimately abandon Buddhism and will be “kissing the cross” on his deathbed. Both believe in the “rucksack revolution” to come, but it is clear that Smith enjoys the vision more than the reality and is not a joiner. In many ways, these future visions of society are in line with earlier “visions” written about by Kerouac, such as Lucien Carr’s Yeats-inspired vision, or Sammy Sampas’s ideal of the “Brotherhood of Man.” Kerouac finds himself drawn to such visionaries but realizes that he is ultimately an outsider to all movements. Smith and Ryder return to the Monahan’s cabin, and Ryder goes to the store to buy the exhausted Smith a Hershey’s bar, one final act of kindness. Smith sees off Ryder at the boat, and Ryder’s last act in America is, literally, to throw Psyche off the boat into the arms of her friends.
   With Ryder departed, Smith hitchhikes north into Oregon and Washington and takes up his post as firewatcher on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains. Readers interested in reading Snyder’s parallel experiences at this time can see his journal entries on his Japan Trip in 1956 in The Gary Snyder Reader. Although the two are separated by an ocean, Smith finds himself seeing the Cascades through Ryder’s eyes. In fact, he almost learns more about him in his absence than he did in his presence. Slowly, Smith makes the experience his own. Kerouac’s descriptions of the setting here are among the greatest nature writings in American literature. He understands now the true beauty of Han Shan’s “cold mountain” poems. In his diary, he writes “Oh I am happy!” as if it is a great surprise to him that he could be happy. The book ends with two visions. The first occurs during deep meditation when Avolokitesvara, the Hearer and Answerer of Prayers, tells Smith, “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.” He sees a shooting star as verification and looks at the “innumerable worlds” in the Milky Way and pronounces these worlds as “words.” The vision thus reinforces his faith in his personal quest as a writer. The second vision is that of a little old bum whom Smith recognizes as Ryder, and he thanks Ryder aloud for having guided him “to the place where I learned all.” “The vision of the freedom of eternity was mine forever,” he says. Kerouac’s experiences in the Cascades are covered at greater length in desolation anGels and are depicted as much darker than he allows himself to reveal at the end of this upbeat novel. Here, Kerouac concentrates on the influence that Gary Snyder has had on his life and the great debt he owes to this American hero.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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