Jack Kerouac : The Dharma Bums


The Dharma Bums has always been one of my favorite Kerouac books. What I loved from the first time I read it is the relaxed, peaceful and serene atmosphere described in most chapters, such as in the ones in which Ray (Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) are sitting in a cabin, talking and having dinner or tea or are out on the various hiking trips taking place throughout the book. The writing is lucid and concise, reflecting his state of mind during that period in his life. His descriptions of nature and the scenery of the various places in Marin County are lovely. To somebody like me, who is constantly (and so far unsuccessfully) trying to lead a more sedate and simple lifestyle influenced by nature, these chapters are exuding a strong fascination.

The question always springing to mind when I reflect on it, is ‘How would Kerouac’s life and career have developed, would he have followed the path begun during that time, and would have allowed Gary Snyder to have a bigger influence on his life?’ Kerouac himself asks the same question in chapter 8.

And what about Kerouac’s other friends? He had some, and he also had a family – I know they tried, but as much as he loved his mum and was fond of his sister, there often were disagreements about his lifestyle and a part can surely be attributed to his rebellion against their suburban lifestyle (which he actually led too, especially in the last years of his life) so I guess he didn’t really listen to them all too much.

But he probably didn’t follow the advice of people like Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti or John Cllelon Holmes either, to name only the ones that probably would have been in a position to exert some positive influence on his drinking and other self-destructing habits. Clearly the chances of getting help form people such as Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs (although he was at times quite reasonable, in others not so much) or Herbert Huncke in that respect was unlikely.

As hinted at in some of his other books (most notably Big Sur), the struggle in Kerouac between his alcohol-loving and self-destructive side and the one compelling him to seek the Bhikkhu-life, is at the forefront of the themes found in The Dharma Bums.  The writing is among his strongest of all his books, unlike some of the more surrealist writing in books such as Doctor Sax or parts of Visions of Cody and Desolation Angels.

For those of you that may not be familiar with The Dharma Bums, here’s a brief summary of the goings-on in the book.

The time is fall 1955, and the first chapter sees Ray hoboing up to San Francisco from Mexico, it’s a very good beginning of the book, with lots of the trademark experiences that made Kerouac’s books so endearing to me (and I assume a lot of other people) in the first place – the scent of adventure, being free and experiencing the USA. On a side note, in this and some of the other chapters and throughout his work, I admire Kerouac’s courage when he’s telling about hoboing and sleeping in the wild or among bums in Skid Row areas  – I certainly would never have the nerve to climb in a freight car and get a long good sleep in there as he does in one chapter. Sure, times are probably a bit more dangerous nowadays then in the 1940’s and ‘50’s but still. I even felt very, very uncomfortable wandering around Market Street in SF (but I’m a coward anyway).

After arriving in SF, the famous Six Gallery reading that introduced Allen Ginsberg (and others) to the literary world happens and is described in a chapter. A few days later Ray is seeking out Gary Snyder at his cabin in Berkeley for the first time and immediately gets enthralled by what he encounters there – the simplicity of Japhy’s living arrangement mainly, but also the yabyum sessions Japhy regularly holds in there with his various girlfriends.

Soon afterwards Ray and Japhy are on their way to Bridgeport in Sierra Nevada. They are accompanied by Morley (real-life John Montgomery), ‘the only mountain climber in the history of the world to forget to bring his sleeping bag’. Beginning the hike up Matterhorn Peak starts some of the best chapters in the book – here it’s the pure, natural life, in which Japhy feels very much at home and knows so much about, and to which Ray is drawn to as well. The long hike and climb gives both of them ample opportunity to talk, make up haiku/poems and feel invigorated and good about themselves, although Ray gets melancholic at one point and has ‘a broken heart’, seeing images of his dead father and other relatives when they are hiking through a forest. But he is soon back to enjoying himself  – in chapter 10 he declares the basic dinner Japhy prepares for them (Morley gets soon left behind and only accompanies them on part of the trip), to be the ‘most delicious supper of all time’ – sentences to the effect of how good he feels are numerous throughout the book – clearly a sign of how much of a good influence these surroundings had on Kerouac and how inspired he felt during the hike and in Ryder’s/Snyder’s company. Not making it to the top of Matterhorn Peak, Ray realizes ‘that it’s impossible to fall off mountains’. The chapter ending the description of the trip ends with the sentence ‘I felt very happy’.

After their return, the ‘Zen Lunatics’ with Ray, Japhy, Alvah Goldbook (Allen Ginsberg), Warren Coughlin (Philip Whalen) and others are having a mad party, and the chapter describing it is a chapter full of Kerouac’s trademark spontaneous prose – you can probably imagine what to expect. At the party though, Kerouac is also thinking about Japhy’s proposed ‘rucksack revolution’, an idea he very much endorses and that crops up repeatedly throughout the book.

The next chapter describes the lead-up to the suicide of Cody’s (Neal Cassady – here, atypically, only described casually as ‘my old buddy’) girlfriend Rosie (real-life Natalie Jackson). It’s very different in tone to most of the other chapter in the book, but I think it’s brilliantly told and affecting.

Afterwards, Ray travels down to see his family in Rocky Mount, NC where he spends the winter, and apart from a few minor altercations with his family, mainly about his Buddhism and sitting around meditating most of the time, has a peace and restful time. Ample space is given over to his thoughts and interior life in the chapters dealing with that rather uneventful winter, but they are therefore all the better in my opinion.

With winter over, Ray embarks on his return trip to California en route to taking up his summer job as a fire warden in upstate Washington. I quite like these chapters describing his journey up there a lot. They are, once again, full of beautiful descriptions of the hitchhiking and hoboing life, such as the one in which he spends a few days in spends in El Paso, TX, where he camps in an arroyo and, in typical fashion, has a little drug-filled adventure in Juarez on the side. When Ray returns to California he joins Japhy, who in the meantime is living in another cabin in Corte Madera, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Marin County with Sean Monaghan (real-life Locke McCorkle) and his family. There they resume their former routine, having a few little parties, but are mainly engaged in preparing for Japhy’s big farewell party as he’s supposed to leave for Japan in the next few days. The party is turning out to be a big, 3-day long affair, but neither Japhy nor Ray are enjoying themselves all that much, and Japhy wants to go on a last hiking trip with Ray, who is more than happy to join him. This time they go hiking in the backcountry of Corte Madera up Mt. Tamalpais and onwards down to the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach (Stimson Beach in the book). The trip turns out to be a long and tiring one, but both are glad to be doing it, although Ray is so exhausted after returning he exclaims ‘no more hikes for me forever’. On the trip Japhy (Gary Snyder) also mentions wanting to write his famous poem ‘Mountains And Rivers Without End’ on which he plans to work for 3000 years (he finished it eventually in 1996). With Ray too tired to wanting to do anything else then sleep, Japhy goes out to buy groceries and cooks them both a farewell dinner – it’s a lovely, if melancholic chapter.

With Japhy on the ship to Japan shortly afterwards, Ray makes his way up to Desolation Peak, to work as a fire-lookout for the summer, where the last few chapters are taking place. Interestingly, they are described somewhat different from how they are depicted in the other Kerouac book about this experiences on the mountain, Desolation Angels, here he kneels down and says ‘thank you shack’ upon leaving, whereas in Desolation Angels he is lonely, misses everybody and can’t wait to get down fast enough.

So, do you think Kerouac’s life could have taken a very different and better turn, would he have followed the path hinted at and discussed with Japhy? Imagine the amount and quality of the books he could have written without letting his alcoholism getting in the way of his writing. Not to mention the loss for his family and friends he left behind so early and in such a painful way. I especially have to think about his beloved mum, who survived both her children (Kerouac’s sister Caroline died even earlier than Jack, in 1964) and her husband Leo who died in 1946.

8 Responses to “Jack Kerouac : The Dharma Bums”
  1. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer says:

    Terrific blog and some great questions! I’ve done a fair amount of research wondering the same thing about Allen Ginsberg and his relationship with Gary Snyder (although, of course, Snyder did, arguably, have a much more profound influence on Ginsberg’s life than he did Kerouac’s — and Ginsberg lived much longer and healthier a life than Kerouac) — Snyder definitely seems to have been a turning point in one way or another for several of the Beats; if you want, my book and blog discuss some of this in greater detail: howlinghowl.wordpress.com & The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading — thanks for writing!

    • J Haeske says:

      Thank you Katherine for reading and taking the time to think about my questions. I guess Gary Snyder is an extremely interesting and inspiring person, so it’s no wonder he had that much of an influence and of course he know a lot about Buddhism. I just put your book on my Amazon wishlist – can’t buy that at the moment but I will hopefully be able to soon. J

  2. Unsungpoet says:

    The Dharma Bums has also always been my favorite of all Kerouac books I’ve read!! Who knows what kind of life he’d be living now?…I’ve wondered about that myself about him and other dead people I admire (such as Janis Joplin) He was definitely a conflicted soul but so very deep & diversified, such genuine understanding for the human condition. People change in huge and small ways all the time (not to mention the changing of the times which subtly change us all) however, I guess it was only his destiny to leave his legacy exactly the way it is–complex, escaping categorization and perfect in his imperfection!

    • J Haeske says:

      Thank you for your reply! Worth thinking about the point with his destiny, but I don’t really know yet if I believe in that or not, things could have gone so different, well, following your argument, probably not. J

  3. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer says:

    Reblogged this on Writing Reconsidered and commented:
    Check out this terrific review of and commentary on Jack Kerouac’s classic, The Dharma Bums. J Haeske’s blog, Retracing Jack Kerouac, is full of great material on the Beats and on Kerouac in particular. It’s definitely worth checking out for any Beat fan 🙂

  4. kainzow06 says:

    After reading some negative reviews on Amazon,I told myself that Kerouac’s books might not be the ones for me.
    Lately I stumbled upon a few bloggers lionizing ‘On The Road’; they highlighted how the book changed their lives and so on.Thereafter I was convinced to put ‘On The Road’ on my must-read list.
    But even at that time,I was still a bit sceptic about ‘The Dharma Bums’ ,especially because a reviewer once said ‘You learn nothing in this book.There is nothing but total chaos in it;there is no buddhism’.

    However,your post has been convincing enough,and I think I will buy the book in the Penguin Deluxe Edition (the same as in your post).

    Thanks for sharing! 😀

    • J Haeske says:

      Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been on a trip (not the drug kind, the other one), this makes me very glad that you chose to get this after reading my post. You will have to make up your own mind, but I personally have got no idea what that reviewer means. It’s certainly not that chaotic by Kerouac’s standards and there’s quite a lot of buddhism, or at least buddhism-influenced writing in there. Enjoy!

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  1. […] described in this post The Dharma Bums has always been a special book for me and it ranks right up there with On The Road […]

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