Kerouac: The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums

Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac (1922 – 1969), an American novelist and poet, is considered to be a pioneer of the Beat Generation, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous prose. He wrote semi-autobiographical novels which were based upon the actual events he experienced and about the people he knew.

He was covering the topics such as spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, nature, bohemian life and travel. His lifestyle became an inspiration of the hippie movement. Other of his famous works include On the Road, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Lonesome Traveler, The Sea is My Brother and Big Sur.

The Dharma Bums

The autobiographical book describes events of 1955. The aspiring poet Ray Smith (the book version of Kerouac) spends time wandering up and down the California coast and across the American continent.

He spends much of the travels in the company of the Zen Buddhist poet Japhy Ryder (the book version of the poet Gary Snyder) who abandons the civilization and heads into the highest reaches of the Sierra Nevada.

Snyder, Orlovsky, GinsbergGary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg in India (1962)

They share the vision of a rucksack revolution in which the young people, inspired by the Buddhist philosophy, would walk and hitch-hike through America.

“Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the word down to everybody.”

Ray Smith soon finds that Japhy’s enthusiasm for the spirituality is tested by the all-night poetry sessions and heavy wine drinking parties that are the part of their bohemian life in San Francisco.

There is not much of a conventional plot in the book. It is written in a stream of consciousness style. It captures Kerouac’s real experiences and emotions. There is some poetical writing when he describes his  transcendental experiences.

“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”

The book largely concerns duality in Kerouac’s life. It’s relationship with the outdoors, bicycling, mountaineering, hiking and hitchhiking on the one side and his city life of jazz clubs, poetry readings and drunken parties on the other.

Jack KerouacJack Kerouac

The Dharma Bums (1958) is similar in style to the Kerouac’s most famous book On the Road (1957). The narrator is a lot like Sal, while Japhy is mad like Dean. The most obvious difference is that The Dharma Bums is a bit more spiritual and nature focused.

Some critics think that the book is quite spiritually crude and that it lacks seriousness. In my opinion, it is a perfect book for the road. It captures the essence of living the life to the fullest, getting to actually know the people you interact with and paying attention to the simple things around you.

“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there.”


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