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The Dharma Bums Paperback – May 27, 1971
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One of the best and most popular of Kerouac's autobiographical novels, The Dharma Bums is based on experiences the writer had during the mid-1950s while living in California, after he'd become interested in Buddhism's spiritual mode of understanding. One of the book's main characters, Japhy Ryder, is based on the real poet Gary Snyder, who was a close friend and whose interest in Buddhism influenced Kerouac. This book is a must-read for any serious Kerouac fan.
"In [On the Road] Kerouac's heroes were sensation seekers; now they are seekers after truth . . . the novel often attains a beautiful dignity, and builds towards a moving climax."
--The Chicago Tribune
"In his often brilliant descriptions of nature one is aware of exhilarating power and originality . . . the entire cast of characters is presented with that not unrefreshing blend of naivete and sophistication that seems to be this author's forte."
--The New York Times Book Review
"Full of sparkling descritions of landscape and weather, light falling through trees, the smell of snow, the motion of animals . . . Jack Kerouac is a writer who cannot be charged with dullness."
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The Dharma Bums is a cultural walk-about America in the late 1950’s with the spread of suburbia, a growing middle class with an increasing addiction to television and sameness. It also includes vivid and beautiful representations of natural phenomenon from the desert to the high mountains. The characters that Ray Smith, the narrator of the story, meets in his travels range from intellectuals, artists, poets and beatnik friends, to hobos he meets as he hops fast freight trains up the California Coast or thumbs rides with truck drivers and others while he travels across the country a couple of times. He carries his home on his back and to some extent depends on the good will of those he meets on his path. He meditates in the desert, mountain meadows and the woods. He exchanges what he has learned with his fellow Dharma Bums and gains insight from them and his travels. At times Ray Smith and his Dharma buddies seem like modern-day bhikkhu (monks), each on the path of enlightenment in their own way.
This is a trip that anyone can enjoy, from the first time Ray Smith, the main character, hops a freight train, headed North up the California coast. Even though it was written some time ago it feels contemporary and relevant today. One thing I knew as I began reading The Dharma Bums, was that Jack Kerouac knows how to tell a story. I also became happily aware that this book was an adventure entwined with the basis of Mindfulness including the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eight-fold Path;” a Bodhisattva’s journey looking for nothing, knowing and not knowing. The two main characters Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder are on a quest for truth that finds them climbing mountains in the high sierras, partying with San Fransisco Bohemians, and others and writing their own poetry.
“…Pray tell us, good buddy, and don’t make it muddy, who played this trick, on Harry and Dick, and why is so mean this Eternal Scene, just what’s the point, of this whole joint? I thought maybe I could find out at last from these Dharma Bums.” -- Jack Kerouac -- The Dharma Bums
I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people these days may not know much about Jack Kerouac. I wonder if his work is read in high school or college English classes? It should be. Probably banned in Texas or Alabama, like Salinger's Catcher In The Rye. Kerouac was born in Lowell Massachusetts in 1922, went to public school and ended up with a scholarship to Columbia in New York City where he met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs who turn up in The Dharma Bums. Kerouac died in St. Pete Florida in 1969 at the age of forty-seven.
Those who do remember Jack Kerouac would probably think of the classic “On The Road” that was published in 1957 and made Kerouac one of the most appreciated writers of that time. “On The Road” came to personify what was called the “Beat Generation.” Other books followed including those in what Kerouac included in the “The Duluoz Legend Series” including The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, other novels and poetry. But Kerouac’s writing is a lot more than “Beat Generation” tales.
The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, after On the Road. Written in College Park, a neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. It is a subtle, non-preachy primer, in some ways, on certain concepts found in Buddhism, in particular Zen Buddhism. But written as a novel, in Kerouac’s rhythmic, descriptive and first person conversational storytelling style, these notions come up naturally. Words, sentences and paragraphs loose their individual functions as they create a new actuality, moving, nudging and seducing the reader into the strokes and colors of the author's word paintings.
“But I had my own little bangtail ideas and they had nothing to do with the ‘lunatic’ part of this. I wanted to get me a full pack complete with everything necessary to sleep, shelter, eat, cook, in fact a regular kitchen and bedroom right on my back, and go off somewhere and find perfect solitude and look into the perfect emptiness of my mind and be completely neutral from any and all ideas. I intended to pray, too, as my only activity, pray for all living creatures; I saw it was the only decent activity left in the world. To be in some riverbottom somewhere, or in a desert, or in mountains, or in some hut in Mexico or shack in Adirondack, and rest and be kind, and do nothing else, practice what the Chinese call ‘do-nothing.” I didn’t want to have anything to do, really, either with Japhy’s ideas about society (I figured it would be better just to avoid it altogether, walk around it) or with any of Alvah’s ideas about grasping after life as much as you can because of its sweet sadness and because you would be dead some day.” -- Jack Kerouac The Dharma Bums
Ray Smith’s journey moves along spontaneously and as fast paced as Jack Kerouac’s prose. This timeless story is hard to put down with a bonus if you are interested in Dharma, mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy; you will find many moments in the book with which to relate. Beyond the philosophy you will find a artfully crafted novel that is engaging and classic, as a spiritual journey to find self or perhaps no self. Jack Kerouac, intentionally or not created his own Buddha book of "sutras" and left them with us. JRMartin
Easy read that goes quick. Jack is definitely not timid with his ideas, so be prepared for sections that you may not agree with. Overall, highly recommend this book, especially if you have ever wondered/dabbled in eastern religion/philosophy.
Indeed, I loved the book enough to write a companion reader for it (The Beat Handbook: 100 Days of Kerouactions), so right up front I have a bias and thought you should know about that.
In at least one of his letters (Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 2), Kerouac himself acknowledged that The Dharma Bums was 'really bettern ON THE ROAD' (p. 99). So, if you don't take my word for it, maybe you will take the author's and make this your first foray into beat literature. I don't think you'll regret it.
Ray Smith is the first person narrator of DHARMA BUMS, a look alike for Jack Kerouac. For most of the book, he slyly puts Japhy Ryder at the center of attention. Ryder is a stand-in for poet Gary Snyder who survives, who as a young man in his twenties was already a natural leader. Surrounding them are other familiar figures from the era, including Alvah Goldbook (translates to Allen Ginsberg). They all write poetry and love jazz, women, and a casual lifestyle. They seek spiritual enlightenment. They delight in trolling for clothes in the Good Will and Army and Navy stores, they savor the simplest meal over a campfire. They are the Dharma Bums, rejecting the paralyzed emptiness they ascribe to middle class life.
I really like this book. The prose is clear and concrete, even when sorting through abstract notions. It is often funny. Kerouac had extraordinary insight into individual nuances and desires, and plays them into the tension of the journey and the sorting out. He had a gift for seeing how outsiders might perceive him and his crowd and how history might come to interpret the present he was portraying. Though he is legendarily perceived as a spontaneous artist, there is extraordinary control and shape imposed on these pages. Only twice does he momentarily break his world: once, in my edition, he slips and refers to Japhy as Gary, and another time, slipping out of the immediacy of the action, he pays a compliment to a simple meal on the road, noting that even as a lionized young writer in New York, he had not had a better meal in an upscale restaurant. Those curious nanoseconds can be forgiven, however. This book is a joy.