Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
As much as Kerouac admired Neal Cassady, the “greater driver” (in Allen Ginsberg’s description) living in a “pious frenzy,” he knew that Cassady’s high-intensity existence carried the potential for destruction and despair for himself and his friends. While not dismissing Cassady’s danger-ridden enthusiasms or condemning his impulsiveness, Kerouac had begun to wonder if a life “on the road” in perpetual search for ecstasy was the only route to be followed. His interest in Buddhism, combined with his previous background in Christianity, suggested that a kind of serenity beyond sensation was possible.
In The Dharma Bums, he examined an alternative approach to his previous quest for enlightenment. Concentrating on a man who seemed to have a vital, productive, and deeply satisfying manner of living, and who was also an active artist, a master climber, a political radical, a loyal friend, and a powerful thinker, Kerouac created a comic (but serious) balance to the tragic (but often hilarious) vision of On the Road in his portrait of the poet Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums.
Snyder had just begun to publish his poetry in 1955 when Kerouac met him in San Francisco, days before the famous reading at the Six Gallery. Kerouac was impressed by Snyder’s good sense, and he was as rapturous about the natural world in Snyder’s company as he had been about anything he had previously experienced. The two of them shared an enthusiasm for literature, language, Eastern philosophy, and many basic social values, and although their essential natures differed tremendously, the points of correspondence plus the respect they had for each...
(The entire section is 688 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, relatively upbeat and often humorous, is a fictional account of Kerouac’s attempt to unify his identity through Buddhism. The main character, Ray Smith, is accompanied on this quest by the physically and mentally agile savant Japhy Ryder (the poet Gary Snyder), a young yet accomplished Buddhist. The flower children of the 1960’s appreciated the novel’s sexual freedom and used The Dharma Bums as a guide to the “rucksack revolution” predicted by Ryder.
Dharma bums, as the name implies, roam in solitude, unencumbered by material goods, seeking instruction (dharma), taking some risks, and learning through meditation. Smith climbs a mountain in California with Ryder, meditates in the woods in North Carolina, parties in Ryder’s cabin, and finally takes over Ryder’s solitary fire lookout job in Washington State. Smith drinks excessively, but he struggles to control his appetites. He believes he practices a devout Buddhist lifestyle. His ideas, dreams, and visions express Buddhist dogma, and his friends are other dharma bums who contribute their own interpretations, expanding Smith’s own views and creating a noteworthy general discussion of Buddhist philosophy.
Another novel, Desolation Angels (1965), reveals more fully the rigorous self-examination that Kerouac conducted. The unique relevance of The Dharma Bums to literary identity, however, is enhanced by the...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Like most of Jack Kerouac’s novels, The Dharma Bums is an autobiographical fiction in which a particular period in its author’s life is dramatically heightened and given coherent shape. The book focuses on the friendship between its first-person narrator, Raymond Smith (based on Kerouac himself), and Japhy Ryder (based on Gary Snyder), and on the ways in which Japhy inspires Ray to lead a more spiritual, self-sufficient life.
The novel begins, however, not with the first meeting between Ray and Japhy, but with a freight train ride from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, during which Ray is delighted to meet a little bum who carries a prayer by Saint Teresa. This tramp, whom Ray takes to be a religious wanderer, is less important in himself than as a precursor of Japhy Ryder, who comes to represent the ultimate “Dharma bum” in Ray’s rapturous eyes. From their first meeting, Japhy is seen as an exemplary pilgrim who travels the world “to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for himself as a future Buddha (Awakener).”
Though Kerouac does not group his thirty-four chapters into sections, the novel does, under close scrutiny, reveal a symmetrical tripartite form. In each of its three parts, Ray moves from stressful encounters in civilization toward epiphanies in nature—epiphanies which he either experiences with or associates with Japhy.
In the first section, Ray enjoys certain aspects of his new friendship with Japhy in San Francisco and Berkeley, but it is their trip to the High Sierra that takes him to his first major “peak” experience of the novel. Kerouac dramatizes the historic group reading at the Gallery Six which launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance in October, 1955, but he relegates Allen Ginsberg’s breakthrough chanting of “Howl” (here Alvah Goldbook’s recitation of “Wail”) to the background, preferring instead to concentrate on Snyder/Japhy’s reading, which Ray considers more “pure,” “hopeful,” and reminiscent of “oldtime American heroes...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A fascinating biography by one of Kerouac’s editors, showing how his ambivalent feelings about his sexuality influenced his work. Includes detailed notes and bibliography.
Cassady, Carolyn. Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1976. Chronicles Cassady’s relationship with Kerouac from 1952 through 1953, and the ménage à trois between the Cassadys and Kerouac. Reprinted here are letters of Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Carolyn Cassady.
Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New York: William Morrow, 1990. A personal account, with many anecdotes and recollections written from Carolyn Cassady’s perspective. Important for its inside view of the Beat movement.
Feied, Frederick. No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Cultural Hero in the Works of Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Jack Kerouac. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1964.
Hart, John E. “Future Hero in Paradise: Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 14, no. 3 (1973): 52-62.
Hull, Keith N. “A Dharma Bum Goes West to Meet the East.” Western American Literature 11, no. 4 (1977): 321-329.
Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983. A comprehensive, biographical account of Kerouac’s life. Highly regarded for background information on Kerouac and the process of his writing.
Rexroth, Kenneth. “San Francisco’s Mature Bohemians.” The Nation 184 (February 23, 1957): 159-162.
Turner, Steve. Angelheaded Hipster: A Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking, 1996. Not as authoritative as the Amburn, but copiously illustrated and with anecdotes that help illuminate the novels.
Tytell, John. “The Beat Generation and the Continuing American Revolution.” American Scholar 42 (Spring, 1973): 308-317.