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 other led to a solid friendship. Kerouac’s admiration for Snyder contributed to the somewhat idealized depiction of Snyder as Japhy Ryder in what is probably Kerouac’s most accessible novel, the one in which he reached the furthest into the world before his long retreat back into his past in his later years.
Just as Moriarty was Sal Paradise’s guide to life on the road, Ryder is Ray Smith’s guide to life in the wild. As a lifelong expert in “the practice of the wild,” Snyder knew the old ways of the Native Americans who lived for eons in the Sierra and Marin County mountains. Kerouac’s description of Ryder’s home, his work, his mountaineering technique, and his temperament show a man who can combine the exuberance of a child with the gravity of a philosopher. When Ryder literally runs down a mountain after their first climb “in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world,” he incarnates the same abandon and exuberance that Moriarty displayed, but with a self-possession and precision of purpose that is the essence of the “dharma bum.”
This amalgam of East and West, a “Zen lunatic” or wise angel/being, seemed an alternative possibility for Kerouac, who had rejected the corporate concept of America in the early 1950’s and was now beginning to reject the counterculture clichés that many of his acquaintances had blindly grasped in its place. In his two climbs with Ryder that form the dramatic highlights of the book, as well as representing some of the finest writing about the American landscape, Kerouac showed how accurate an observer he was. His commitment to this kind of life was brief, however, and his enthusiasm, while genuine, was very transitory.
The sixty-day sojourn as a fire watcher on Desolation Peak in the Cascades which concludes the book is Kerouac’s testament and tribute to what Snyder calls “the power vision in solitude.” Ryder has departed for an apprenticeship in a Zen monastery in Japan, and without his constant stimulus, Kerouac cannot sustain the consciousness that such a life requires. Yet as the whole book proves, for a short time before he was engulfed by his demons, Kerouac felt a relief from...
(The entire section is 1,941 words.)