The Dharma Bums follows the pattern of many of Kerouac’s other novels in concentrating mainly on two characters: a first-person male narrator based on Kerouac himself, and a larger-than-life male hero who inspires the narrator’s admiration and allegiance. This pattern has a long tradition in American literature, including such important works as Moby Dick (1851) and The Great Gatsby (1925), but Kerouac’s use of the pattern raises interesting new issues because all of his heroes were based on close friends, usually writers themselves, who sometimes had strong reactions to Kerouac’s fictional use of them. Gary Snyder, for example, was initially angered by the image of an irrepressible extrovert and womanizer that The Dharma Bums imposed on him. Years later, however, Snyder praised Kerouac for his talent as a mythographer—for synthesizing the values that he wanted to promote in his archetypal characters.
Kerouac’s characterization of Ray and Japhy has much to do with his personal and professional situation at the time that he wrote the novel. In the year between the experiences chronicled in The Dharma Bums and the time of its writing, Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road (1957), was published, and he was unsettled by the glare of publicity and deeply troubled by the outraged vituperation of critics, who denounced the activities of Kerouac’s hero Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady) as depraved and subversive. Thus in November, 1957, through the haze of an increasing drinking problem, Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in an attempt both to hold on to the positive aspects of his life from just a year earlier, and to embody those aspects in a hero whose associations with the American frontier tradition would allow Kerouac’s critics to see his visionary intentions in a more positive light.
Like all of Kerouac’s first-person narrators, Ray Smith is a man of immense inner conflicts. Though it is one of Kerouac’s weaknesses as a writer that he does not always seem aware of these conflicts, his great strength is the openness with which he allows these conflicts to express themselves—often in disconcerting or humorous juxtaposition. An episode in the first chapter illustrates several of these conflicts in Ray: between the freedom of wandering and the longing for a home, the exultations of solitude and the trials of loneliness, the sensual pleasures of the world and the inescapability of suffering. When Ray hops off the freight train in Santa Barbara, he enjoys an ecstatic evening on the beach. “You’ve done it again,” he congratulates himself. “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.” Later, however, he wakes up in the middle of the night, and says to himself, “ I be as hard and old as a conch shell.’” He thinks of himself as “lonely man alone on the beach” and dreams “of home long ago in New England.” Waking once more, he finally falls back to sleep, saying “It’s all the same thing,” thus reassuring himself of a Buddhist truth which in fact becomes his major goal in the novel: to sustain some unity—not only on an intellectual but also on an emotional and spiritual level as well—among the conflicting sides of his character.
For Ray Smith, Japhy Ryder represents a hero who can show him the path to just such an integrated self. Paradoxically, Japhy seems most at home when he is wandering in the wilderness, for he was reared in the woods of eastern Oregon and has spent most of his life working or hiking there. Also, Japhy’s studies have enabled him to draw together American literature, native American mythology, and Oriental religion, thus integrating whole cultures in his personality, while Ray is still struggling with the discontinuity between the East and West Coasts. Though Japhy’s heroes are such men of solitude as the American naturalist John Muir and the Chinese mountain poet...
(The entire section is 1,617 words.)