The Dharma Bums — First Impressions

Synchronicity – I think The Obvious? calls it. While searching the web for background on Gary Snyder for the poem I just posted on this site, I read that he was portrayed as Japhy, a central character in The Dharma Bums. Earlier, while buying a copy of Kerouacâs On the Road, I had picked up a copy of The Dharma Bums because the title intrigued me.

Obviously, I was meant to read this book now. So I did.

The book reminds me in some ways of Abbey’s Desert Solitaire because, for me, the best parts of the book are the scene where the narrator and Japhy climb Matterhorn in the Sierras and the last scene where the narrator spends the summer as a fire lookout on Mt. Desolation. Personally, I find Kerouac’s attempts to tie these events to his version of Buddhism the most interesting part of the book.

Of course, I also found the descriptions of Japhy, the main reason I read the novel, interesting. While it’s difficult to know how accurate these descriptions are, they do offer some insight into Snyderâs poetry. Also, Snyder writes in Mountains and Rivers without End, "By Way of Thanks: I thank the fellow writers who helped me shape this poem’s ideas from earliest on: Phillip Walen, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Kerouac, and Lew Welch." Although this obviously doesn’t confirm the authenticity of Kerouac’s portrayal of him, it would at least seem to indicate that he wasn’t offended by his portrayal.

I am more ambivalent about the content of the novel and the characters who appear in it, particularly Ray Smith himself. Realizing this is "a slice of life" novel, without a real beginning or end, I still find it difficult to admire much about the narrator except his Huck-Finn-like search for his own personal freedom, a freedom you suspect he will sacrifice to his thirst for alcohol. At his worst, he reminds me of Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye , with his sense of personal superiority and constant whining about society in general, while at the same time failing to show any real superiority.

I need some more time to review my notes and think about the book, certainly more time than I have to devote to one day’s journal.

Here’s an enthusiastic review of the bookLitKicks: Dharma Bums if you’d like a different perspective.

Meanwhile, if you have strong feelings about the novel, let me know and I’ll try to consider them while thinking more about this novel.

7 thoughts on “The Dharma Bums — First Impressions”

  1. It is so easy for Japhy to live on a rucksack with dried foods and no money. He has no responsibility. He benefits from the accomplishments of others who have sacrificed and created all manner of things yet he contributes nothing to mankind. He could fall off the Matterhorn and no one would know or be impacted. He has no responsibility to anyone except himself. If Smith is searching for selfishness, he has found it and there is nothing wrong with that. But, to glorify it as some great ideal is naive. There are lots of Japhy like people in this world and they have every right to pursue their whims. I just have an immediate reaction to setting that sort of person up as enlightened because they are above materialistic desires. I would be most interested to know what Japhy would do if he were to fall in love and have a child. Where would he place his interests in relation to people who dearly depended on him to provide.

  2. I guess if you want to find out what he would do under those circumstances you can go here to find out because Japhy is a thinly disguised Gary Snyder.

    I would suspect that until you can free yourself from your materialistic desires you can never contribute much to society.

    Sometimes it seems to take a fortune to allow someone like Bill Gates or the Kennedy’s to shift their concern to others who have less, but if it takes that much to satisfy us all the world is in a whole lot of trouble.

  3. gosh … I always loved Japhy. Ever since the early 60’s when I first read about these new kind of “bums” and understood…. It’s not what you do .. it’s how you be.

    I wanna be Han Shan when I grow up.

    Perhaps .. a living tree does not manifest on earth only for us to make toilet papper from. Perhaps it has a higher purpose we cannot fathom.

    Perhaps .. I have not manifested on earth only to work in a toilet paper factory and be “productive” .. or even perhaps I have not manifested on earth to ‘use’ trees or toilet paper. Perhaps I manifest here to serve a higher purpose that I cannot and will never fathom.

    I love the mystery of you … of my own mystery of me .. of all this creation going up and coming down around us.

    It is enough for me to be aware of creation .. I don’t have to always ‘use ‘ it.

    And even though I make my living , here in the “Greatest Country on Earth ” and “contribute” by working as a ” creative artist ” … I believe my noblest contribution is simply by being aware of my unfolding …. oxidizing … and ultimate decay inorder to go home again … We’re always on our way to somewhere else. But like Japhy .. we can always just sit down on a rock for a moment to be still … and to stop the production,contributing and all the phantasma of the mind might just slow down enough so we can get a good look around at the terrain of who .. and where we are … and then .. ? Perhaps we can accomplish something “useful”.

  4. Richard,

    Although I didn’t know about Japhy, Snyder, when I was going to college at the Unviersity of Washington, he is definitely the kind of person I would have admired and wanted to become even then.

    I actually haven’t been back here for awhile, but in many ways it seems remarkably similar to the ideas I’m still exploring today, nearly three years later.

  5. Dear Loren Webster, Hi there two years ago! Last May (06) My brother Bernard & I began a correspondence on The Dharma Bums, the book we’d read almost 40 years ago. I’ve lived in Melbourne, Australia off & on & mostly for 40+ years, Bernard’s in the Uk. For us it’s a point or site of intersection : a lot of dreams, experiences, life, water-under-the-bridge…You might be interested in following our trip on the Poetry & Ideas blog,
    Best wishes, Kris Hemensley (Australia)

  6. Hi Loren,

    Thanks for writing about this book. It’s one of my all time favorites. I read the three entries on this topic here at your website and I agree. The book is not uplifting and the central character is flawed, neurotic, and perhaps confused. But he feels real to me.

    I understand Ray Smith. And I’ve had a few Japhy Riders in my life. Maybe I just happened to read this book at the right time in my life, when I was going through similar experiences. It hits very close to home for me.


  7. Jason, I know that many readers agree with you, and I caught some real flak from the online community when Diane and I reviewed it, which is why I urged another blogger who liked it when he first read it to review it.

    I suspect a reader’s reaction to the novel would differ considerably based on when in his life he read it and on what the reader considered the main purpose of literature.

    I think, like much of modern fiction, that the novel makes life look worse than it really is –– it purposely plays up the negative side of life, which, in itself, was a welcome relief from many of the “romantic” novels that seemed to imply that life can be perfect if you simply try your best to make it so.

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