The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums is a 1958 novel by Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac. The basis for the novel's semi-fictional accounts are events occurring years after the events of On the Road. The main characters are the narrator Ray Smith, based on Kerouac, and Japhy Ryder, based on the poet and essayist Gary Snyder, who was instrumental in Kerouac's introduction to Buddhism in the mid-1950s.

The Dharma Bums
First edition
AuthorJack Kerouac
CountryUnited States
PublishedOctober 2, 1958 (The Viking Press)[1]
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3521.E735 D48 1990
Preceded byThe Subterraneans
Followed byDoctor Sax

The book concerns duality in Kerouac's life and ideals, examining the relationship of the outdoors, mountaineering, hiking, and hitchhiking through the west US with his "city life" of jazz clubs, poetry readings, and drunken parties. The protagonist's search for a "Buddhist" context to his experiences (and those of others he encounters) recurs throughout the story. The book had a significant influence on the Hippie counterculture of the 1960s.

Plot summary

The character Japhy drives Ray Smith's story, whose penchant for simplicity and Zen Buddhism influenced Kerouac on the eve of the sudden and unpredicted success of On the Road. The action shifts between the events of Smith and Ryder's "city life," such as three-day parties and enactments of the Buddhist "Yab-Yum" rituals, to the sublime and peaceful imagery where Kerouac seeks a type of transcendence. The novel concludes with a change in narrative style, with Kerouac working alone as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak (adjacent to Hozomeen Mountain), in what would soon be declared North Cascades National Park (see also Kerouac's novel Desolation Angels). His summer on Desolation Peak was desperately lonely. “Many's the time I thought I'd die of boredom or jump off the mountain,” he wrote in ‘’Desolation Angels.’’[2] Yet in the more eloquent ‘’Dharma Bums,” Kerouac described the experience in elegiac prose.

Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said 'God, I love you' and looked up to the sky and really meant it. 'I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.’

The blend of narrative with prose-poetry places The Dharma Bums at a critical juncture foreshadowing the consciousness-probing works of several authors in the 1960s such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey.

One episode in the book features Smith, Ryder, and Henry Morley (based on real-life friend John Montgomery) climbing Matterhorn Peak in California. It relates Kerouac's introduction to this type of mountaineering and inspired him to spend the following summer as a fire lookout for the United States Forest Service on Desolation Peak in Washington.

The novel also gives an account of the legendary 1955 Six Gallery reading, where Allen Ginsberg gave a debut presentation of his poem "Howl" (changed to "Wail" in the book). At the event, other authors including Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen also performed.

Character key

Kerouac often based his fictional characters on friends and family.[3][4]

Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work.

Jack Kerouac [5]
Real-life person Character name
Jack Kerouac Ray Smith
Gary Snyder Japhy Ryder
Allen Ginsberg Alvah Goldbook
Neal Cassady Cody Pomeray
Philip Whalen Warren Coughlin
Locke McCorkle Sean Monahan
John Montgomery Henry Morley
Philip Lamantia Francis DaPavia
Michael McClure Ike O'Shay
Peter Orlovsky George
Kenneth Rexroth Rheinhold Cacoethes
Alan Watts Arthur Whane
Caroline Kerouac Nin
Carolyn Cassady Evelyn
Claude Dalenberg Bud Diefendorf
Natalie Jackson Rosie Buchanan


John Suiter stated in a review: "Don't read Kerouac when you're too young. Read him as you join that long death march called steady employment. Then look back. Look back to all the people you knew, those people who went here and there, those people who knew odd patches of philosophy and poetry. They fucked. They doped and boozed in desperate self medication. Look back at yourself. Jack travels here and there. He knows people with Odd Knowledge. They have plumbed the breadth and depth of human existence. They get laid in the era before The Pill. They doped and boozed. They had the Knowledge. Read Kerouac and look back. And then it occurs to you. It's all been done before. None of your old pals will ever be quite what he once was in your memory. And you'll know Kerouac for what he was. And you know that amidst all the lies, he told the truth. The truth with a little 't'. He wanted to fool you, but he couldn't. It wasn't in him; he hadn't the talent for it. He had only enough to tell you the way he had wanted it to be. How he wanted it to be when he looked back on it.[6]"

Gary Snyder wrote Kerouac saying "Dharma Bums is a beautiful book, & I am amazed & touched that you should say so many nice things about me because that period was for me really a great process of learning from you..." but confided to Philip Whalen, "I do wish Jack had taken more trouble to smooth out dialogues, etc. Transitions are rather abrupt sometimes."[7] Later, Snyder chided Kerouac for the book's misogynistic interpretation of Buddhism.[8]

See also


  1. "Books Today". The New York Times: 34. October 2, 1958.
  2. "Kerouac on the Brink". The Attic. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
  3. Sandison, David. Jack Kerouac: An Illustrated Biography. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 1999
  4. Who’s Who: A Guide to Kerouac’s Characters
  5. Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. London and New York: Penguin Books Ltd. 1993.
  6. Suiter, John (2002). Poets on the Peaks. Counterpoint. p. 242. ISBN 1-58243-148-5.
  7. Suiter, John (2002). Poets on the Peaks. Counterpoint. p. 240. ISBN 1-58243-148-5.
  8. Suiter, John (2002). Poets on the Peaks. Counterpoint. p. 245. ISBN 1-58243-148-5.
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