"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac (1958)
"Japhy leaping up: 'I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming..."
The Dharma Bums is the second of Kerouac's books I've read. My review of On the Road can be found here, along with more historical context for this author.
The Dharma Bums offers a more mature version of Kerouac, perhaps free of earlier literary pretensions, and more comfortable with his own style of writing. It appeared on bookstore shelves a year after On the Road, right when Kerouac was on the verge of the lasting fame which would follow the previous year's work.
Compared to On the Road, which is basically the story of a car trip, The Dharma Bums offers more spirituality, less wandering, and something closer to Kerouac's early idea of what it means to be a good person. The friendship between Kerouac/"Ray Smith" and Japhy is predicated upon their understanding of Buddhist scriptures, and of how one might use an understanding of such scriptures to live in harmony with both other human beings and with nature.
In terms of writing style, I'd say it's a vast improvement over On the Road. Where On the Road was a more pedestrian offering with brief flashes of brilliance, The Dharma Bums gets straight to the point, and never wavers from the spiritual goals it sets for itself. I'm not saying that I necessarily agree with all of these goals, and even the book itself expresses some doubts as to their ultimate worth, but The Dharma Bums is nothing if not sincere, and I appreciate that.
I think that ultimately any critique of this book's spirituality rests upon two perceived weaknesses, these being "authenticity" and "cultural appropriation." I think that on the count of "authenticity" Kerouac is free and clear, given that he's placed the narrative on relatively fictional terms, and that his reliance on the kindnesses of friends and family can be inferred from the text. The Kerouac seen in The Dharma Bums is a far cry from the Thoreau seen in Walden. Thoreau was being deliberately deceptive, where Kerouac is avoiding equivocation for the sake of his story.
But cultural appropriation? Here Kerouac is on shakier ground, given that the Buddhism he employs is less a creature of its cultural and historical context than the creation of his brief acquaintance with a foreign philosophy. I don't doubt that the spirituality put forward in The Dharma Bums is sincere, but his friend Japhy's "travels in the mysterious East" aren't enough to make their musings on Chinese ascetics and Japanese monasteries entirely convincing. The "Buddha of the California Coast" put forward in The Dharma Bums isn't nearly as hard to swallow as the spirituality espoused in Eat, Pray, Love, but I doubt it's going to convert anyone who's not already thinking along similar lines.
If you enjoyed On the Road, I'm sure you'll enjoy The Dharma Bums. It's full of the same wanderlust, it's full of the same sorts of memorable characters, and it's better written than Kerouac's most famous book. If you don't buy into Kerouac's spiritual ideals it's no matter, you'll still find The Dharma Bums entertaining.
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