Keith Kumasen Abbott

The Dharma Bums; Kerouac’s Dust Jacket Copy

In 1958 Jack Kerouac wrote the following text while his third novel, The Dharma Bums, was in production. Intended for the dust jacket copy of the novel, the description gives us, in a remarkably compact form, the marketing angle that Kerouac wanted Viking Press to follow. Obviously Kerouac was trying to expand his public image and influence the popular press reviewers after On The Road was received with personal attacks on the author and negative reviews despite its best-seller status.

Model For Dust Jacket Of “THE DHARMA BUMS”
By Jack Kerouac

Dharma is the Sanskrit word for Truth. It may also be translated as The Duty or Law. “The Dharma Bums” is a surprising story of two young men who make a good hearted effort to know the Truth with full packs on their backs, rucksack wanderers of the West Coast hiking and climbing mountains to go and meditate and pray and cook their simple foods, and down below living in shacks and sleeping outdoors under the California stars. Although deeply religious they are also spirited human beings making love to women, relishing poetry, wine, good food, joyful campfires, nature, travel and friendship. The hero is young Japhy Ryder, poet, mountaineer, logger and Oriental scholar and dedicated Zen Buddhist, who teaches his freight-hopping friend Ray Smith the Way of the Dharma Bums and leads him up a mountain where the common errors of this world are left far below and a new sense of pure material kinship is established with earth and sky. Yet it is the ancient Way of all the wild prophets of the past, whether St. John the Baptist in the West or the holy old Zen Lunatic Han Shan in the East. Japhy and Ray adventure in the mountains and trails, and then they come swinging down to the city of San Francisco to teach what they have learned, but the city will not listen. “Yabyum” orgies, suicide, jazz, wild parties, hitch hiking, love affairs, fury and ignorance result but the Truth Bums always return to the solitude and peaceful Lesson of the wilderness.

In this new novel, Jack Kerouac departs from the “hipster” movement of the Beat Generation and leads his readers towards a conception of “continual conscious compassion” and a peaceful understanding truce, paradox of existence.

The Dharma itself can never be seen, but it is felt in this book. It is the strangest of tales, yet an honest, vigorous account depicting an exciting new Way of Life in the midst of modern despair. The rolling pages of the novel are filled with original descriptions of the High Sierras, the High Cascades, the Northwest, the South, the desert, and the American road. There is also an account of the night of the birth of the San Francisco Renaissance. Through these pages pass hoboes, blondes, poets, hunters, Negro preachers, Mexicans, librarians, hound dogs, children, janitors, forest rangers, loggers, cowboys and Zen thinkers in a bewildering and delightful variety as the story races true to life to its conclusion.

Read slowly and see.
(Gary Snyder Archive, UC, Davis)

Kerouac had a remarkably clear vision of the values found in his novel. By stressing the religious and positive aspects of the novel with its love for nature and solitude, its serene and compassionate characters, and its large cast of everyday but adventurous people, he hoped to launch a pre-emptive strike, to use the current Cold War rhetoric for war, on its popular and critical reception. On The Road had been reviewed as a portrait of a violent and decadent hipster society of thrill-seeking criminals. Viking did not use Kerouac’s copy on the dust jacket, nor did they publish it in their press releases.

As John Suiter notes in Poets on the Peaks (2002), Kerouac put his trust in what he called, “the explosive significance” of The Dharma Bums’ Buddhist messages. Suiter also marks that Kerouac was clear about the differences between his best-selling On the Road and his third published novel, and quotes Kerouac: “The Dharma Bums for me is better than On the Road. Because what Neal [Cassady, hero of On the Road] was, a mad holy hepcat, wasn’t as great as what the dharma bums were—religious heroes of America practicing kindness & mindfulness (that’s what Neal could have been).”

But such distinctions were far beyond the understanding of his publishers, who wanted another sensational novel, and also a no sale for most of Kerouac’s fans, the public, and especially the critics of the 1950s. Zen Buddhism in America was in its earliest stage. Consequently Kerouac was reviled, slandered, attacked and ridiculed. He was regarded as a threat to all that was sacred and holy in 1958 America.

So in the late 1960s, the seventeenth edition of The Dharma Bums paperback adapted his literary contribution of signaling a fledgling American Buddhism and characterized Zen as the newest menace.
“The book that turned on the psychedelic generation. A barrier-smashing novel about two rebels on a wild march for Experience from Frisco’s swinging bars to the top of the snow-capped Sierras. Here are the orgiastic sexual sprees, the cool jazz bouts, the poetry love-ins, and the marathon binges of the kids who are hooked on Sensation and looking for the high.”
In the Fifties and Sixties Kerouac’s gentle nature and good-hearted outlook was met with fury as a danger to the wonderful status quo. He and “his lusty novel” were branded as just as virulent a poison as Elvis Presley and his music. Time has proven both opinions wrong.

In a letter written to Gary Snyder shortly after JLK (Jean-Louis Kerouac) wrote the dust jacket text, he said, “There’s a stop Kerouac movement at Grove Press, I’m afraid, and for sure in the Village where I saw a penciled scrawl in a shithouse ‘Kerouac Go Home!'” And then JLK later noted that “Lots of mad young girls (are) after me these days.”

Kerouac became every literary critic’s whipping boy and every celebrity seeker’s target. After 1959 his fame brought so much distraction and notoriety, he was unable to write much. After writing seven books in obscurity, he went two and a half years in the spotlight without producing a book. In his letters he itemizes for Gary Snyder (and others) just how much stress he was undergoing. His drinking increased, his paranoia, too. He was very badly beaten up in Greenwich Village by three men. He did not get huge contracts, film options or enough money to support himself and his mother for any great lengths of time or to buy the solitude he needed to write. His attitudes as documented in Selected Letters, 1957-1969, grow more and more despondent. The editor, Ann Charters, states, “The second volume [of letters] demonstrates that the publication of his works and the attendant publicity and hostile critical response to his work literally destroyed him . . . . Reviewers attacked him personally as if he were as great a threat to American society as the menace of a Communist victory during the Cold War.”

Personal Comments

For me, a fourteen-year old high-school student outside of Tacoma, Washington, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen were the first beacons that life in the Northwest was fit for literature. Their adventures as hitchhikers, mountain climbers while also being inspired and excited readers and seekers in the Northwest seemed admirable. The Dharma Bums’ fame also confirmed that this Northwest literature could have international significance and scope.

I don’t remember whether I first read On the Road or The Dharma Bums, but I do recall that by 1959 I was loaning my paperback copies to literary friends and laboriously reading The Town and the City, Kerouac’s first novel, which was a sincere but boring imitation of Thomas Wolfe’s huge romantic novels. I tried to read everything that Kerouac published.

What my generation knew was that Kerouac’s writing was fresh, new, exciting and liberating. And there were so many oppressive and repressive forces facing us, anyone who recognized this situation and its promised release was considered halfway right from the start.

Besides, what Kerouac and his friends were doing was what my friends were already doing (or wanted to do so badly the search was on full tilt for some means of achieving these actions). The similarities were striking between my roots and their roots.

Like Kerouac and Snyder, I came from the working class. Like Snyder I was a Northwest youth who spent whole days in the woods. My mother had a police whistle to call me home for dinner. She also took me to libraries, as Snyder’s mother did for him. I read around the walls of the Fern Hill library until I hop scotched from WWII prison camp escape books on the north wall of histories to the east wall of novels, where I found WWII novels The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer and The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw.

I first connected to Asian art as Snyder had, when I saw the Chinese landscape paintings in the Seattle art museum; I thought: “Why that looks like Skagit Valley!” But a magnificent gold and black Japanese screen of crows stunned me; ravens and crows were my constant companions on fishing and camping trips and sources of great speculation because they were so canny and smart. That’s how I first found Northwest Indian tales, because the ravens and I shared that animal and outdoor life.

My teenage buddies and I used to go on really insane river runs in spring run-off floods on paddleboards, inside inner tubes and in canoes. These rampaging rivers were marvelously exhilarating and extremely dangerous risks. Unlike today, we had no crash helmets or gear or guides; we ran the rivers armed with cutoff jeans and tennis shoes and pints of whisky. Once, after I was washed off my paddleboard and was swept under the driftwood, I had to crawl out from under a logjam, literally upside-down, against the current.

And then there were cars: my friends and I would go on “Marathons” where we would stay up for an entire weekend, often taking long trips to some isolated spot or a town like Vancouver B.C. For kicks we used to roll junker cars out on the military reservation. Only one of my running buddies read Kerouac, as I remember, so those guys weren’t emulating Kerouac or Neal Cassady, they dug the freedom of the road or any related adventures.

Because there was little money for my college, I decided in the 9th grade I had to win an athletic scholarship for my tuition. Eventually I duplicated Kerouac’s brief career as a college athlete and dropout. Like Kerouac, I schemed to make first-string varsity in college and I was the first freshman to do it that year. And also like Kerouac, as a freshman I made first string for two weeks but then a minor injury sidelined me. My irrational, autocratic alcoholic head coach drunkenly forgot my name and gave me another. During the games he kept calling for other coaches to “get Bud in there.” Apparently Bud Abbott and Lou Costello was how he remembered me and so that’s how my football career was destroyed.

Snyder’s Han Shan translations in The Dharma Bums caused me to buy Robert Payne’s The White Pony anthology and later take a course in Chinese philosophy at the University of Washington. Kerouac’s literary heroes lead me to read Hart Crane and Walt Whitman’s poetry. When I bought a portable stereo with summer work money, the first five record albums I purchased were Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday and Miles Davis—all from Kerouac’s recommendations. Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis Presley’s first album fed my own Rhythm and Blues enthusiasms, and that was more in the Neal Cassady taste for honky-tonk dance music.

Other Beat books were very difficult to locate in the Tacoma provinces. I remember one day after woozily leaving my dentist’s office after a load of laughing gas and then a painkiller. Because I knew I was unfit to drive home, I wandered into a nearby stationer’s store to sober up. I found a bright red and white City Lights book, Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, incongruously beside the Hallmark cards and address books. Corso’s unruly and imaginative lines made perfect sense to me under those conditions. During my college freshman year some English 101 instructors used Thomas Parkinson’s Casebook on The Beats. There I found how to get more books and I subscribed to The Evergreen Review, the best zine for avant-garde writing.

Some four years later, when I moved to San Francisco and lived in California for 28 years, I met many of the characters from Kerouac’s books, read with some at large public readings, and participated in the Haight-Ashbury Hippie life and times which was an expansion of Kerouac’s vision of a rucksack revolution.

What Attracted Me To Kerouac

The joy of Kerouac was the incredible rush I got from his writing style. There was nothing like that rush, except for some of the lyrics and music of the blues and gospel. The way he put together words seemed to connect to the way I saw life, the way I heard language. There was a stand-up comic named Lord Buckley (City Lights published a volume of his routines taken from his records) who used hip language in bright and inventive ways. Our friends memorized Buckley’s routines and his phrases became passwords. (Also around that time a young Bob Dylan taped his version of Lord Buckley monologues in a Greenwich Village cafe.) Kerouac also used rhythms and words in ways that people around me used for hip signals. Plus, when he tied into describing certain states of mind or certain experiences in nature, his prose was so alive and inventive the page lit up because I had experienced such moments too.

Kerouac was funny. He understood the droll goofy ways people acted and also admitted his own failings and foul-ups. And Kerouac was also very tender about certain passages in his life, and most of all he celebrated friendships and honored the great pleasures of finding new friends. He wrote in images and sounds that I could see and hear. He was especially acute and funny about working people and their styles of behavior.
as he bignecks to his work

driving aimlessly and with that vague jawed but tremendous rocky fatalistic and tragic obstinacy
Kerouac had a magnificent ear for language, as complicated and intricate messages, but also just as sound. Only later, after I studied Buddhism and jazz, did I understand what those Kerouac trains of thought and sheets of sound were doing, how they worked.

Kerouac wrote in several modes. The first is his sketching style, where he lets the sensory data mix with his rhythms to get an emotional line. Here’s one example:
but in nature, which is the grassy field of men’s lives, while terror is only the occasional tincan near the fence, life ripples like the grass
Second mode is when the rhythms take over and lead the sensory data into a third, a more Buddhist, category: the infusion of mind in and out of the world of things which leads to the interpenetration of mind and thing; therefore his sentences embody the sentience of all things.

Here is Kerouac in California, staying with Allen Ginsberg at the cottage on Milvia in Berkeley, and he writes the following in his notebook.
Allen’s old yard chair has been sitting in the downpouring rain all night and is now assbottomed wet where the checkered cotton covers the stuffing some of which’s beginning to show in the wear and tear of asses and Decembers—long sad rockers are wet, tied to chairposts not too tight as you see gaps and sunrays underneath—shadows of the black bars fall on the right wood arm with pure perfect morning seriousness and simpleness—a nameless tiny web ululates at the right post, wove on the chair’s majestical knee-post for salvation, big things support little things—
Like Whalen and Snyder’s poetry, Kerouac’s prose has to be read aloud. His sketching technique helped build to the spontaneous prose style that he used and this method was taken from painters: just the lines and contours of the object as a record of the mind viewing that object. Then do the episode over again, but with space for improvisation. Buddhists talk of six senses, not five, with the sixth being the mind. Here the sketch of Ginsberg’s chair and porch includes those values that the mind sees in the object: shadows as confirmation of the essential rightness and thusness of the material world. This is not pathetic fallacy, not the facile attribution of emotions to things; rather Kerouac discovers that all the sensory details support each other just as the spider uses the chair knee-post for his dinner.

Kerouac’s prose portraits remind me of the bravura and courage of a Rembrandt sketch; some lines exist simply as motions in the field of lines defining contours and volumes which are busy with all the background we need to see the object(s)—but we need to see the energy, too, of the drawing, of the artist in action creating something beyond a simple object.

Kerouac Techniques

Kerouac wrote this about his method:
“All of it is in my mind, naturally, except that language that is used at the time it is used.”
Poet and musician Clark Coolidge, one of the best writers on Kerouac’s techniques, wrote in his Now It’s Jazz / Writing on Kerouac & The Sounds (1999): “It would be interesting to see the notebooks from his travels Kerouac used when he was writing his novels, because it’s almost as if he were using what musicians call Fake Books: those books that have the chords to the tune that you’re referring to, and here Kerouac was taking off from what was in his notebooks at every split second. There’s a wonderful interview with the poet Philip Whalen, who knew Kerouac very well and watched him writing at one point and described it.
‘He would sit—at a typewriter, and he had all these pocket notebooks, and the pocket notebooks would be open at his left-hand side on the typing table—and he’d be typing. He could type faster than any human being you ever saw. The most noise that you heard while he was typing was the carriage return, slamming back again and again. The little bell would bing-bang, bing-bang, bing-bang! Just incredibly fast, faster than a teletype. And he’d laugh and say, Look at this! And he’d type and he’d laugh. Then he’d make a mistake, and this would lead him off into a possible part of a new paragraph, into a funny riff of some kind that he’d add while he was in the process of copying. Then, maybe he’d turn a page of the notebook and he’d look at that page and realize it was no good and he’d X it out, or maybe part of that page. And then he’d type a little bit and turn another page, and type the whole thing, and another page, and he’d type from that. And then something would—again, he would exclaim and laugh and carry on and have a big time doing it.’
Coolidge also wrote about a certain stylistic move of Kerouac’s related to jazz techniques.

“Now Kerouac talked about something he called “alluvials,” and if you look that up in the dictionary it says “alluvium, solid material deposited by running water,” which you get in a delta at the front of a river. He said, “Add alluvials to the end of your line when all is exhausted but something has to be said for some specified irrational reason.” Here’s a great example, in fact he used it himself in a letter to illustrate just that. Talking about Lester Young, the great tenor player.
‘Lester is like the river, the river starts in near Butte Montana in frozen snow caps (Three Forks) and meanders on down across states and entire territorial areas of dun bleak land with hawthorn crackling in the sleet, picks up rivers at Bismarck, Omaha and St. Louis just north, another at Kay-ro, another in Arkansas, Tennessee, comes deluging on New Orleans with muddy news from the land and a roar of subterranean excitement that is like the vibration of the entire land sucked of its gut in mad midnight, fevered, hot,’
(and here’s the alluvium)
‘the big mudhole rank clawpole old frogular pawed-soul titanic Mississippi from the North, full of wires, cold wood, and horn.’
Whalen’s Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinesis poem has an early use of this technique in its last line:
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherry blossom winejars.
In Kerouac’s letter to Gary Snyder about Han Shan, he suggests how to write a literal translation of the Chinese characters without making an English sentence, just lining up the words and letting them run together for a shock of recognition, multiple meanings, multiple open-ended syntaxes. But also, like jazz solos may be differently played over and over, Coolidge’s example from Kerouac’s letter can be improvised on over and over, because it reads really well out loud. That’s because Kerouac acutely heard his words, much as a jazz musician hears himself and his fellow players; Kerouac hears the possibilities of his own phrasing for further improvisation.

Both Snyder and Whalen picked up on this particular technique. Snyder uses it more austerely than Whalen, who often gets Buster Keaton (or Bill Irwin or Jim Carrey) comic tumbling down pratfall effects from colliding words. For example, from Snyder:
white monkeys, white
           posts lie tumbled crisscross
dome stupa with spire tower gold
In Snyder’s poetry these words don’t collide so much as they shift and click against each other as their possible syntax changes in our minds, giving us a sensation similar to hearing Miles Davis’ bebop minimal shifts from phrase to phrase; while in Snyder we adjust our senses to the possible readings, of what word goes with or belongs to what phrase. The line-breaks work as silence, and they also create this effect of “floating syntax,” and sometimes words and phrases do double duty operating in several sentences simultaneously.

(8-5-06, revised 5-17-2015)                              

Professor emeritus Keith Kumasen Abbott, poet and calligrapher, is the author of Downstream from Trout Fishing In America, A Memoir of Richard Brautigan as well as four novels, and short story and poetry collections. His calligraphic art has appeared in numerous art shows from Shanghai to San Antonio. The memoir of his Zen teacher, Cloud Phoenix, A Memoir of Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi is online at www.keithabbottwriter.com.

This essay is taken from the Mind Moving lecture series presented by Professor Abbott when he taught writing at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. This revision first appeared in PAROLE, the blog of The New Black Bart Poetry Society.
previous page     contents     next page


Post a Comment

<< Home