Monday, 28 February 2011

"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac

Year of Publication: 1958
Number of Pages: 204 pages
Genre: Travel, spiritual, drama

Summary: Late October 1955: Aspiring poet Ray Smith arrives in San Francisco and meets Zen Buddhist poet Japhy Ryder, who inspires Ray with his spiritual views, and vision of a "rucksack revolution" in which the young people of America, fired up by Buddhist philosophy, would walk and hitch-hike through America. Ray Smith joins Ryder on his journeys through the High Sierras, but finds that his enthusiasm for the spiritual life severely tested by the all-night poetry sessions, wild wine-fueled parties and orgies that make up bohemian life in San Francisco.

Opinions: This book is one of the classic works by "Beat Generation" author Jack Kerouac. The book is strongly autobiographical, all the characters were real people very thinly disguised. Ray Smith is based on Kerouac himself, Japhy Ryder is based on poet Gary Snyder (at one point in the novel Kerouac refers to Ryder as "Gary"). Fellow Beat Generation luminary Allen Ginsberg appears in the book as Alvah Goldbook, and one of the early scenes in the novel features the famous Six Gallery poetry reading at which Ginsberg first presented his classic poem Howl (which is named "Wail" in this novel). There is not much of a conventional plot in the book, it's written in a stream of conciousness style and tries to capture more his experiences and emotions. There is some beautiful, lyrical writing when he describes his mountain-climbing and some of the transcendental experiences. There are also plenty of amusing and interesting anecdotes of his hitch-hiking and travels cross-country. The book has been criticised for being inaccurate about Buddhism and Zen. Also, with the exception of Smith and Ryder, none of the characters have much of an in-depth treatment. By modern standards the book is quite politically incorrect at times. However it is one of Kerouac's most famous and influential works and is a must-read for anyone interested in one of the most important and influential American writers of the 20th Century. It is also very thought-provoking and powerful and contains passages of truly beautiful, poetic writing.


  1. I DID read Dharma Bums last summer. How did you know that?

  2. I recall lying on the banks of the Murray River, reading this whilst waiting for my coach to take me home. I had just quit a disastrous attempt of a summer fruit-picking job, picking oranges. I loved the book - more that On The Road, which I read much later. I especially liked the descriptions of the guy all alone as some kind of fire warden in the Rockies. This was about 30 years ago...