Dharma Bums

Dharma Bums Study Guide

In 1957, the year that his signature book, On the Road, was first printed, Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac began work on what was to become his third published work, The Dharma Bums. It was written with legendary haste in only ten writing sessions of 15,000 to 20,000 words each, and would be published the following year. Kerouac's novel is told in a loose (though linear) manner in the voice of adventuresome protagonist Ray Smith, detailing his trials and triumphs as he climbs mountains, parties with his friends, and meets all sorts of interesting people while hitchhiking across America.

Like On the Road, Dharma Bums is highly autobiographical. "Ray Smith" is an alias for Kerouac himself; Ray's friends are caricatures of his real-life acquaintances, and his cross-country jaunts, described in explicit detail, occur in certifiably locatable towns and cities spread across the United States. Reflections of Kerouac's own troubles, including his alcoholism and conflicting sexual ideas, also echo within the novel. In some sense it is unsurprising that certain notable events ("Alvah Goldbook's" recitation of "Wail" in "Gallery Six") are directly parallel to true situations (Allan Ginsberg's recitation of "Howl" in Six Gallery). But even some of Kerouac's more unbelievable encounters - such as his meeting with a bum whose teaches him the curative power of standing on his head - also prove verifiable. The novel's oft-astonishing plot and humanitarian themes acquire a particularly forceful credence because they are rooted in reality.

Unfortunately, Kerouac's novel received a relatively poor reception in the literary field. His thinly veiled biography managed to offend companion Allan Ginsberg who, disappointed with his "inconsistent" portrayal in The Dharma Bums, offended Kerouac in a literary review. Time magazine wrote derisive commentary about it under the heading "The Yabyum Kid: How the Campfire Kids Discovered Buddhism." Furthermore, some criticize Kerouac for "selling himself short:" instead of writing a highly experimental and controversial novel as he might otherwise have been inclined to do, the author appeased his publishers by taming his writing to create a more "accessible" product. This was a book, it is famously noted, that the novelist's mother actually finished. Later in life, Kerouac even grew disenchanted with the dharmic ideals he espoused in the novel, which ebbed when his novel failed to stir the sort of Buddhist revolution he had hoped for in America.

Despite all criticism, though, The Dharma Bums sold well. It did not sink into obscurity, but persists as one of Kerouac's most popular portraits of the Beat Generation; some, in fact, praise Kerouac's prose in this novel as superior to that of On the Road. And it is undeniable that the novel's sincere and unvarnished exploration of human themes - of friendship, free-spiritedness, and compassion for all fellow creatures - can be quite compelling.