THE RUCKSACK REVOLUTION: Art imitates life in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums


The Beatniks


Run-on sentences

“I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray.”

As with Kerouac’s On the Road, the 1957 roman à clef that immortalizes his various travels with the inimitable, Roman-candle-in-human-form Neal Cassady in the character of Dean Moriarty, his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums does something similar for Gary Snyder with the character of Japhy Ryder.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet, essayist, and environmental activist, Snyder is the man who first introduced Kerouac to Buddism, a topic the novel discusses in relative detail. Talk of Nirvana, meditating dogs, and the dichotomy between city and country life casts these (sometimes fictionalized) events in Kerouac’s life in a more peaceable, less drug and alcohol-infused light than those of On the Road.



“The dogs meditated on their paws. We were all absolutely quiet. The entire moony countryside was frosty silent, not even the little tick of rabbits or coons anywhere. An absolute cold blessed silence.”

The protagonist, Ray Smith, an ill-disguised Kerouac, is a young freethinker bumming around from city to city, attending three-day parties and rambling about wherever the breeze blows him. Ryder, a tireless mountaineer and Zen master, is reminiscent of Cassady in that both Japhy and Dean spend the better part of each respective novel offering their infinite wisdom to the protagonist, molding and shaping Kerouac’s mind and writings.



Japhy’s enlightened Buddhist musings are at one time pretentious gibberish to the reader for whom Buddhist teachings are unfamiliar while also being mind-altering in a positive and reverential way for the true Kerouacian. Like a polished mirror, Kerouac’s words have highly powerful reflective properties that make this reader think about what she wants most out of life, her aspirations, travel plans, and beliefs about death and religion.

Kerouac was no stranger to waxing poetic about all of the above and it’s not difficult to see how he was a mind, body and soul that truly belonged in the time he was living. Along with his novellas and novels, Kerouac was a successful poet. His Book of Sketches of prose poetry makes a great coffee table or travel book and a student video inspired by his 66-part “Scripture of the Golden Eternity” is below.

“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…”

Happy reading!