Jack Kérouac's Impact on On the Road and The Dharma Bums

Categories: Novel

Few authors have such an impact on American culture as much the literary genius, Jack Kerouac. In his relatively short life of 47 years, Kerouac accumulated a global influence through his iconically beatnik followed creations. Jack Kerouac became a pioneer of American literature with the two of his most famous works being On The Road and The Dharma Bums; both are great examples of his method of spontaneous prose.

Born Jean-Louis Kérouac, a French-Canadian child in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, Jack Kérouac took a keen interest in literature.

Before dropping out of Columbia University and following a multitude of unsatisfactory experiences, he became acquainted with fellow student and author Gary Snyder. Through Snyder, Kerouac found enlightenment through Buddhist teachings. His semi-autobiographical novel, The Dharma Bums describes a joyous mountain climbing trip Kerouac and Snyder embarked on in Yosemite in 1955. While on this journey into the mountains, basking in nature, Kerouac enveloped himself in the teachings of Buddhism.

The Dharma Bums, using strong Buddhist undertones, explores themes of non-conformity, sexual conflict, and plain absurdity in circumstances and environments possibly foreign to the reader.

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In the novel, Kérouac writes,

“Colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class, non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room, with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstacy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization” (Kerouac 106).

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This idea of nonconformity is made apparent by the disregard for the value of college and the popular correlation to relative success and happiness. Kérouac portrays the idea that while most Americans find happiness through success in the system, others, like an eccentric character such as Japhy, find happiness through the miracles and mysteries of nature. This is another example of Kerouac's Buddhist dogma. The Buddhist religion emphasizes compassion towards all living things, meditation in natural surroundings and reverence for trees and other life, making this quote an obvious nod to Kerouac's religious beliefs. In one passage, Kerouac writes, 'Maybe I'll be rich and work and make a lot of money and live in a big house,” only to be contradictory a minute later, 'And who wants to enslave himself to a lot of all that, though?' (Kerouac 156). This is another exemplary indication of Kerouac's belief in nonconformist ideas. He explained that rather than live in a big house and have all the luxuries of the common man, he would rather live a simple, happy life rooted in the Buddhist teaching that everything in life is temporary. In other words, materialistic things are extremely insignificant being that they are only temporary and only distract the owner from the righteous path of Buddha.

Another strong theme in The Dharma Bums is sexual conflict. Kerouac himself In Kerouac's exploration of the touchy subject, he writes,

“When I was a little kid in Oregon I didn't feel that I was an American at all, with all that suburban ideal and sex repression and general dreary newspaper gray censorship of all our real human values… I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.” (Kerouac 106).

Until the last few decades, homosexuality was highly frowned upon and was even a crime. At the same time, America in the 1950’s and 60’s had a homosexual subculture. Hoards of veterans came home unable to find jobs while struggling with the physical and mental effects of World War 2. After the war, some of these veterans found a home in this secluded group. As stated earlier, the Buddhist religion emphasizes compassion towards all living things, male or female. This is something Kerouac touches on in The Dharma Bums. He writes of the pain some people have had to deal with when forced to repress their sexuality.

Speaking again of sexual frustration, Kerouac writes, “In all this welter of women I still hadn't got one for myself, not that I was trying too hard, but sometimes I felt lonely to see everybody paired off and having a good time and all I did was curl up in my sleeping bag in the rosebushes and sigh and say bah. For me it was just red wine in my mouth and a pile of firewood” (Kerouac 204). Kerouac writes of the troubles that he and his character face in terms of sexuality. They have trouble finding and sticking to one woman, this then leads to problems with loyalty and moral standards causing further trouble within his group of friends. This lack of moral guidance mixed with absurd amounts of drugs and alcohol leads to negative experiences for all parties involved.

Initially, reporters started saying that reading Kerouac at a young age either wouldn’t have an impact on you or be too much to understand. Rather you should read it as a young adult or as you experience the start of the working world, so you can start relating it to your actual life and or how you want it to have an impact on your said livelihood. Critic John Suiter stated in a review, 'Don't read Kerouac when you're too young. Read him as you join that long death march called steady employment. Then look back. Look back to all the people you knew […] They have plumbed the breadth and depth of human existence. They get laid in the era before The Pill. They doped and boozed. Read Kerouac and look back. None of your old pals will ever be quite what he once was in your memory. And you'll know Kerouac for what he was. And you know that amidst all the lies, he told the truth. He wanted to fool you, but he couldn't. It wasn't in him; he hadn't the talent for it.

He had only enough to tell you the way he had wanted it to be. How he wanted it to be when he looked back on it”. The themes of drugs and alcohol is something that most everyone struggles with at least once in their lives and this book shows that very clearly. As previously noted, reading Kerouac later in your life is ideal compared to a time before exploration in this world. Suiter explains that life is never as good as it seems to be when you look back at it. Your friends change, your family changes, life changes. Therefore, the best thing you can do is simply live in the moment. Gary Snyder wrote Kerouac saying, 'Dharma Bums is a beautiful book, & I am amazed & touched that you should say so many nice things about me because that period was for me really a great process of learning from you”. It’s obviously easier to praise somebody that you like and know quite well as compared to someone without these biases. Fix.

The post World War 2 generation of authors known as the Beat Generation culturized the 1950s. They not only only wrote about politics and the culture around them, but they also created and influenced it. The culture was wrapped around the ideas of sexual liberation and exploration, rejection from societal norms, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and spirituality adventures. Jack Kerouac wrote about all of these topics. He wrote about how his journey becomes different from the norm of society and that no matter what he does, he will never be good enough for society to be happy. In his novel, On The Road, Kerouac writes, “No matter what you do it's bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad” (Kerouac 105). Stated here, Kerouac shows that it didn’t really matter to him anymore whether society accepted him anymore because he decided to envelop himself in the euphoria of traveling with friends.

This decision would lead him on a series of lengthy road trips across America in 1947 leading to the composition of On The Road. In a further exploration of the book’s theme of sadness, Kerouac writes, “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world” (Kerouac 156). In the focus on his pattern of sadness, it is discovered that the character of Sal Paradise has difficulty finding the person for him. He struggles to watch the women he loves walk out of his life. This struggle could be based on Kerouac's divorce from Joan Haverty in the spring of 1945. In one quote, Kerouac describes the alcoholic tendencies of Dean Moriarty when he writes, “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk” (Kerouac 217).

Dean’s father's disappearance led him to turn to the bottle on any occasion. This becomes a problem as the characters begin to prioritize drugs and alcohol over food and other necessities. Alcohol and drugs incidentally become a special way to view Dean and Sal’s relationship. Later, Kerouac writes, “I felt sweet, swinging bliss, like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine late in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die the very next moment. But I didn't die” (Kerouac 139). The feeling of pure bliss that comes in the momentary use of such a dangerous drug such as heroin in incomparable to the consequences of that bliss. This alludes to Kerouac's own battle with drug abuse and alcoholism.

At first, On The Road received high praise for its relatability to the American youth and overall its description of a untamed life lived on the road. Although, these supporters received quick backlash from critics. Phoebe Adams of Atlantic Monthly wrote, 'It disappoints because it constantly promises a conclusion that it cannot deliver on because Dean is more convincing as an eccentric than as a representative of any segment of humanity”. Adams critiques Kerouac for writing up an unrealistic character who is incapable of representing a certain group of people. This is found to be untrue be the books supporters who, as previously stated, feel a real connection with the characters of On The Road. These reviews are only the beginning of the praise this novel has received.

When released, The New York Times called it 'the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is”. The novel has been featured on countless lists detailing the best and most influential pieces of literature. One of these lists, composed by Time magazine, called On The Road one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. With hailing reviews such as these, it is no question where this book stands as an influence on American culture. Previously said, On The Road greatly impacted American culture, but it also left an international impact. On the Road has been cited as a direct influence on various poets, writers, actors and musicians, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Doors and Hunter Thompson.

In 2007, journalist Sean O'Hagan, published in an article in The Guardian, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else's, Dylan would say many years later. Tom Waits, too, acknowledged its influence, hymning Jack and Neal in a song and calling the Beats 'father figures” […] It would be hard to imagine Hunter S. Thompson's road novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had On the Road not laid down the template; likewise, films such as Easy Rider, Paris, Texas, and even Thelma and Louise”. Few authors have had this sort of impact on pop culture especially in a time of much dissent and panic in America amidst the ‘Red Scare’. In his book, Light My Fire, Ray Manzarek went as far as to write, 'I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed”. On The Road influenced an entire generation of musicians, poets, and writers including Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg recalled that felt a draw to the beat generation because they valued detachment from the normality of society. Ginsberg incorporated a sense of freedom into his poetry as a result of the influence of Kerouac.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Jack Kérouac's Impact on On the Road and The Dharma Bums. (2022, Apr 18). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/about-the-influence-of-jack-kerouac-and-his-most-famous-works-being-on-the-road-and-the-dharma-bums-essay

Jack Kérouac's Impact on On the Road and The Dharma Bums essay
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