The skills of improvisation, devalued in the modern industrial West, were to laboriously unlocked, like prisoners buried in a cave led by a perilous route back into the light. Nor did the fact that Kerouac’s work was openly, unabashedly autobiographical, that he staked everything on an ethos of almost physical intimacy in which the somatic self’s fluctuations defy the censorship of the mind, bringing the narrative “I” as close to himself as possible and abolishing the traditional distance between author and reader, mean the result was life, not art.
The true story of postwar America in all its speed, tomfoolery, and sorrowfulness, Kerouac believed, could only be told as interior monologue and confession.
Buddhism promised Kerouac a world where wanderers could fashion their own religious order, one more ecumenical than Christianity ever devised, a special form of the gathered church, “big wild bands of holy men,” in Kerouac’s words in The Dharma Bums, “Zen lunatics” bringing the “vision of freedom of eternity” to all creatures and sanctifying a way of life fast disappearing in America: the way of the vagrant, the hobo, the bum. The “Dharma” in Kerouac’s title meant “truth,” but the word “Bums” held an older and deeper It summoned up the Depression images of his boyhood Kerouac loved, men traveling “with nothing but a paper bag for luggage,” as he put it in Desolation Angels, “waiting in line for coffee and donuts…forag[ing] in riverside dumps looking for junk to sell,” an image with a long pedigree in American life and popular culture
The Dharma Bums (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by Jack Kerouac