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  • Dharma Bums: The Beat Generation and the Making of Countercultural Pilgrimage
  • P. J. Johnston

I believe in the sweetness of Jesus And Buddha— I believe, In St. Francis, Avaloki Tesvara, the Saints Of First Century India A D And Scholars Santidevan And Otherwise Santayanan Everywhere.

(Kerouac 1959: 15)

Preliminary Polemics

“PILGRIM, n. A traveler that is taken seriously.”

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 2007: 133

As Beat commentator Stephen Prothero describes in his article “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest” (1991), the Beats and their pilgrimages have most emphatically not been taken seriously. Both critics and scholars have been unkind to members of the Beat generation, and this unkindness has manifested itself in relative neglect of the Beats in all possible aspects of scholarly investigation. But nowhere does this appear more pronounced than in the area of Beat religion. Though some recent scholarship has been picking up from this earlier neglect and it is now [End Page 165] possible to find serious biographies of most of the major Beat writers and some belated attention to the movement as a literary phenomenon, the only book-length treatment of Beat Buddhism I was able to locate (Tonkinson 1995) hardly qualifies as a scholarly work and was published not by an academic press but as a special feature of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. Prothero hypothesizes that this is because of the movement’s reputation as rebellious and antinomian—in its heyday the movement was characterized in identical unsavory terms by publications representing interests as diverse as Life and Playboy, with the latter describing the Beats as “nihilists” and the former claiming that the Beats were at war with “Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage, the Savings Bank, Organized Religion, Literary Elegance, Law, the Ivy League Suit and Higher Education, to say nothing of the Automatic Dishwasher, the Cellophane-wrapped Soda Cracker, the Split-Level House and the clean, or peace-provoking H-bomb” (Prothero 1991: 206). Norman Podhoretz of Partisan Review went further still, claiming that the Beats were “hostile to civilization” and that the movement as a whole amounted to “a revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and crippled of soul” and “an affirmation of death” (ibid., 206). One couldn’t ask for a more passionate disavowal of the Beats or a more thorough polemic that the movement was profoundly antireligious.

This could not contrast more with the Beats’ representation of their movement and its aims, with Jack Kerouac going so far as to reinterpret the crucial term “Beat” (a term for someone down and out originally borrowed from criminal street jive) as a noun derived from the adjective “beatific,” a specifically religious term familiar from such phrases as “the beatific vision” (ibid., 206–207). Several of the representative Beat writers were practicing Buddhists, influencing the entire movement to such an extent that Buddhist ideas and imagery suffused Beat literature as a whole. Ginsberg and Kerouac especially emphasized the positive and constructive elements of their spiritual vision, arguing that literature such as On the Road and Howl should be understood as religious affirmations of what is good and holy rather than as purely critical undertakings: “For the crucifix I speak out, for the Star of Israel I speak out, for the divinest man who ever lived who was German (Bach) I speak out, for sweet Mohammed I speak out, for Buddha I speak out, for Lao-tse and Chuang-tse I speak out” (ibid., 206–207). Or, as Allen Ginsberg put it less lyrically (and rather more bluntly): “Howl is an ‘Affirmation’ by individual experience of God, sex, drugs, and absurdity . . . the poems are religious and I meant them to be” (ibid., 207).

But for the most part, Beat asseverations in no way diminished scholarly wariness about the Beat movement and its spirituality—as Prothero concludes, “the tendency among literary scholars is to see these [religious] concerns as tangential rather than constitutive” while “historians of American religion who have explored beat spirituality have tended to focus almost exclusively on the beats’ engagement with Zen and then to dismiss that engagement as haphazard” (ibid., 207).

It is my contention that the mainstream scholarly neglect of Beat spirituality is in some part...


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