When I was a graduate student at Berkeley studying Chinese and Japanese and planning to go to the Orient, in a perhaps excessively orderly fashion I decided I should get my teeth fixed. I didn’t realize they had dentists all over the place. Anyway, I signed up with the University of California dental school, and for two years I bicycled from Berkeley to San Francisco once a week and put myself in the hands of a Japanese-American dental student. On one of those occasions I took along New World Writing No. 7, and I read the little thing by a fellow named Jean-Louis, which was one of the most entertaining things I’d read in a long time, and it always stuck in my mind. I didn’t know anything of Jack or Allen at that time, but I never forgot that little piece of prose, “Jazz of the Beat Generation.” It was the first time I saw the term Beat Generation. What I liked was the writing, of course, and the energy that was in it, and the evocation of people. Of course it didn’t say “Jack Kerouac,” it said “Jean-Louis.”
Later I met Allen. Shortly after that, I met Jack. When I met Jack, and hearing Allen speak of his projects and hearing Jack speak, I flashed that he was Jean-Louis.
Allen asked Rexroth who was doing interesting poetry in the area. Allen had the idea of trying to put together some kind of poetry reading, and Kenneth mentioned my name as one person he might want to look up. So Allen just turned up at my place when I was fixing my bicycle in the backyard, and said that he had been talking to Kenneth. So we sat down and started comparing who we knew and what we were thinking about.
Jack was, in a sense, a twentieth-century American Lithographer. And that’s why maybe those novels will stand up, because they will be one of the best statements of the myth of the twentieth century. just as Ginsberg represents one clear archetypal aspect of twentieth century America, I think Jack saw me, in a funny way, as being another archetypal twentieth-century American of the West, of the anarchist, libertarian, IWW tradition, of a tradition of working outdoors and fitting in already with his fascination with the hobo, railroad bum, working man. I was another dimension on that.
Like on one occasion I remember we spent a number of hours in which I simply explained to him how logging camps worked and what all the steps in a logging operation are. Now I don’t believe he ever used that in a book, but he was collecting that kind of information and enthusiastically digesting it all the time.
If my life and work is in some sense a kind of an odd extension, in its own way, of what Thoreau, Whitman, John Muir, etcetera, are doing, then Jack hooked into that and he saw that as valuable to him for his purposes in this century.
And Allen was the New York radical, Jewish intelligentsia. Jack really was skillful in identifying these types, recognizing them as being a particular image that would become part of the mythology of America that he was working at. When he talked about his great novel that he was writing, it was like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of stories which sketch out the view of the times. And he saw himself on the scale of a mythographer. The legend of Duluoz.
The dialectic that I observed in Jack, which was kind of charming, really, and you see it at work in his novels, was that be could play the fool and he could play the student very well. “But see, I really don’t know anything about this. Teach me!” “Wow! You really know how to do that?” and lead you on. ‘I’hat was balanced by sometimes great authoritativeness and great arrogance, and he would suddenly say, “I am the authority.” But then he would get out of that again. It was partly maybe like a really skillful novelist’s con, to get people to speak. And be uses that as a literary device in his novels, where he presents himself often as the straight guy and he lets the other guys be smart.
I much appreciated what he had to say about spontaneous prose, although I never wrote prose. I think it influenced my journal writing a lot, some of which would, say, be registered in the book Earth House Hold. I think that I owe a lot to Jack in my prose style, actually. And my sense of poetics has been touched by Jack for sure.
Our interchanges on Buddhism were on the playful and delightful level of exchanging the lore, exchanging what we knew about it, what he thought of Mahayana. He made up names. He would follow on the Mahayana Sutra invention of lists, and he would invent more lists, like the names of all the past Buddhas, the names of all the future Buddhas, the names of all the other universes. He was great at that. But it was not like a pair of young French intellectuals sitting down comparing their structural comprehension of something. We exchanged lore. And I would tell him, “Now look. Here are these Chinese Buddhists,” and that’s how we ended up talking about the Han-shan texts together, and I introduced him to the texts that give the anecdotes of the dialogues and confrontations between T’ang Dynasty masters and disciples, and of course he was delighted by that. Anybody is. ‘I’hat’s what we did.
I didn’t then, and I don’t now, think in terms of whether or not people are genuinely committed Buddhists or not. We’re working with all of these things, and it doesn’t matter what words you give to them, and if I thought that there was some point where I would say, “Jack, you’re thinking too much about how the world’s a bad place,” that would be my sense of a corrective and his understanding of the Buddha-dharma, but that wasn’t in my interest, or anybody else’s interest, to think: “Is this guy a real Buddhist or not a real Buddhist?” He was worried about it later, but I never was, and I don’t think Philip Whalen ever was, or anybody else.
When Jack came I was living over on Hillegass, and Philip had come back from the mountains. I had spent the summer up in the Sierra Nevada working on a trail crew and, naturally, we were talking a lot about the mountains. We were just back fresh from it, from the season’s work, and I had rucksacks and climbing rope and ice-axes hanging on the walls around my place. Naturally we talked some about all of that.
I perceived that there was a kind of freedom and mobility that one gained in the world, somewhat analogous to the wandering Buddhist monk of ancient times, that was permitted you by having a proper pack and sleeping bag, so that you could go out on the road and through the mountains into the countryside. The word for Zen monk in Chinese, yun shui, means literally “clouds and water,” and it’s taken from a line in Chinese poetry, “To float like clouds, to flow like water,” which indicates the freedom and mobility of Zen monks walking around all over China and Tibet and Mongolia on foot.
With that in mind I said to Jack, “You know, real Buddhists are able to walk around the countryside.” So he said, “Sure. Let’s go backpacking.” I think John Montgomery said, “There’s time for one more trip into the mountains before it gets too much colder.” It was around the end of October.
So we headed up over Sonora Pass, leaving at night in Berkeley, and went over to Bridgeport, up to Twin Lakes and went in from there, over Sonora Pass.
It was very funny. It’s very beautifully described in The Dharma Bums, actually. It was very cold. It was late autumn. The aspens were yellow, and it went well below freezing in the night and left frost on the little creek in the canyon we were camped at. There was a sprinkle of fresh white’snow up on the ridges and peaks. We made it up to the top of the Matterhorn and came back down again. Actually, Jack didn’t. I guess I was the only one that went up there. I was the persistent one.
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