One theme that is prevalent throughout much of the literature we have covered so far is that it is very critical of the conformist values of late 1950s society. In an era of Levittowns and supermarkets and the omnipresent television, there was a call to leave the conformist suburban culture in search of something higher. Two major proponents of the individual as opposed to society were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, two of the central figures in the Beat movement. Through their work one can gain a perspective on the anti-conformity spirit that was brewing under the surface in the Beat culture.
The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, tells us through the mouth of Ray Smith about his time with Japhy the Zen Lunatic. His narrative depicts a critique of modern culture, with its demands, expectations, and plastic rewards. Even the title of the book suggests this, as the Buddhist word Dharma means one's niche, or spiritual duty in the universe. Thus a Dharma Bum would be one whose natural place in the world, where he rightly belongs, is living the life of a transient. In other words, Kerouac is saying that there is no shame in a life which is outside of the normal realm of society, if this is where one's life takes them.
One central theme of The Dharma Bums is Buddhism. One of the most important things to note about the religion in this book is the two forms it takes, and the significance these forms have on the plot and meaning of the book. Ray Smith is a neophyte in the school of Theraveda Buddhism, which is a school dedicated to movement towards enlightenment. Under the teaching of the Theraveda canon, everything a person does should be done with the end goal of perso...
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...the top of the mountain and climbing still higher. However, Ginsberg sees desolation and the decay of our society into a homogenous, conformist slop. The reason for this difference could be attributed to their particular situations; while both were climbing higher and higher both in the Beat circles and in the literary world, Ginsberg was still confronting his own sexuality and past. At any rate, however, it becomes clear through the readings of these poets that both were proponents of the individual, and that both condemned conformity. By the late 1950s, the main question on the minds of these men would be whether we could rise above the "faceless wonderless crapulous civilization."
Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Berkely, CA.: U. of California P., 1999.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: The Penguin Group, 1976.
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