Gary Snyder Talks About Kerouac

Here’s a tender recollection of Jack Kerouac by Gary Snyder. It’s included in The Allen Ginsberg Project website, here, along with a video of the interview. The date and source of the interview was not given:

Kerouac in 1960.

Kerouac in 1960.

“I only knew Jack (Kerouac) personally, in an intimate way, for those few months from the Fall of (19)55 to May of 1956 when I set sail for Japan. I never saw him again, and it was like a brief camp-out together when we shared that cabin in Marin County through the Spring of that year, practiced meditation together, talked Buddhists texts, wrote poetry and drank a lot of Tokaj – and then I left. At that time, all that Jack and I were doing together were practicing mountains, practicing wood-cutting, practicing flowers and birds and practicing Buddhist studies.

Interviewer: Does The Dharma Bums…Is that a really accurate story or is a lot of it made up?

GS: Some of it’s a novel, some of it reflects things that happened, but even the reflection is novel too, like (William) Burroughs would say.

Interviewer: Did you know he was going to write a book about you?

GS: Yeah, he told me, towards the end. He said, “I’m going to write a book about you, Gary, you’re going to be really famous!” –  “Really?”

Interviewer: Do you think he had a sense of himself as being a major novelist. I mean as like a..

GS: Yes. I do, at that time even.

Interviewer: In what sense..?

GS: The clear sense of his skill, his power, his vocation, and his energy, and that there was something that he was going to be saying

Interviewer: In a way, there’s a funny kind of worship, you know, of what you represented.

GS: Well, he does that in the novel. He plays that in some of the other novels too, where he makes his first person singular into kind of a naive character that elicits information from people by pretending not to know (and he didn’t do that much with me in person, although, it’s true, he was real naive about some things.

Interviewer: What was.. what was..

GS: He didn’t really know what was involved in going back-packing and hiking and climbing. It was all new to him, but he was a quick learner. And he didn’t know much about nature, or that you could know about nature really, in its specific way. And so, spending some time on the Spring bird migrations and the many species that were coming through Marin County that year –  five hundred a year come through Marin County on a Pacific fly-way –  so we were checking off species as they came through that little shack and Jack really appreciated all that information.

…Like we were cutting some eucalyptus and splitting eucalyptus for fire-wood the stove and he was like a kid – learning how to start a chain-saw, how to handle a maul  – same way as when we went back-packing. Oh, I was going to say, we did another trip too (besides to the High Sierra). We did a.. two-night maybe? camping trip, hiking right from Homestead Valley over Mount Tam. and camping out on the drainages on the north side of Mount Tamalpais..local places..and swinging around and coming back…

Interviewer: Was Kerouac really as frightened… there’s a thing where he..

GS: (shaking his head): Mm-mm

Interviewer: Oh, interesting.

GS: Well, that’s part of his story-telling.

Interviewer: Because he says, “I was a coward” – He says “I was the Buddha known as the coward. At least I have joy”, or something like that [editorial note – Kerouac’s actual line –I realized I have no guts anyway, which I’ve long known. But I have joy.”]

GS: He likes to play with that. He’s an athlete.

Interviewer: Did you think of him as an intellectual?

GS: No. But well-read, to make the distinction. A very well-read person and a very sharp person with a critical acuity when he wished to employ it, but not like a practicing intellectual, which is a style, (that) is all it is…

GS: The Buddhist metaphor?

Interviewer: Yes

GS: Suffering, impermanence, the First Noble Trutheverything is impermanent and we must find our joy and our freedom in suffering – finally. He swung around through that, to the Buddhist understanding of that – and it’s all through his writing – and then settled back into, maybe, the more familiar comfort of Catholic metaphors…

Now you asked me “Did he seem very American?” and I said “Yes”, and you said “Why?”, and I was ruminating on how to answer that. He was in his physical health and strength, in his unconscious grace, in his child-like-ness, (which was real a lot of the time), in his openness to experiencing new things and learning new things, his paradoxical joy in a kind of freshness in the world (paradoxical, because at the same time he was aware of suffering and impermanence), and maybe all of that is sort of American – And a total absence in Jack of anything elite, or yuppie, or academic, or intellectual, or any of that posturing at all that we associate with learned people, middle-class white people. He was more like your aunt, you know, sitting at a table in the kitchen, or your grandma, sitting at a table in the kitchen, speaking in common-sense truths about orderliness and kindness, basic instructions, and so, very much like my old aunt from Texas, and easy to be with.

Kerouac's writing desk in Florida, where he wrote The Dharma Bums, the story of his time with Snyder.

Kerouac’s desk in Florida in the house where he wrote The Dharma Bums, the story of his time with Snyder.

 

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One Comment on “Gary Snyder Talks About Kerouac”

  1. Love this! Thank you for sharing. If you’re ever interested in some other great book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!


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