The Dharma Bums: Judging a Book by its Cover

On Dave Moore’s wonderful Beat Generation Facebook group – a partner to the very active Jack Kerouac group – there is at present a thread discussing the following cover for Jack Kerouac’s classic, The Dharma Bums.

The Dharma Bums


(The discussion actually revolves around the front cover and not the whole jacket as featured above.)

The person who originally posted the cover remarked that it was the, “Worst cover ever!” and questioned whether or not the cartoony style made the reader expect a graphic novel rather than a modern literary classic.

While some people defended the cover or at least suggested that it was not all that awful, many commenters showed their disapproval. It was described as “truly ugly,” “unspeakably ugly,” “juvenile,” and a few people took issue with the fact that Kerouac is depicted as a dog.

Putting aside the inside flaps, which contain a bizarre comic strip (based upon dialogue from within the book), I must say that I take an opposing view to most of the people in the thread. I rather like the cover. For a start, the colours are pleasant. The simple orange and black appeal to me, seem to reflect the melancholy under-riding the book, and also are a nod to its publisher, Penguin, of whose Classics series this is a part. Moreover, Kerouac frequently describes the sun, and in particular the sunrise, as well as the fire and rocks of his mountain camp, as orange. He also drinks orange juice, eats oranges, eats on orange crates, and Japhy Ryder keeps his Buddhism books on shelves made of orange crates. Towards the end of the book, discussing what is and isn’t real, Kerouac argues with his family over the validity of an orange. Does it exist as we perceive it?

I’ll admit that the image of Kerouac as a cartoon dog is unusual and did catch me a bit off guard. The edition I own features a tramp-like man and the woman by his side. It adheres more to the hobo-beat vibe that pitched the book at a certain demographic in the footloose, hitch-hiking sixties.

The Dharma Bums

So why depict Kerouac as a cartoon dog? Maybe it’s again a matter of sales and demographics – Penguin Classics wants to grab readers of a certain age who are perhaps more interested in comic books or graphic novels. While the old debate about judging a book by its cover tells us that the content is more important, we can never forget that first you have to grab the reader’s attention. And if a cover endears a new generation of readers, what’s the harm? The old guard might complain, but they’re hardly going to give up on Kerouac because of one cover…

But, personally, I think the artist deserves a little more credit than having produced a cutesy cartoon dog for kids. I think the dog was a deliberate choice that went a little deeper.

When we think of Kerouac, we’re more likely to think of cats. Not just because Kerouac, like so many other writers, including his friend William S. Burroughs, was a cat person, who wrote about and was photographed with his cats, but because in Beat parlance, he was a cat. A cool cat, a hep cat, etc. Indeed, in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac both references actual cats that he owned, and also refers to Gary Snyder’s character, Japhy, as a cat: “Japhy I gotta hand it to you, you’re the happiest little cat in the world.”

It is less frequent in Kerouac’s novels to see references to dogs, either as animals or a description for a person. They are sometimes viewed negatively. In On the Road, for example, dogs are barking at Kerouac and trying to bite him. Yet, in The Dharma Bums, there are more references to dogs than cats, and they are viewed as overwhelmingly positive. Even when these references are seemingly innocuous they are connected to the spiritual and religious ideas Kerouac had at the time. As the book advances, dogs become undeniably important to Kerouac’s personal journey.

About halfway into the book Kerouac describes a conversation between him and Gary Snyder, wherein Snyder asks “What would you say if someone was asked the question, ‘Does a dog have a Buddha nature?’ and said ‘Woof!'”Kerouac claims that this is part of Zen Buddhism, which is “silly” and concerned with verbal games rather than serious religious thought. Although he is dismissive of Zen Buddhism, Kerouac is tying the dog into the discussion and connecting it, as representative of the animal kingdom, to the Buddha. Until this point dogs had existed largely as a backdrop – their barks as the soundtrack to serene nights and meditation.

Later, we are introduced to “Bob, a big bird dog,” in a scene of pure serenity, where Kerouac’s character comes as close to nirvana (the word on his sign on the book’s cover) as he ever would:


After they’d gone to bed I put on my jacket and my earmuff cap and railroad gloves and over all that my nylon poncho and strode out in the cottonfield moonlight like a shroudy monk. The ground was covered with moonlit frost. The old cemetery down the road gleamed in the frost. The roofs of nearby farmhouses were like white panels of snow. I went through the cottonfield rows followed by Bob, a big bird dog, and little Sandy who belonged to the Joyners down the road, and a few other stray dogs (all dogs love me) and came to the edge of the forest. In there, the previous spring, I’d worn out a little path going to meditate under a favorite baby pine. The path was still there. My official entrance to the forest was still there, this being two evenly spaced young pines making kind of gate posts. I always bowed there and clasped my hands and thanked Avalokitesvara for the privilege of the wood. Then I went in, led moonwhite Bob direct to my pine, where my old bed of straw was still at the foot of the tree. I arranged my cape and legs and sat to meditate.
The dogs meditated on their paws. We were all absolutely quiet. The entire moony countryside was frosty silent, not even the little tick of rabbits or coons anywhere. An absolute cold blessed silence. Maybe a dog barking five miles away toward Sandy Cross. Just the faintest, faintest sound of trucks rolling out the night on 301, about twelve miles away, and of course the distant occasional Diesel baugh of the Atlantic Coast Line passenger and freight trains going north and south to New York and  Florida. A blessed night. I immediately fell into a blank thoughtless trance wherein it was again revealed to me “This thinking has stopped” and I sighed because I didn’t have to think any more and felt my whole body sink into a blessedness surely to be believed, completely relaxed and at peace with all the ephemeral world of dream and dreamer and the dreaming itself.

He we see Kerouac at his happiest and most content. He has achieved peace, or “blessedness.” And he is surrounded by dogs. “All dogs love me,” he claims, as they follow him. Then, as he meditates, so do they. “The dogs meditated on their paws,” he claims. As all thought is lost, he is aware only of sounds in the distance – one of which is a dog barking. His entire religious experience, here, is tied to the presence and existence of these animals.

He goes on to give one of the best known quotes from this novel when he says, “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls,” while petting Bob, and seems to relate this action as the aforementioned act of kindness. He observes that, when considering the concepts of Buddhism, he is no different from the dogs that sit around him as he meditates, saying, “All living and dying things like these dogs and me coming and going without any duration or self substance…” The dogs are clearly inextricably linked to his spiritual discoveries.

The dogs appear in the novel when Kerouac is happy or making some sort of discovery. Bob, a bright white dog, at one stage literally leads Kerouac down a “dark path.” The imagery there is hardly subtle. The dogs are leading or accompanying Kerouac on his personal journey. This means that dogs have acted as both his followers and his guides. Towards the end of the book, when spring comes and he is thinking less about philosophy and learning to enjoy simply existing, is is again surrounded by “happy dogs,” who are “yawning and almost swallowing [his] Dharma.” Along with the usual spring imagery of budding flowers, the dogs are ever present for his own reawakening. As he enjoys the feeling of “ecstasy of the endless truebody” (his enlightenment) he “consorted only with dogs and cats.” He has achieved total happiness at this stage and it is clear he views the dogs as an essential component of its attainment.


Sunday afternoon, then, I’d go to my woods with the dogs and sit and put out my hands palms up and accept handfuls of sun boiling over the palms. “Nirvana is the moving paw,” I’d say, seeing the first thing I saw as I opened my eyes from meditation, that being Bob’s paw moving in the grass as he dreamed.

Kerouac’s ecstasy is short-lived, however, as his family – who are largely disturbed by his happiness – want Bob chained up. His brother-in-law explains that the dog is simply too expensive to have its freedom. It should remain chained up in the back yard, lest he lose money. The symbolism here is obvious: freedom and happiness are all well and good, but the cold reality of life means that we are shackled and denied our natural state of being. At this point in the book, Kerouac’s family are trying to get him to give up his Buddhism and come back to his regular life. Indeed, in reality Kerouac was convinced to return from his Buddhist wanderings and live in the reality unto which he was born – living with his mother until his early death.

Kerouac returns to the woods to muse this situation, and finds shame in having pride in his kindness to animals. He comes to his next great realization – everything is “empty” and does not exist as perceived. “My pain was in getting rid of the conception of people and dogs anyway, and of myself.”

Throughout the book, dogs are symbolic for Kerouac. They have followed him, guided him, and surrounded him during his quest for enlightenment and understand. They are inseparable from his spiritual discoveries, and represent his adventure beyond simply a man with a backpack. So why not have him represented as a dog on the book’s cover? If Kerouac eventually realizes that “the conception of people and dogs” is false, why not swap a human for a dog? It seems to me that in The Dharma Bums Kerouac was going beyond the physical in search of a greater truth. If the orange that his brother-in-law presented did not exist, and nothing existed, then surely a dog is as valid a representation of the story as a man.

Related posts:

David S. Wills

Posts Twitter Facebook

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, or on Tumblr.

2 responses to The Dharma Bums: Judging a Book by its Cover

  1. the artwork is by jason, a norwegian cartoonist who portrays almost all characters as dog-like creatures.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>