JOHN SUITER Interviewed by MICHAEL ROTHENBERG, Editor of BIG BRIDGE
Interview © 2003 John Suiter & Michael Rothenberg, All Rights Reserved. All photographs © John Suiter All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.
With Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades, writer and photographer John Suiter offers a book that The Boston Phoenix calls “the one Beat book of the year worth owning—and reading...Suiter comes up with something that most recent studies of the Beat poets don’t—original research and a fresh perspective. Forsaking Beat’s urban geographies, Suiter takes to the Zen-like solitude and fierce natural world that these poets sought in their summers as fire watchers in the American West.” And, The Los Angeles Times says, “Nothing in recent years has made a greater contribution to the understanding of the Beats as nature writers than Suiter’s book.” Big Bridge Editor Michael Rothenberg interviews the Boston author.
BIG BRIDGE: Well, things most illuminating to me about your Poets in the Peaks was that you turned away from the much discussed urban aspect of the Beat writers, to the wilderness, ecological, out of The West, Dharma Bum vision of the Beats. As far as I know this is the first book that underscores that part of the beat history. Do you want to start there? It makes me consider Jeffers, Rexroth, Pacific Rim, and dharma.
SUITER: All the themes that you mention were already there, of course, but no one else had come along and organized the various pieces of information, legend and myth into a continuous narrative. I didn’t even see it that way myself at first. The book evolved from a photo essay and a couple of magazine articles that I wrote after staying for two weeks in Jack Kerouac’s old fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades mountains—the cabin where he worked in 1956 that became the setting of the final chapters of The Dharma Bums. I was a volunteer fire watcher for the National Park Service for a couple of weeks in the summer of 1995. While I was there, I made photographs for a small exhibit to commemorate Kerouac’s sojourn there, which was later shown at the Park’s visitors’ center, and I kept a journal, and when I came down, and back East (I live in Boston), I got a chance to read Kerouac’s own Desolation journal, and then I wrote an article about Kerouac on Desolation for The Independent in London. It was a story that simply said: Remember Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums? Remember his little hermitage on the mountain? Well, it’s still there after forty years, almost the same as he left it...and the country around it, for as far as you can see is exactly the same because conservation activists protected it, had it designated a national park.
Then gradually a greater story began to take shape. I learned that Gary Snyder had been a fire lookout on the same forest—at Crater Mountain Lookout in 1952, and at Sourdough Mountain Lookout in 1953. Of course, it was Snyder who urged Kerouac to go to Desolation when they first met. And I learned also that Snyder’s old friend from Reed College, the poet Philip Whalen, had also become a fire lookout in the Mount Baker Forest at the prodding of Gary. They were roommates in San Francisco, and Whalen had run up a pile of IOUs to Snyder, and Snyder insisted that he get a mountain of his own, largely to pay him back, but of course also because he knew that Whalen could handle the solitude, and in fact would love it. So Whalen was a lookout on Sauk Mountain in 1953, and then on Sourdough in ‘54 and ‘55.
So there it was: a continuous narrative line, from 1952 to 1956. Three writers, good buddies, all three into Buddhism, five mountaintops in the same forest, which became the focal point of a major environmental battle...it wasn’t too long before the title Poets on the Peaks came to me, and I saw the possibility of a book. Then, late in 1997 I met Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, interviewed them and made portraits of them, and began corresponding, and I went back to the North Cascades two more times over the next couple of years, to do more hiking and to stay for a while at Sourdough Lookout. But it took a little time to disentangle a lot of misinformation. Before this book, even people who lived in the Upper Skagit valley and worked for the Park Service didn’t have some of the simplest facts of this particular story down correctly, like which mountains the different guys were on, which years, that sort of thing. One story would have Kerouac on Sourdough, or Whalen on Sourdough for the wrong year, things like that—small bits of misinformation that kept an accurate picture from coming into focus. Other little things in some Beat books like calling the lookouts “fire towers,” when on these bald summited peaks they are not towers at all, but small cabins on the ground—things that indicated people were writing about these places without ever having gone there. Ann Charters and Gerald Nicosia wrote major biographies of Kerouac without going there, and sort of glossed over the importance of Kerouac’s wilderness experience. And I also learned, from working on a CD-Rom about Kerouac in 1994, that no professional photographers had ever gone to make pictures at Desolation Lookout. There was only one photograph of Desolation Lookout in existence as far as our photo-researchers could tell, one aerial shot taken by the National Park Service, and that was IT. To me, as a journalist, Kerouac’s Dharma Bum period was fertile ground. You know, for many people, The Dharma Bums is their favorite Kerouac title. Over the years, it has been his second best selling title, after On the Road...a distant second, but The Dharma Bums has never gone out of print. It’s a very significant part of Kerouac’s legend, and it had been unfortunately eclipsed by, as you say, the “much-discussed urban aspects” of his life and work.
BIG BRIDGE: You mention a major environmental battle that rose up around The Peaks. Can you tell me something about that battle?
SUITER: Well, what I meant was that in 1952, when Gary Snyder first came to the Upper Skagit area to work as a fire lookout at Crater Mountain, all the territory he could see in every direction, that is, a couple of million acres, was being administered by the US Forest Service. This was at the height of the post war housing boom, and the woods of the interior Pacific Northwest—the Primitive Areas they were called—were beginning to be threatened by commercial logging and mining. Up until that point, those huge conifer forests had been defended, not by human foresight, but by natural force: they were just too remote and dense and steep, and the timber companies were too busy logging out the stands on the coast. By 1950 those companies had used up “their” logs along Puget Sound, and they were pressing the Federal government to open up untouched public lands to feed their mills. Gary put it succinctly in the Logging section of Myths and Texts when he wrote:
The groves are down
Groves of Ahab, of Cybele
Pine trees, knobbed twigs
thick cone and seed
Cybele’s tree this, sacred in groves
Pine of Seami, cedar of Haida
Cut down b y the prophets of Israel
the fairies of Athens
the thugs of Rome
both ancient and modern;
Cut down to make room for the suburbs
Bulldozed by Luther and Weyerhaeuser...
Creeks choked, trout killed, roads.
So from around 1950 until the late 60s, that Upper Skagit area where Gary, then Philip, then Jack worked as fire lookouts and poets was a battleground as conservationists of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society and other groups worked hard to get National Park and Wilderness Area protections for the area. And they won. The focal point of the conservation battle was the country around Glacier Peak, a 10,000 foot snow capped volcano, whose flanks were already being nibbled away at by the timber companies and mining outfits with the acquiesence of the Forest Service.
BIG BRIDGE: It seems that in many of the environmental efforts histories like the history you are telling in your book become important to help secure and protect a particular place for posterity. Do you have any thoughts on that?
SUITER: I don’t think there’s any question that the writings of Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac had a galvanizing effect, Snyder’s directly and Kerouac’s indirectly. Snyder was already an environmental activist when he went to Crater Mountain in 1952, or I should say, “conservationist.” There were no “environmentalists” yet, the word wasn’t in usage. But Gary had been a member of the Wilderness Society since the late 1940s, and a member of the Mazamas from the time he was 15 or 16. The Mazamas are a mountaineering club, and staunch conservationists; they were in fact the first group to press for a National Park in the North Cascades, literally back in the days of John Muir. So Gary had an enlightened conservation perspective already, and his later connections with the early ecology movement, and Deep Ecology and Bioregionalism are so well known...But Kerouac also had an environmental influence. How many back country treks do you think The Dharma Bums has inspired over the years? Certainly hundreds of thousands of young people first got an appreciation of wilderness that they might not have otherwise had, after reading that book and taking off for the mountains. With his character Japhy Ryder, Kerouac presented a new kind of literary culture hero in the late 1950s. I don’t know of any environmentalist who wasn’t somewhat inspired by Kerouac at some point early on. Kerouac early on, then Snyder, continuously on into the present.
Now as far as literary support for environmental battles, in Kerouac’s case it was synchronistic and largely unintended. By that I mean, he was part of larger going-ons, part of the Zeitgeist. For instance, the summer he was on Desolation Peak, 1956, was a key summer in the Pacific Northwest. The Wilderness bill was introduced into Congress in early June 1956; exactly one week after that Kerouac set out from Mill Valley to the North Cascades. Now, of course, Kerouac had no idea that a Wilderness bill had been introduced, but it was all part of the historic moment. At the same time that Kerouac set out for Desolation Peak, a young guy named David Simon was hitchhiking out of Berkeley, also heading for the North Cascades. David Simon was a key person in the creation of today’s North Cascades National Park. Hardly anyone knows who he is anymore because he died before he was 26, and has mostly been forgotten, but he spent the summer of 1956 in the North Cascades, hiking, camping, and photographing in the Glacier Peak country just south and west of where Kerouac was during the very same time. He was a young Sierra club member, inspired by David Brower and Grant McConnell. He did exhaustive research that summer, and wrote a brief that became the basis for the Sierra Club’s whole preservation effort in the North Cascades. He was only 21. And again, that same summer, in August, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society both took their annual camping trips in the Glacier Peak wilderness; there are photographs from that outing of the Brower family and the Zahniser family sitting around the campfire with Philip Zalesky of the Seattle Mountaineers, all strategizing their future conservation moves for that area.
It was an historic moment in the environmental story of that region, and if the photographer could have pulled back and looked at the region from high enough above, he would have seen, just 50 miles north, Jack Kerouac scribbling away in his notebooks by lantern light on Desolation Peak, scribbling passages that would go straight into the manuscript of The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. He wasn’t writing about conservation, certainly; but he would draw thousands of people’s attention to that wilderness from another angle, the dharmic perspective. That’s what I mean by synchronistic. The Dharma Bums came out in the fall of 1958, so it had a direct impact in that region. I’ve talked with old Forest Service guys who worked in Marblemount when that book came out, and they all were reading it, not for environmental reasons certainly, but to see if they were mentioned in it. Gary Snyder’s books didn’t appear until later, but the Forest Service people and the National Park people all read Snyder. When the lookouts packed up to Sourdough and Desolation, they all stowed Riprap and The Back Country and Earth House Hold in their gear. Those books and The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels were and are required lookout reading.
BIG BRIDGE Did you have any involvement or interaction with the people involved in the battle?
SUITER: Well, I did interview some of the people who were involved back in that time in the Park fight—Polly Dyer, a tough old conservationist from Seattle, I talked with her quite a bit, and she gave me a lot of lore and a lot of understanding of what went on. She knew David Simon; he used to crash on her living room floor when he came through Seattle. I never quoted her or directly used any of the information that she gave me in my book, but her stories informed what I did write. It was necessary background, and it strengthened the text below the written line as it were. I also talked on a few occasions with Ed Zahniser, the son of Howard Zahniser, the prime mover behind the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness bill took nine years to get on the books, from 1956 to 1964, with the Forest Service, and the timber lobbyists and their senators and reps fighting it every step of the way. Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society wrote the bill, and something like 65 revisions to it, and attended every congressional hearing on it for nine years, and ended up dying of a heart attack a month before the bill was enacted into law, like Moses. His son Ed works for the National Park Service now. Ed is a big admirer of Snyder and Kerouac, and he put me in touch with some important people from the National Park fight, and he gave me his mother Alice’s journal that she kept on that Glacier Peak camping trip in August of 1956. Ed knew of David Simon, too, although Ed was just a kid then. He recalled that when David Simon died (Simon died very suddenly from hepatitis, in 1960 at age 25), Howard Zahniser cried bitterly, as did David Brower, as they knew the conservation movement had unquestionably lost a future leader.
BIG BRIDGE: I understand there was a dedication of these lookouts by the Park Service which gave them additional landmark status. Maybe you can you tell me something about that.
SUITER: They already had landmark status, but the Park updated the citations in the National Register to include mention of Gary and Philip. To me, this is a sweet irony. Back in the 50s, when Snyder and company were fire watching in the North Cascades, it was the height of the lookout era: there were about 5,000 lookouts on public lands in the United States. There were 40 just In the Mount Baker National Forest where they worked. Then gradually in the 60s and 70s the lookouts began to disappear as the Forest Service and National Park more and more favored aerial detection of fires by planes and satellites. Lookouts got decommissioned, unmanned lookouts got vandalized, or slowly fell apart in the harsh mountaintop conditions. The Forest Service burned a lot of them down to avert “attractive nuisance” lawsuits. In the Upper Skagit only two of the old lookouts are still functioning today with paid Park Service lookouts in them: Desolation Peak and Sourdough Mountain—the poets lookouts! I like that, it’s exactly like Dogen said: Lookouts belong to the government, but they really belong to the people that love them.
Desolation Lookout and Sourdough Mountain Lookout were both put on the National Register of Historic Places during the 1980s. But not because of their poetic connections—because of their historic role in the protection of the forest. Things have changed quite a bit since the 80s, though. The many hikers who go to those lookouts now—and their numbers are increasing—are going there because of Kerouac and Snyder, to see the country that inspired Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and poems like “Mid-August on Sourdough Mountain” by Snyder and “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” by Philip. So this summer, when Gary came to the Upper Skagit to give a poetry reading in Newhalem, surrounded by mountains and under a great old Maple tree—his first trip to that neighborhood in 50 years, by the way— the Park presented him with a citation, updating the National Register’s historic designation to include mention of him and Phil Whalen, and the cultural significance of their fire seasons there, and the poems they wrote during their watches.
BIG BRIDGE: You have been clear about Gary and Jack and their influence and impact on our awareness of "The Wild". How do you think Philip's work highlighted or reflected an understanding or appreciation of the wilderness. Philip is often characterized as not being a "mountain man" type. Apparently he did well enough up there to want to come back again.
SUITER: Right, he came back after his first year on Sauk Mountain and did two more seasons on Sourdough, so to be nitpicky about it, he actually did as much lookouting in the Skagit as Kerouac and Snyder combined. And it wasn’t only that he wanted to come back, he was invited back by Blackie Burns, the crusty old fire control officer from the Skagit District (Burnie Byers in The Dharma Bums) who was not the type to cut you any slack if you couldn’t do the job. Philip wasn’t up there on some nature writer’s fellowship. Blackie liked Philip because Philip was good with the radio, from his Army Air Corps time; you had to be able to tinker with these cumbersome two-way radios, that was the only means of communication in the mountains in those days, between lookouts and trail crews or fire fighters down in the valleys. I spoke with some old Forest Service guys who remembered Phil as the most reliable radio man in that country. Philip also did a lot of trail crew work when he wasn’t up on lookout. So he was competent in the woods.
As far as being a “mountain man,” well he certainly was grossly overweight quite often in his life and probably wouldn’t have been able to make it up a hill, but if you see that picture of him standing in the doorway of Sourdough Lookout in the summer of 1955, he looks pretty fit to me, and perfectly at home in that scene. And in the 60s he did some serious treks in the Sierra. I think he could be physically strong when he needed to be and pushed himself, but aside from all that, let me say that fire lookouting isn’t as much a physical test as it is a mental and emotional one, and on that score Philip could handle himself quite well, and probably better than most. Being a lookout is about being alone in the mountains with yourself for a long time, and how well you can handle that. There’s that line in Snyder’s Myths and Texts—“the mountains are your mind.” Most people are crawling out of their skins after a couple of days of solitude, but Philip loved to watch his mind at work. You mentioned that to me one time...
BIG BRIDGE: Some of Philip's important work like Sourdough Mountain Lookout and pieces of The Diamond Noodle were born from his visits up there. Many people consider "Sourdough" as essential Whalen.
SUITER: I am one of them, certainly. He began “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” there in the lookout on August 15, 1955. That photo of him in the doorway of Sourdough was taken on the 14th, so we know exactly what Whalen looked like at that time. That picture was snapped by Ed or Jean Danielsen, a couple of Reed College friends who had come up to visit him on the mountain (and incidentally, that photograph was another of the incredible bits of serendipity that strengthened Poets on the Peaks). Anyway, after the Danielsen’s left him alone again Philip began that poem. But he didn’t really finish it until later on, after he met Allen Ginsberg. I think it’s fair to say that “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” owes as much to “Howl” as it does to Sourdough Mountain. Philip was rooming with Ginsberg in Berkeley and watching over Ginsberg’s shoulder as Allen was putting together the manuscript of “Howl” for publication in 1956. I believe he was particularly impressed with Ginsberg’s freedom of juxtaposition, and he saw how he could take a lot of the fragments that he had worked on in the lookout the year before and arrange them formally on the page.
As for Philip’s contribution to our awareness of the Wild, he deserves more credit. Check out “Sourdough Mountain Lookout”: he is sitting there surrounded by peaks in every direction as far as he can see, alone for nine weeks—and if you go up there today, nothing has changed except for the one road cutting across the far side of the valley on the south, but from the west and across the north to the east, the country is exactly what he saw—and he describes the surrounding view as a mala, a Buddhist rosary of 108 beads with himself at the center. I counted the peaks you can see from Sourdough once, and depending on how distantly you want to count, there’s a view where there are roughly 100 or so peaks in a rim or band around you. He meditated into that, or sat with it. For him to see into it that way, especially in 1955, was a very profound realization. That’s Deep Ecology, 15 years before there was any Deep Ecology.
Or look at a poem of his like “Opening the Mountain: Tamalpais,” which is in On Bear’s Head. It was a poem that he wrote on the occasion of a hike around Mount Tam with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg in October 1965, during the same period that they were all protesting the Vietnam War at the Oakland Army Base—the same hike that Gary commemorates in his poem, “Circumambulation of Mount Tamalpais” in Mountains and Rivers Without End. “We marched around the mountain,” wrote Philip, “west to east top to bottom—from sea-level chanting dark stream bed Muir Woods to bright summit sun victory of gods and buddhas, conversion of demons, liberation of all sentient beings in all worlds past present and future.” Philip loved Mount Tamalpais, he lived on it, or near it, quite a bit over the years. In the early 60s he lived at Albert Saijo’s place and used to hike those Tamalpais trails all the time, and those hikes got distilled into his prose descriptions of Tam in his novel You Didn’t Even Try, where he names all the flowers and songbirds. As you well know, his ashes were eventually brought to the base of Tamalpais for his funeral, at Green Gulch, which couldn’t have been more appropriate. And it was very moving to me to see Gary Snyder in Phil’s funeral procession, carrying a small slab of Skagit Gneiss rock from the summit of Sourdough Mountain to put on Philip’s altar in the zendo, placing it right there next to Whalen’s ashes. It hit me then how important that mountain experience was to them; I mean, I always knew that it was important to them from a literary point of view, but I hadn’t realized until then just how integral it was to them simply as friends, a shared piece of their youth. It took me back again to the poem, where Philip says:
I brought back a piece of its rock
Heavy dark-honey color
With a seam of crystal, some of the quartz
Stained by its matrix
A shift from opacity to brilliance
(The Zenbos say, Lightning-flash & flint-spark)
Like the mountain where it was made.
If that’s not the work of a mountain-man, I don’t know what is.
BIG BIRDGE John, I don't know if I am being overly sentimental towards the Philip portion or whether this final piece together with the others isn't enough to compel people to look at your book and your photos with deeper understanding. You have given three portraits that are compelling. There are so many ways poets and artists can be in this world, as monk, radio operator, ecologist, extending involvement in place and purpose beyond the precious or limited and sad manifestations of the market economy. The tradition seems to be ancient, and the troubadour or hermit seems to be revitalized by the heroes of Poets on The Peaks. Any thoughts on that?
SUITER: The hermit tradition IS ancient, the hermit-shaman-poet tradition. There’s a great book about that whole line, by Bill Porter a.k.a., Red Pine, called The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. Porter went to China’s western mountains and found these old mountain recluses, and talks about how even in the days of Lao-tzu—2600 years ago, the hermit tradition in China was already an old one. Incidentally, he has a great story in there about how he asks this one old hermitess, “How did you survive Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution?” And she says, “Who’s Mao Zedong?”
It was the genius, particularly of Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, to make a literary and cultural link between that old Taoist and Zen Lunatic tradition and the Hobo tradition of the United States. Philip clearly saw it too; his 1953 mountain, Sauk Peak, is one of the most Zen-looking landscapes in the North Cascades. He certainly acknowledged his connection to “those ancient Chinamen” and how they conked out among the busted winejars, etc. (you know the line).
Gary saw that early on. First he saw, at a very young age, a connection between the visual look of the west slope of the North Cascades near where he grew up and the mountains of Southeast China, as seen in East Asian landscape paintings, with their swirls of misty air and similar rock formations. He claims to have been struck by those similarities when he was only ten and eleven years old, at the Seattle Art Museum, where his mother used to take him on Saturday mornings. I saw those paintings myself this summer in Seattle; the curator brought out the old “mountains and rivers” hanging scrolls that had been in the collection in 1940, and the visual connection is plain. And in those landscape paintings, there are always humans—“little wanderers” making their way to the realm of the Immortals, oftentimes in pairs, duos of raggedy Taoist hermits or Zen Lunatics in the Japanese scrolls. Growing up in the Depression 30s outside Seattle, Gary was also accustomed to seeing wandering men, fruit tramps and hoboes riding the rails—Seattle had one of the biggest encampments of homeless in the country, the original “Hooverville,” just as it had the original Skid Row—the skidder road that is now Yesler Avenue, where the old loggers skidded the logs down to the sawmills on Elliott Bay. As he grew into his twenties, Gary began to see the hoboes of the Northwest as American reincarnations of the old Asian hermits; when he discovered the Zen Lunatics Han Shan and Shih-Te, the picture was complete, like in his introduction to his translations of Han Shan’s poems, where he says of Han Shan and Shih-Te, “...you sometimes run onto them today in the skidrows, orchards, hobo jungles, and logging camps of America.” In Myths & Texts he also has that line about the North Cascades being a perfect hide-out for the likes of a Han Shan:
“Han Shan could have lived here,
and no scissorbill stooge of the
Emperor would have come trying to steal
his last poor shred of sense.”
Kerouac had been making some of the same kinds of connections on his own, even before he met Gary, that is, the hobo-bhikku connection, and the possibility for a rucksack revolution of way seekers in modern America. The year before he met Snyder, Kerouac had already sketched out the concept of a Dharma Bum, but he didn’t yet have the name. There’s a journal entry of his in Some of the Dharma where he talks about “real wandering Taoist bums going around the country watching unexpected events, eating beans out of cans, sleeping in railroad sidings, following the seasons, washing in creeks, spending occasional nights in jail for vagrancy...” And Kerouac took the Chinese hermit-American hobo-Tien Tai Mountains-North Cascades connection one literary step further—and here’s where I think he was a genius—projecting himself and Gary Snyder as post-WWII updates of the lineage of Zen lunatic poets: “Dharma Bums”—no one remembers now who first came up with the term, whether it was Jack himself, or Gary, or someone else, but it was a stroke of genius. And then Kerouac threw in a shot of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for good measure—to make it an American Picaresque, that’s what he was going for with The Dharma Bums. “Picaresque” comes from the Spanish “picaro,” a rogue or rascal, or maybe even a bum. All during the time he was writing The Dharma Bums, Kerouac was reading Don Quixote, immersing himself in that picaresque spirit. For all the criticism one might level at The Dharma Bums, and there is a lot, Jack certainly had his archetypes right on.
BIG BRIDGE: Philip said that Jack never really embraced Zen and was essentially very Catholic. Funky question but I think you will know what I am trying to ask.
SUITER: Well, let me take the last part of that first. No one would disagree that Kerouac was essentially very Catholic, at least psychologically so. That was where he started out from at least, going to strict Franco-American parochial schools in Lowell, Massachusetts, imbibing all the Catholic myths and texts, in French.
It always stayed with him; he rejected a lot of it, but he held onto to the pageantry and ritual lore, etc. That’s one of the reasons he later loved Mexico, too—the backdrop of devout Indian-Spanish Catholicism that reminded him of what he’d known in Lowell. He loved to pray in those old 16th century chapels in the poor colonias in Mexico City. I can understand that; the iconography is very powerful and it’s everywhere. You go to the neighborhood fonda for breakfast: La Patrona is there—Our Lady of Guadalupe, a big, faded, grease-spattered poster of her leaning over the grill, blessing the food and protecting the cooks; you jump in a cab, she’s there in the scapulars swinging from the cabbie’s rear-view mirror as he flies into some insane Glorietta rotary; up in the mountains, on the foggy Pan American where there are no highway lights to light the way and no guard rails, she’s there in those little roadside capillas that mark the most treacherous turns, with a candle flickering, maybe the only light for miles. In Kerouac’s day even the young whores he liked to go to had her icon in a corner of their rooms.
Ironically, it was in that most Catholic country that Kerouac wrote some of his most Buddhist work, like Mexico City Blues and Tristessa (if you consider that lugubrious book Buddhist) and Desolation Angels. If you think about it, it makes sense, since Kerouac was all through that period trying to achieve a synthesis of Catholicism and Buddhism, which he did in a way, picking and choosing the parts he could relate to from both to create his own religion. This is not that unusual, as Snyder pointed out in an interview a few years back (Trevor Carolan’s interview with him in Shambhala Sun), where he points out that Kerouac’s Buddhism was very much like the devotional Buddhism of many people in Asia, where elements of Christian practice is mixed in with traditional Buddhism, which in any case is a mix of traditions.
Did Kerouac embrace Zen? I think he did: he more than embraced it, he wrestled with it, viscerally, fatefully. Kerouac’s Buddhist phase, if you want to call it that, lasted from the fall of 1953 until I suppose the writing of Satori in Paris, which is a great Zen title, but not a Buddhist book at all; there’s no Zen in it. It’s where he declares publicly: “I’m no Buddhist, I’m a Catholic going back to the ancestral land.” Maybe that wasn’t the end, but there’s a very clear beginning: he goes to the library in the wake of his break up with Alene Lee in October 1953. He’s reading Thoreau—probably looking for tips on how to withdraw from the world and get along without women—and he keeps coming across these allusions to the Oriental classics, in Walden. So he picks up some books on Hinduism and Buddhism, and stumbles on Ashvaghosha’s Life of the Buddha and the Diamond Sutra in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible, and it was a bombshell for him. Let me say that I personally don’t like Kerouac’s brand of Buddhism. At least I don’t like the way he went for the most misogynist interpretations of the texts, and tried to use the dharma, or the Buddha’s biography to justify some of his own crackpot sexual notions. Any time Kerouac the Writer gets near sex, you can bet he’ll say something really stupid, like “Pretty girls make graves,” or some such BS.
On the other hand, Kerouac’s encounter with the Diamond Sutra was a life-altering experience, and it went on for a long time, and was not frivolous. I think Phil Whalen was wrong to say Kerouac didn’t embrace it. Actually, I think what Philip said was that Jack’s Zen was mostly an intellectual experience. He said that to Barry Gifford in his interview for Jack’s Book. I don’t think that’s true, Kerouac certainly embraced the Diamond Sutra wholeheartedly, and that is one of the most Zen books in the entire Buddhist canon. Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch said it was the one essential book. Kerouac didn’t just read it: first of all, he stole it from the San Jose Library; I say that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it shows his ardor for the teachings. Back then, you couldn’t just walk into any Barnes and Noble and go to the Zen section; these books were hard to find. He took it for himself, had a special leather cover made for it, and he packed it in his rucksack and read it from one end of the country to the other for the next seven years or so. When Allen Ginsberg was in India in 1962, he picked a leaf from the pipal tree in Bodhgaya, the tree that was grafted from the original Bodhi Tree, the one that Sakyamuni was by tradition sitting under when he saw the morning star. Ginsberg sent the leaf to Kerouac, and Jack used it as a bookmark for his Buddhist Bible. In Sanskrit The Diamond Sutra is called the Vajracchedika, that is, the Diamond cutter, or splitter. It was named that for its incisive properties, by the Buddha, who said: “It is the Scripture that is hard and sharp like a diamond that will cut away all arbitrary conceptions and bring one to the other shore.” Some people translate the word Vajra as a diamond drill, well Kerouac was drilled by it.
BIG BRIDGE: Any thoughts on how Snyder and Kerouac saw the isolation in the peaks in terms of a monastic life?
SUITER: Well, I don’t think Kerouac ever entertained any notion of doing the monastic life, and Snyder didn’t either in the end, although both of them “had a thing for hermitages,” as Lew Welch once remarked in a letter. Gary could have become a monk if he wanted. He received the Zen precepts and a Dharma name after several years of formal training. Sometimes he lived as a monk for stretches of weeks at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, he went on begging trips as a monk, but in the end he never entered his name in the lineage of the temple, so he retained his lay status. He wanted to raise a family and be a part of a secular community, to be an Earth Householder.
BIG BRIDGE In reading some of the letters between Whalen and Kerouac, Whalen and Snyder I get a sense that Whalen warned them both of the dangers of being drawn "off the mountain" or "out of the hermitage" by the lure of public life, that somehow that would be compromised in their identity. It's interesting that Whalen chose to become an ordained monk.
SUITER: Yes, but perhaps inevitable, from a practical standpoint. Here was a guy who at age 50 had not only never owned his own place, I don’t think he ever had his own name on an apartment lease. Remember what Gary said at Philip’s funeral: “When I heard that you [Whalen] had shaved your head and were going to become a monk, I said Thank God he’s finally got a job!” To me, the interesting thing is that for all Phil Whalen owed materially to the Zen community, Philip always maintained his independence of spirit. Although he became an abbot—Richard Baker has even referred to him as a roshi, although I never heard Whalen call himself anything but “Phil.” He eschewed titles and all that, and in fact warned that Buddhism could all too easily become something that people just went to on Sundays, or that they would begin to think that all the beautiful Zen centers were actually real. He said that despite being deeply involved in those places, and believing in their importance for people to be able to go off and do a sesshin or a long practice period, to be “on the mountain.” He even said he thought they were essential to human survival, but only as they provided for a person’s direct, unsupervised spiritual experience, a kind of a launch-pad.
But getting back to what you said about Philip warning Jack and Gary about the public life, that was never really an option for Phil Whalen, do you think? I mean, he did public readings of his poetry, went on tours and gave interviews, but he was never in demand the way that Kerouac was, or expected to speak out on contemporary issues as Snyder has done. Whalen never wrote a book of essays like Snyder’s Earth House Hold.
Here’s something else to finally consider about the on-the-mountain or off-the-mountain dichotomy. When Snyder, Whalen and Kerouac went on lookout in the 1950s, it was against a certain political backdrop that couldn’t be gotten away from—the Korean War, the Cold War, the McCarthy inquisition, H-bomb fears. Snyder, don’t forget, was on the blacklists of the Coast Guard, the Forest Service, and the State Department, as I bring out in my book. He didn’t just go off to the mountains, he went toe-to-toe with the powers that were, and won.
In the early 1950s when Phil Whalen was living in Southern California, radioactive dust from US atomic bomb tests in Nevada routinely blew into LA. The US was bombarding its own territory, and televising it. Television was new, and these explosions were great public spectacles. It was all about National Security. Operation Big Shot was the first one on TV in late April 1952; it showed the week that Gary Snyder arrived in North Beach. The Soviets exploded their first hydrogen bomb while Snyder was on Sourdough Mountain in 1953. Edward Teller was sitting there in the Berkeley hills watching the waves from it on a seismograph. So all that was part of the inescapable political background. What an irony: here these lookouts were supposed to be scanning the horizon for potential forest fires, while the governments were setting off fires that could ultimately consume all the forests and cities and everything else, “on” and “off the mountain.” Lookouts in the Northwest were also supposed to watch for possible Russian bombers coming over the horizon. In Desolation Angels, Kerouac writes about how he used to take the Aircraft Warning forms and use them for rolling papers for his cigarettes. Americans were being trained to duck-and-cover, and to build bomb shelters in their basements and cower for Civil Defense drills; meanwhile these guys went instead to the open mountaintops and sat zazen. I love them for that: they were fearless in a time of great fear. We can still learn something from that.
John Suiter's bio
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