While inhaling the brisk, pine-sharpened air of the surrounding Animin Forest along the San Juan Ridge, high above the South Yuba River, I consider the facets of Gary Snyder: poetics, ecology, Native American myth and literature, the value of work, the greatest defender of the Sierra Nevada since John Muir, his translation and knowledge of Japanese and Chinese poetry. The San Francisco Beat movement. The latter ignited on an October night in 1955 when Gary joined Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and their non-reading guest, Jack Kerouac, at the “remarkable collection of angels,” the Six Gallery Reading. Ginsberg debuted and immortalized “Howl.” Snyder, then 25, read his first poem publicly, “A Berry Feast,” now a classic. The Six Gallery remains the seminal poetry event in recent U.S. history — and for which, amazingly, no photograph or tape recording exists. Why? No one thought it was a big deal. They didn’t see what was coming. Except for the lookout, the erstwhile Cascade Mountain ranger and U.C. Berkeley graduate student, Snyder. “I think it will be a poetical bombshell,” he told Whalen. In a journal, he wrote, “Poetry will get a kick in the arse around this town.”
All of them became famous.
A few nights before, while having dinner, Gary and I talked about Kerouac. After the Six Gallery reading, and before heading to Japan for 12 years of study, Snyder took Kerouac up North Arete, a.k.a. the Sierra Matterhorn, a difficult six-hour climb just west of California’s Mt. Whitney. The two held a common devotion for Buddhism, but were otherwise as different as the West and East coasts from which they came. Not to mention that Kerouac wrote prose that sometimes rambled like an endless river (one particular sentence in his benzedrine-fueled novel, The Subterraneans, stretched more than 1,200 words). Conversely, Snyder lives and breathes punctuality, his work crisp and clear as cold, pine-scented air. In 1959, their Sierra Matterhorn climb appeared in Kerouac’s great novel, The Dharma Bums — along with a wise, resourceful protagonist virtually every reader before and since wanted to know like a next-door neighbor: Japhy Ryder.
“That was interesting to see how he wrote about our trip, the things we did together,” Gary said. “He had a tough time getting up the Matterhorn, but he did it.”
“What’s it like becoming the protagonist of a novel?”
Gary looked at me, eyes sharpening to the point he was about to make. His next bite of food clung to his fork like a spacewalker. “I was the model for a fictional character. I’m no more Japhy Ryder than the next guy. He used a lot of what we did, and I liked the way he wrote the book very much — I think it’s Kerouac’s finest novel — but Japhy is fictional and I’m right here. I was just a model.”
An intriguing comment I read about Kerouac’s work came to mind, something relevant in this era of memoirs, exposes, autobiographical novels, what’s true in novels and what’s fictitious in so-called memoirs. “Do you think that if Kerouac were alive today, his thirteen novels — On The Road, Dharma Bums, Big Sur, Tales of Duluoz and the others — would be considered memoirs?” I asked.
Gary thought about it for a moment, leaving the food marooned. He shook the fork slightly. “That’s a very good question. But…no. He fictionalized quite a bit, changed some names, changed the sequence of events, made a couple of things up; it’s not true memoir. You could call it autobiographical fiction. But why not just call it fiction and enjoy it?”
Out rolled the raucous laugh, the fun-lover’s laugh, his eyes jovial as leprechauns — the side of Gary Snyder we all seem to forget while he’s reading his works and discoursing on everything from the dearth of deep thought in everyday life to instilling more arts into public education to conserving his beloved Sierra Nevada.