IN A LETTER dated March 25, 1955, Jack Kerouac wrote: “I’ve been living down South here for two months, writing a Buddhist book of 70,000 words, which I’m just finishing now.” For over a year he had been studying the life and teaching of Gotama Buddha. Immersed in the idea of leading an ascetic life in that tradition, he had decided to write “a handbook for Western understanding” of Buddhist teachings, following the story of Buddha’s life.
The title page of the finished manuscript reads: “Wake Up, Prepared by Jack Kerouac,” but the correspondence of Kerouac and his literary agent Sterling Lord reveals that this had not always been the book’s title. Originally called Your Essential Mind: The Story of the Buddha, Kerouac referred to it at various times as “my Buddhist handbook,” Buddha Tells Us, and Buddhahood: The Essence of Reality. Sterling Lord passed the manuscript on to editors Robert Giroux and Malcolm Cowley, who disappointed Kerouac by receiving it “coldly.” Jack never lost his faith, as he told Allen Ginsberg, that his book had “magical powers of enlightenment.” Sterling Lord sent the manuscript on to the Philosophical Library, and Kerouac was excited at the thought that he might have the same publisher as D. T. Suzuki. In September 1955 he heard that they considered it “very well written” and were willing to publish it if Kerouac could guarantee a sale of six hundred copies. Disappointed, he wrote Ginsberg, “I don’t know no 600 people with $3.50.”
Although Kerouac did not give up on publishing Wake Up, his primary focus was on new work, and he began to integrate Buddhism into books like Mexico City Blues, Tristessa, and Visions of Gerard, all written in the year following Wake Up. As he wrote Sterling Lord, “From now on all my writing is going to have a basis of Buddhist teaching, free of all worldly and literary motives so everything has actually worked out fine because in all consciousness I couldn’t publish [On the Road] except as ‘Pre-enlightenment’ work.”
—John Sampas, Literary Executor, The Estate of Jack and Stella Kerouac
This is the first excerpt in a series of eight from Jack Kerouac’s Wake Up. The full manuscript will be published in Some of the Dharma by Viking Penguin in 1995.
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