© Walter Lehrman; Michael Rosenberg; Jack Francis
© Walter Lehrman; Michael Rosenberg; Jack Francis

Poets on the Peak:
Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades
Text and Photographs by John Suiter
Counterpoint Press: Washington, D.C., 2002
340 pp.; $40.00 (cloth)

The time is long past when Beat Generation writers were regarded merely as literary figures. Like the Transcendentalist movement of Emerson and Thoreau, the Beat movement of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg is now widely seen as a religious movement. And its religion of choice was Buddhism.

John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades explores Beat Buddhism in the great outdoors of the American West during the fifties. While earlier works on the Beats were set inside cramped apartments in Manhattan, Suiter situates the Beats on Desolation Peak and Jack Mountain.

Suiter is an instructor at the New England School of Photography, and his book is illustrated with dozens of striking photographs of the Cascades, many of them taken while he was on Desolation Peak in 1995 for the fortieth anniversary of the appearance of Kerouac’s novelDharma Bums. Suiter’s eye for detail, evident in the photographs, is also plain in the book, which repeatedly presses past descriptions of Beat mountain Zen to discussions of the earliest European settlements of the Cascades and even to the geological history of those mountains themselves.

© Walter Lehrman; Michael Rosenberg; Jack Francis
© Walter Lehrman; Michael Rosenberg; Jack Francis

Given Suiter’s interests in the Beats, Buddhism, and the environment, this book should serve a wide variety of readers, introducing fans of the Beats to the natural and human history of the Cascades, and lovers of the mountain West to the beliefs and practices of Buddhism. Suiter draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and journals as well as recent interviews with Snyder and Whalen, and those new materials do yield a few new gems. Readers will learn, for example, that Snyder now sees Dharma Bums as a “second-rate book,” not because it misrepresents Buddhism but because Kerouac wrote it too quickly and revised it too meagerly. For readers already familiar with the Beat Buddhism, however, Poets on the Peaks provides little new.  

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