"The idea," Snyder recalls, "was that you had to get your vision quest name, but since this is the industrial 20th century, you got it by sequestering yourself in an industrial part of town. And then it comes to you as a kind of flash of insight and the promise of help from a material object. So my friend Hoodlatch--Bob Allen '51--was the first who got this vision quest accomplished. What he saw was the latch that holds the hood down on an old '30s car. He said, 'That's my ally, Hoodlatch. I will take that name.' So he became Hoodlatch, and I became Leitswics."

While Native American animism had been his primary spiritual interest since childhood, Snyder found initiation into the Native American community closed to a non-native. Buddhism, with its non-dogmatic inclusiveness, opened the way for him to an ancient practice and a world system large enough to encompass his animist beliefs. It was the big vista he was looking for. Shortly after graduating from Reed, while working as a summer lookout, Snyder determined that he would someday study Zen Buddhism in Japan. He spent the next four years preparing himself for the journey.

Aspiring to enter a Japanese Zen monastery in the 1950s was just the kind of eccentric career path that drew Snyder, along with his Reed housemates Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, into the nascent San Francisco Beat subculture. With his outsider take on American culture and his literary talent for synthesizing the intellectual and the experiential into a new social mythology, Snyder found himself in the same territory as other Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac's thinly fictionalized characterization of Snyder as the rock-hopping Japhy Ryder in his 1958 book Dharma Bumswould be instrumental in launching the "rucksack revolution" among American youth in the sixties and seventies and fashioning an enduring image of Snyder as a Beat icon. Asked to explain the Beats' cultural influence in an oral history of Kerouac called Jack's Book,Snyder describes the sort of cultural composting the Beats engaged in to produce a cultural shift:

"The Beat Generation is a gathering together of all the available models and myths of freedom in America that existed heretofore, namely: Whitman, John Muir, Thoreau, and the American Bum. We put them together and opened them out again, and it becomes a literary motif, and then we add some Buddhism to it. The vision of the fifties and sixties taps a deep archetypal vein in the American consciousness."

Snyder's reputation in Beat circles was further enhanced by Alan Watts's favorable depiction of him in his legendary little book, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,published in 1959. "Snyder is, in the best sense, a bum," Watts wrote. "His manner of life is a quietly individualistic deviation from everything expected of a 'good consumer.'"

Snyder's standing as a poet was firmly established at about the same time with the publication of his first two books of poetry, Riprapand Myths & Texts.Direct, precise, and ecological, Snyder's early poetry conveys his distinctive elegance, a stripping down to the essentials with little extra, a focus some have attributed to his deepening interest in Buddhism. Over the years, Snyder's prominence as a poet would grow, culminating in his receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book Turtle Island.






Next Page
Next Page