The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage
Chris Moss finds that there is something romantic and true about the fourteen men and one woman who lived first, wrote afterwards, and saw in the tramping life a mode of being that was more meaningful than home-focused domestic existence
An extensive list of words for people of no fixed abode in the introduction to this book reminds us how confused and how jaundiced modern society is. Beggar, Bum, Indigent and Vagrant are invariably derogatory, most often uttered with a pinch of contempt. Other words used on either side of the Atlantic – Tramp, Hobo, Mendicant, Rover and the more exotic Gonsil and Stewbum – evoke different things for different people. Hikers in their bright, man-made fibres use ‘tramp’ to describe a long walk. A couple of decades ago, the noun ‘tramp’ referred to either dejected looking doorway-sleepers or Father Christmas-like men with beards who lived in a way that looked somehow natural in our cities. In the Eighties, I worked at St Martin in the Fields, and often met these dignified old men. Then ‘homeless’ came along to offer a PC way out, a means of neutrally describing someone who spends most of their life on the street. In reality it’s an antiseptic and reductive term for a whole world of experience, and it serves to bury a rich history of – as this wonderful title has it – ‘vagabondage’.
Long-time hobo-culture researcher Ian Cutler’s introduction to this book, which itself is worth several reads, links the phenomenon of hobohemia (another fine concept) to the Cynic philosophers who melded thought and sensation, and happily practised asceticism before Plato hemmed the universe in with logic, and to Nietzsche, a man who could do contempt pretty well too, but reserved it for squares, dullards and conformists. Providing us with a brief resumé of the history of hoboing in North America, he notes that a person who opts out can feel ‘alienated from, and dispossessed by the rest of society’, but might also feel somewhat superior to it, a ‘citizen of the world’, free to roam and unshackled by work and capitalism.
Cutler’s primary interest in this handsome volume is to introduce us to a handful of gifted writers among those who live differently from the rest of us. Fourteen men who lived between 1841 and 1969 are presented through detailed introductions to their memoirs and fictions (genres which often merge and interweave). The absence of women in this main list [Kathleen Phelan is covered in a separate section] is no judgment on Cutler; being a hobo was and remains far more dangerous for a woman. Fewer women do it. None [except Kathleen Phelan, see below] have left texts that have been preserved or unearthed (though the author asks us to alert him to any we discover). That the story more or less ends in the Sixties makes the point that the ‘golden age’ came to an end with the hegemony of the car, the need for identity documents, surveillance, and the increasingly repressive, uniform character of Western society.
These vagabonds are colourful and engaging characters. Take Josiah Flynt (1869–1907), raised in Evanston, Illinois, who worked his way to Europe – shovelling coal and ash in the boiler room of a liner – and then spent his university days in Berlin tramping around Germany, Britain, Ireland, Switzerland and Russia. He spent ten days ‘discussing tramping, among other things’ with Leo Tolstoy while on the count’s farm.
[Josiah Flynt] also hobnobbed (or hobo-nobbed) with Ibsen, Gertrude Stein and a proto-Bloomsbury Set in London.
His thirteen books amount to a philosophy of tramping, and ask us to question what we mean nowadays when we talk of ‘travel’. Gap years and long trips are, in truth, little more than consumerist fixes that we slot in between the decades-spanning norms of working, family-raising and studying regimes. A whole lifetime of wandering was easier for Flynt than for others – he was immensely talented, a great networker and could earn a living when he needed to – but it was still a committed act.
Bart Kennedy (1861–1930) was born to Irish parents in Leeds. He left little biographical material, but at least twenty-two novels, and also founded a weekly broadsheet in 1921. Like other tramps, Kennedy had pugilistic skills, which helped a lot when he got to the mean streets of America and while labouring alongside hard men as an oyster dredger and placer miner, and during spells in prison. He spent time in the ‘frightful, lonely mountains’ of Canada, where he felt himself to be a pariah, desolate and truly adrift. The Chilkat Indians were, briefly, his putative enemies out in the wilderness, but he had convivial encounters with other indigenous Canadians. Cutler quotes at length from Kennedy’s writings, which espouse a sort of drifter’s mystical Marxism; though he asserts, ‘The tramp is too much of a philosopher to be a revolutionist.’
Wales’ own William Henry Davies (1871–1940) is praised for his storytelling in The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, and for his varied life. Six years roaming around the USA with a seasoned tramp named Brum taught Davies a life’s worth about tough men, pretty women, hop and fruit picking, cattle-ranching and hitching free rides. A life of camp fires squatting didn’t wear away the author’s essential humanity and his descriptions of fellow hobos were careful to reveal them for the individuals they were.
Lots of the wanderers faced risks and dangers. The open road and the Main Stems of America’s cities were sometimes violent, and cold, and very lonely. William Henry Davies’ right foot was severed at the ankle in a train accident. Bart Kennedy was washed overboard from a schooner during a hurricane. But opting to live outside of economies was also fraught with problems. Scraping a meal, or a warm bed in winter, could take all the energy a person had; it’s remarkable how prolific and also how tolerant and meditative these authors remained, despite their trials.
The book ends with a portrait of a woman author: Kathleen Phelan. Her dates – 1917– 2014 – indicate a special reason for her entry being presented separately. In her own words, ‘I am a bridge between the old style tramp with the stick and bundle and the backpacking drifter seen nowadays along the roads of the world.’ Unlike other female wanderers, she was not funded or commissioned to go forth and explore, but shared a married life on the road with Jim Phelan (1895–1966), another of the fifteen authors contained here. Kathleen Phelan wandered far and wide, and as a widow went to Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and Lebanon when they were edgy for women but safer for anyone than they are currently. A long life ending in a series of caravan pitches in the English shires links the book’s central heroes neatly with the contemporary Traveller and all those who try to live off-grid or at least away from the mainstream.
For most readers, the most (or only) familiar name here will be that of Jack London (1876– 1916), author of The Call of the Wild. But all the authors, successful or otherwise in their time, deserve reading and reflection. Cutler has done us a great service in bringing to our attention the lives of writers who didn’t work from desks and who were rarely feted by establishments literary or otherwise. In a dreary world of creative writing degrees, signing tours and writing careers, there is something romantic and true about the fourteen men and one woman who lived first, wrote afterwards, and saw in the tramping life a mode of being that was more meaningful than much of what passes for a home-focused domestic existence.
Chris Moss is a travel writer.
Note: Chapter 15 features Kathleen Phelan, who died in 2014, age ninety-seven, and who forms a bridge in the book from the ‘golden’ Victorian age of hoboing. She was the subject of a BBC TV series on Welsh tramps and Gypsies that her husband Jim Phelan presented in 1965, the year before he died, and which includes a fascinating summary of the signs chalked outside people’s homes, to indicate to others on the road whether money, a meal, or a call to the police might to be expected at that house. Following Jim’s death, Kathleen made her solo tramp to Nepal via France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, before tramping back again via a different route—a three-year trip. In this programme, there is a brief shot of Kathleen right at the end of the first clip, sitting in a bar on the right together with Jim and a couple of other vagabonds.On her death, Kathleen left behind ten box files of unpublished material, correspondence and records of her own seventy-seven years on the road. For this book, Ian Cutler worked with Kathleen’s family and friends to record her literary legacy and tell her story. Ian lives in Cardiff.