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The Lives of Fifteen Tramp Writers: a romanticising of vagabonds

Book review: Wildly romantic notion of tramping as a lifestyle choice is uncomfortable

The Lives And Extraordinary Adventures Of Fifteen Tramp Writers From The Golden Age Of Vagabondage
The Lives And Extraordinary Adventures Of Fifteen Tramp Writers From The Golden Age Of Vagabondage
Author: Ian Cutler
ISBN-13: 978-1627310840
Publisher: Feral House
Guideline Price: £17.99

Somewhere miscellaneous, as Kris Kristofferson might put it, a hobo known as Oklahoma Slim turned sociologist and distinguished himself from tramps and bums: “A hobo is a migratory labourer; a tramp is a migratory non-labourer; and a bum is a non-migratory non-labourer.”

The joke can be traced back to late 19th- and early 20th-century America, when recurrent crises in industry and agriculture caused hundreds of thousands of people, particularly men, to take to the roads in search of work.

Here, in a book with a very long title, slightly different definitions are credited to Ben Reitman, a Chicago medic who, in the early 1900s, earned himself the moniker the Hobo Doctor: “A tramp is a man who doesn’t work, who apparently doesn’t want to work, who lives without working and who is constantly travelling. A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed labourer without money, looking for work. A bum is a man who hangs around a low-class saloon and begs or earns a few pennies a day in order to obtain drink. He is usually inebriate.”

Reitman’s sociological sentences lack the racy of the rail quality of Oklahoma Slim’s dictum. But are we to take it, from the hobo, that a tramp is a bum in motion and a bum is a tramp at rest, or does boozing, per the doctor, differentiate the bum from the tramp? Problematically, in a better-known version of the joke, drinking unites them: “The hobo works and wanders, the tramp drinks and wanders, and the bum just drinks.”

Of course, missing from the joke are people who begged from necessity but neither wandered nor drank – and one man’s “deserving beggar” is often another man’s bum or tramp.

Rigid classification of the poor is a fool’s errand. And Ian Cutler does not get hung up on it in this enthusiastic account of the lives and writings of 15 actual or self-proclaimed tramps from the “golden age of vagabondage”, by which he means the period from the American civil war to the second World War. A less romantic commentator might have styled it an age of dislocation. Thereafter, better welfare provision reduced the necessity to wander and, in the States in particular, increasingly aggressive policing checked the capacity to do so.

Contextualising his subjects' lives is no more Cutler's concern than corroborating their claims: rather, it is celebrating their "asceticism".

In 1960, in The Vanishing American Hobo, Jack Kerouac lamented that camping was alright for boy scouts but not for grown men, and that the woods were full of wardens. Cops, he wrote, “just don’t know what to do with themselves in those five-thousand dollar police cars with the two-way Dick Tracy radios except pick on anything that moves in the night and in daytime on anything that seems to be moving independently of gasoline”.

Today, it is even harder to be anything other than Citizen Consumer, one’s physical and virtual movements constantly tracked. And so there can be value in recovering the lives of those who tramped against convention. But contextualising his subjects’ lives is no more Cutler’s concern than corroborating their claims: rather, it is celebrating their “asceticism”.

For Cutler, tramping is a “lifestyle choice”, a denial of the importance of money and things. This wildly romantic notion sits uncomfortably with those hard-drinking tramps whose writing is surveyed here: self-denial was not for them a virtue. And it sits uncomfortably with those who tramped to find work or because it was all that they had ever known: “My father tramped, my mother tramped, sure the trampin’ is bred in me/ If some there are who my ways disdain, and won’t have me at all/ Sure, I’ll always find a welcome in the homes of Donegal.”

None of Cutler's subjects was a typical tramp. Most travelled further than other "knights of the road" and they all had "extraordinary adventures".

The first of Cutler’s 15 is Thomas Manning Page, born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1841. The last, the only woman, is Kathleen Phelan (née Newton), born in Durham, England, in 1917. She, who only died in 2014, was the wife of Jim Phelan (1895-1966), a Dublin-born drifter who did 13 years for armed robbery of a Liverpool post office and attempted murder.

Jim Phelan, who also gets a chapter here, was a prolific “tramp writer”, penning some 40 books. Blackstaff Press reissued his autobiography, The Name’s Phelan (1948), in the 1990s and anyone interested will readily find a cheap copy; there is also a fine essay on him, by the neurologist and historian Andrew Lees, in Dublin Review of Books.

Cutler’s subjects weren’t typical tramps. Most travelled further than other “knights of the road” and they all had “extraordinary adventures”. In Africa, Trader Horn met Roger Casement and saved the life of Cecil Rhodes; he also met Buffalo Bill. Josiah Flynt met Tolstoy and Ibsen, Aleksey Kuropatkin, the Russian imperial minister of war, and Geronimo (the old Apache was in bad humour and would not talk). Jim Tully (1886-1947), an Irish-American orphan, parlayed writing on his hoboing for newspapers into a successful literary career. He became a Hollywood reporter, numbering Charlie Chaplin, Jack Dempsey and Clark Gable among his friends.

Jim Phelan tried to organise a rally of tramps with Liam O’Flaherty. He corresponded with George Orwell and HG Wells, and drank with Dylan Thomas in London and Picasso in the south of France. His widow played football with Pelé in Brazil. And Cutler tells how, when the Phelans were drinking in the Pearl Bar, Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie commissioned them to do a series of articles on a trip from Dublin to “Gallway” [sic].

Cutler's volume is neither a study of a genre nor a history of tramping; again, it is a celebration of a "lifestyle choice", deliberate dropping out.

Above all, Cutler’s subjects are unusual in that they wrote about their “adventures”. Most of their autobiographical books are a subset of the adventure story, a genre with roots in 18th-century picaresque and criminal biography and in even older tales of chivalry.

One exception is the work of Josiah Flynt. He tramped for a few months in the States in the early 1890s, after escaping from reform school, and wrote about it in number of books. Then, supported by his mother, he attended Berlin University. He was less a tramp than a sociologist or journalist. He later became a writer for Cosmopolitan magazine, and he was dead at 38 from pneumonia compounded by drink and drugs.

Unfortunately, Cutler’s volume is neither a study of a genre nor a history of tramping; again, it is a celebration of a “lifestyle choice”, deliberate dropping out. Each chapter is, essentially, a commentary on an individual tramp’s writing – some become “our hero” – punctuated by occasional reflections on their contribution to “a philosophy of tramping”: where Kerouac’s cops see a tramp, Cutler sees a follower of Diogenes the Cynic.

The most deeply researched chapter is that on Kathleen Phelan and it is, by a country mile, the best. Phelan described herself in an unpublished autobiography as “a bridge between an old-style tramp with the stick and bundle and the backpacking drifter seen nowadays along the roads of the world”. Here she appears a humorous, hard-drinking woman, who toured the globe hawking self-published “little books”.

In one letter unearthed by Cutler she described walking along a Californian highway with no other “maniac on two feet” in sight – but lots of cars: “They sent the sheriff of Malibu in a helicopter … to land and find out what I was doing. Walking, I said. W-W-Walking? he says!”

Many of us might be induced to listen to one tramp tell his or her life story; 15 tramps arriving all at once is a very different proposition. This unkempt volume – the copy-editing is annoying – has its moments and one glimpses dark realities. Notably, hunger and sexual exploitation are topics in Cutler’s commentary on Tom Kromer’s bleak Waiting for Nothing (1935), a book usually read as a novel of the Great Depression, albeit with critics acknowledging an author’s note in the UK edition indicating that “Save for four or five incidents, it is strictly autobiographical”.

In the end, Cutler’s romanticising of tramps less ordinary will disappoint readers expecting a more critical work. Also, it gives you itchy feet – and that, in our time of confinement, is the last thing we need. Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run. But not yet.

Breandán MacSuibhne is author of the Michel Déon Prize-winning The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland