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English Literature Dissertation: A Study into Hobo Literature

by Nial Anderson, University of Glamorgan, UK

 

Index

2 - Introduction: Some Background on the Hobo
7 - A Working Life?
10 - Money
12 - To hobo or not to hobo: Choice or Curse?
15 - Rail Life
18 - Hobo: Getting into Character
22 - Writers and Tall Tales
24 - End of the Road: Conclusion
29 - References

 

"The imaginative young vagabond quickly loses the social instincts that make life bearable for other men. Always he hears voices calling in the night from far-away places where blue waters lap strange shores. He hears birds singing and crickets chirping a luring roundelay. He sees the moon, yellow ghost of a dead planet, haunting the earth."

Jim Tully - Beggars of Life

*  *  *


"Oh ridin' on the rattlers, a-ridin' all the day,
And nuthin' in yer belly all along the way;
No 'baccy in yer pocket, and no jack for to spend,
And old John Law a-waitin' at the next division end."

Anonymous

 

Introduction: Some Background on the Hobo

 

In this dissertation I will define Hobo Literature and look into the characteristics of this distinctive but mostly unknown genre of American Literature.

'Hobo' is ambiguous and widely misunderstood term. Of those who recognise it, most will have a blurred idea of its meaning and where and when it originated. The image that this word will most commonly create is of a homeless person, a down-and-out; a tramp or a bum. At best, it creates an image of a scruffy fellow with his few belongings bound together and tied to a stick that is slung over his back. It is important at this stage to try and pin down the real profile of the hobo as best as possible before going any further.

Dr Ben L. Reitman attempted to define the difference between hoboes and other vagrants: "The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders and the bum drinks and wanders" (Anderson, 1923, p.87). The term 'hobo' was most likely coined in the late eighteenth century after migratory agricultural workers who picked up the name 'hoe-boys' on account of the work they did and tools they carried. Other claims have included that the name derived from the cry "Homeward Bound!" heard from soldiers asked of their destination while returning from the civil war.

There are several factors that led to the proliferation of hoboes; the end of the Civil War in 1865 that left many men displaced, the coming of the industrial era in the 1920s that led men to lose their traditionally static jobs, and the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early '30s which saw families take to the road as the only hope for survival.

In short - and it is important to note - the most accurate definition of the hobo considered to be a migratory worker. And specifically, it is used to refer to migratory workers between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the industrial era. "In reality, the hobo was a by-product of the rapid industrialization of the country in the half-century beginning at the close of the Civil War." (White, 2001)

The economic and social worth of hobos - the hordes of men who migrated seasonally to fill in labour shortages in mines, lumber camps and farms has long since been forgotten by most. Hence, if the name hobo ever distinguished someone who lived on the fringes of society from his rough, lazy companions then that fact has long since been forgotten. As an indication of this, I will turn to The Cassell Dictionary of Slang for a contemporary definition: a tramp, a vagrant, an itinerant worker, often using the US rail system as a means of free transport (Green, 1998, p.599). It is a less flattering and more general definition, but it further offers that the hobo is not just a migratory worker, but also one who uses the railroad to travel.

Eddy Joe Cotton, in the preface to his book I will be looking at, also offers a thought from a contemporary viewpoint: "Some men would say that if you're west of Chicago and you call someone a hobo, it's an insult; and if you're east of Chicago it's a compliment. No man knows for sure the differences between a hobo and a tramp and a bum," (Cotton, 2002, p.xxii).

A contrasting similarity would be to attempt to describe a nondescript person wearing a suit: 'yuppie', 'businessman' or 'professional' come to mind. It is clear that this same ambiguity exists for the nondescript, scruffy fellow who walks the seedier walks of life in every large town or city. But the misconception is clearly due to the non-existent social status of this character - it doesn't matter what they are referred to as - they don't matter in any societal sense. They don't make the important decisions, or even take part, or even seem to care. They are rarely seen and even more rarely thought about. They contribute little and don't make a difference either way, so therefore it doesn't matter what they're called. It is my aim in this dissertation to clarify that it does matter - at the very least in the attempt to explore how literature born of this kind of lifestyle came into being, what influences it has had over time and its importance today.

As a guidepost to stabilise any initial preconceptions about hobos and hobo literature, it is important to distinguish the noun, hobo, from the verb to hobo, defined by Cassell as; to live or travel as tramp (Green, p.599). The noun hobo has proven to be obscure, but the verb is clearly defined. To avoid confusion I will begin exploring the literature with the view that I will not be studying the writings of hobos but that of men who are hoboing.

In terms of the literature I have selected to study in this genre, I have selected what I believe to be a small but representative portion of literature that has represented this lifestyle from its beginnings to the modern day. These works are all autobiographical and the writers have differing levels of education. But these works are all similar enough in their content to fit under one banner, and the loose banner that these works have been given is 'Hobo Literature.' In the case of Jim Tully's book Beggars of Life, it seems there is a contradiction already with the definitions of hobo I have laid out above. The title on the jacket reads 'Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography'. Can a beggar really be a hobo? It is this type of thing I will address in this dissertation to try and draw some conclusions about hobos and the authors who lived as hobos.

What is most important to note of this dissertation is that its subject area is one seldom explored. I am faced with the task not of utilising popular avenues to ask questions of a particular author or genre. Instead I am asking questioning a genre itself and the authors who contributed to it. The 'rules' and given characteristics of any established genre of literature have been questioned and discussed so much that certain conclusions and characteristics have been set in concrete to guide anyone studying them.

In the case of Hobo Literature these rules and characteristics are fragile at best. While there may have been significant discussion and study into the hobo - it is largely from a sociological or historical viewpoint. In the case of the literature associated with it, it may be less a case of challenging accepted theories than creating ones where they did not exist before.

In a literary sense, there has been little exploration into the contributions of these so-called hobos and this dissertation will need to begin addressing issues at a very basic level. The works I will study have been grouped together under the banner of 'Hobo Literature', but only tentatively. There is much to consider when deciding whether this title is worthy or right.

I believe it is worth dissecting this literature to see what makes it unique, and discover what it was that possessed these writers to follow the hobo trail.

 

Literature Review

 

A Working Life?

The first aspect I will look at is the notion of work. We have established that it is the hobo's inclination to work that separates him from the bum and the tramp. Hobos are proud that they work to get by tramps and bums take pride in getting by without working.

Early in W.H. Davies's adventures he becomes the protégé of Brum, a beggar, and the pair meet up with a fellow tramp by the name of New Haven Baldy. Baldy describes begging at the house of a work-proud man who hung a shovel in the kitchen that he used working on the railroad. "There it is to be seen tasselled and kept shining bright, and treated as a family heirloom. How I have laughed to see that shovel, to think what a simple old fellow he must be to take a pride showing how he toiled in his early life" (AST, 1992, 46). And thus under this kind of tutorship Davies admits becoming "a lazy wretch with but little inclination for work" (AST, 36). He describes America at that time as a country where "food was to be had for the asking, where it often went begging to be received, and people were not likely to suffer for their generosity" (AST, 35).

Nevertheless, Davies did work when he desperately needed money. His description work on a canal project gives an accurate picture of manual labourer during that period. "On the banks of that canal were assembled the riff-raff of America and the scum of Europe; men who wanted no steady employment, but to make quick and easy stakes - for the pay was good - so as to indulge in periodical sprees, or in rare instances, for the more laudable purpose of placing themselves in a better position to apply for more respectable employment" (AST, 94). The latter of those workers satisfy the positive image of the hobo, but Davies mentions these people are the exception. So the rest of them are either lazy hobos or ambitious tramps or bums.

To further dispel the valiant image of the hobo, Glen Mullen describes a scene while he rides a slow moving freight train past a mill, with "in the neighbourhood of fifteen hobos." The foreman of the mill offers the passing men jobs, mentioning that many men are needed and the pay is good. "To hell with you and your lousy job," howled the hobos. "Your nose is scabby!" "G'wan, you son of a sheep-stealer." "Go and rot, you red-headed pimp!" "Yah, you bow-legged bastard!" (GM, 1925, 58). Mullin had also fallen in under the tutorship of a man he describes as a hobo (although he is clearly more a beggar than a worker) named Frisco.

Mullin attempts to describe why Frisco has an aversion to work, "At heart he was a true rover. His imagination, his speculative vein, his vast hunger for experience made any steady, routine job intolerable to him" (GM, 132). The restless affliction is also detectable in Davies's choices, "I worked long enough on this canal to save fifty dollars, and then quit, feeling the old restlessness return, which had unsettled me for some time" (AST, 99).

In Mullin's adventures Frisco's spirit certainly seems to rub off on him, and he adopts the true beggars outlook that work is for the weak, "The thought of seeking a job seemed positively demoralising; it indicated a flabbiness of character, a cowardly renunciation of the swaggering valour of the road" (GM, 151). Furthermore, Mullin takes pride in his honed skill as a beggar as he speaks of his diary after bumming a meal, "It records too with triumphant flourish that the recipient of the meal didn't do a tap of work in exchange for it" (GM, 182). When Mullin does work, he is often disappointed with the spoils. After working a long day in the fields for three meals and a quarter, he reports, "Why was I ever taken in by this quaint notion of working, anyway? I must be losing my mind" (GM, 264).

Work was also clearly not on the mind of Jim Tully when he set out on the road, "Sad and miserable men, broken on the wheel of labour, tired nerve-torn women too weary to look at the stars - these would not be the inhabitants of the dream country to which I was going" (BOL, 2004, 5).

Rather than working as a skill, Davies discovers, or at least recognises the skill of begging in his road companions. Some, he says, are so talented they could "persuade the birds to feed them in the wilderness" (AST, 116).

From the passages I have taken from these texts, it's clear that these authors did not take to the road in order to work. In some cases, they have definitely adopted the devious pride of the beggar who delights in beating the system to survive and have the time to enjoy life, while whom they deem lesser men slave their time and energy away for not much more, and in some cases less. In terms of the concrete definition of hobo espoused by historians, these authors and their travelling companions do not fit.

 

Money

I described work in the previous chapter, and whether the authors felt happy or cheated at the amount of money they received it is important to discover how the hobo felt about and treated the subject of money.

When these authors have money, they all seem to squander it with a seeming desire, conscious or unconscious to return to the state they know best and are most comfortable - to be at the bottom, where the only way is upward. To be without a thing gives them the energy and the motivation to find what they need (food, clothes and shelter), as Davies puts it: "desperation would urge me into action" (AST, 167). An abundance of money seems to be nothing but a means to have a good time, gone in a drunken happy flash - "the sooner we squander this stuff [money] the better it will please us" (AST, 73).

After working for almost three months with his companion, Australian Red, Davies and he visit Chicago with both men making plans for the money to pay their comfortable passage to England. But with drink, food and shelter, "We spent it in one week in Chicago, and were again without a cent" (AST, 73). In this case Davies finds himself back in the same job less than a week after this incident. This adds an added perspective that the tramp or hobo may not always travel and work with the seasons, but as I quoted him Davies as suggesting earlier - to go on periodical sprees.

Davies mentions that he has an advantage over the majority of the strangers in America in that he has a safety net from complete poverty; his grandmother left him one- third profit of a small estate. "It was this knowledge that made me so idle and so indifferent to saving; and it was this small income that has been, and is in a commercial sense, the ruin of my life" (AST, 120). But Davies also explains his choice in poverty and life on the move, "I scorn clothes and jewellery; I would rather take a free country walk, leaving the roads for the less trodden paths of the hills and the lanes, than ride in a yacht or a coach; I would rather see the moon in the ruins than the gaslight of an assembly room; gluttony I despise" (AST, 148).

Money is not very much discussed in by Cotton, but he explains that even from childhood he wasn't good with money, "I was a money illiterate. I never had much affection for the dollar. I think my father considered this a virtue, because he never did anything to discipline me otherwise" (EJC, 20). Cotton's father planted the seeds of freedom in him with the words, "There is no romance in poverty, just the lesson of our independence" (EJC, 5). Poverty holds no fear for Cotton, and in fact he is optimistic about his journey, "It warmed my heart to think of all the dirt I would have to eat and all the pretty ladies I would have to serenade - just to get a kiss and a meal" (EJC, xviii).

What is remarkable about the hobo is his apparent refusal to accept money as a way to self-betterment. Hobos seem to be content. From what we have read so far, he also seems to lack the work ethic so revered in the United States.

 

To hobo or not to hobo - Choice or Curse?

If there is a single theme that burns at the heart of these texts - within the thoughts and behaviour of the authors, and which major characteristic the hobo exudes - it is restlessness.

Having returned home from his first stint on the road, Davies finds himself secure home life back in Newport. The food he eats suffers through cleanliness and his bed through being too comfortable. He can't relax, and soon finds, "The fever of restlessness that had governed me in the past, broke out afresh' (AST, 127).

Mullin describes the pull of the road after a nights' camping out, "Our souls were itching for the rattle of wheels. Strange how quickly the Road fastens on one! The zest of always being on the go, the hanker for strange cities, new faces!" (GM, 99). Later, he seems to realise the futility of continuous movement, "The next big city is always an illusion. It merely seems to be a desirable goal in itself. It is frayed, soiled, unfriendly, like all the cities that lie behind you" (GM, 169). This illusion seems to depend on the personal circumstance of the author, and perhaps on what characteristics are associated with a particular city or town, "There was something about arriving in New Orleans which seemed peculiarly triumphant and conclusive. It was almost as if New Orleans had been my destination from the beginning, and that in spite of the adverse winds which had driven me far off my course, I had arrived safely at last" (GM, 243).

Tully describes his restlessness in the same sentence as two illnesses he has just been cured of, as if it were a similarly undeniable affliction, "I had been cured of typhoid and malaria, but the fever of the wanderlust still burned fiercely in my breast" (BOL, 83).

There are both positive and negative connotations to this 'affliction', and these can be seen throughout the texts, again depending on the personal circumstance of the author at any particular moment. "At times, I cursed the wanderlust that held me in its grip. While cursing, I loved it. For it gave me freedom undreamed of in factories, where I would have been forced into labour" (BOL, 117).

Tully describes walking through a poor neighbourhood, "I remember looking at the unpainted houses, the withered lawns, and the ugly streets, and feeling glad that I was a hobo on a long free trail" (BOL, 153). It is an interesting sentence, since it seems to hold the possible interpretation that Tully feared societal poverty, and was choosing the road as a means to escape it. It is a certainty that a decent portion of tramps and hobos would have chosen the road for this very reason, as a means to avoid the crushing reality of having society decide their fate. If the road was tough, at least these men could take solace in the fact that it was entirely their choice. Indeed, Tully goes on to say, "Tramping in wild and windy places, without money, food, or shelter, was better for me that supinely bowing to any conventional decree of fate" (BOL, 164).

This is an interesting point not before widely considered - that the fierce pride of the tramp and hobo of their lifestyle could be partly be a form of angry insecurity at the knowledge that - on some level - they are aware that they can't make a success of themselves in society. Instead of the typical yea-saying joy of life lived on the road, their behaviour is a sort of mass pseudo-celebration of not being able to make it and not caring.

Cotton describes a 'jungle' camp at which an old hobo in his seventies talks about reversing his choice and go back to 'main street' (society). Alabama, a tramp who travels with Cotton, tries to talk him out of it, "They still think you're a bum and I'll guarantee that ain't changed. I tried to go back and it hurt. Yup it hurt. 'Cause it's not the place for me and if it ain't the place for me, it sure ain't the place for you" (EJC, 74). This hints at the previous point, but this time suggesting a tramp or hobo may choose the road with a helping push of rejection from society.

The road could also be a choice for the simple fact that braving the difficulties and dangers of road life could awaken in the protagonist a higher wisdom or, as apposed to the typical money and material wealth method to self-betterment prevalent in America, overcoming these threats could instil powerful creeds and values with which to view life in a new way.

In the same vein, Cotton recalls his father telling him that, "Some things are more important than shame and better seen through pain" (EJC, 49). Cotton mentions hunger, a form of pain, and through suffering it he learns, "I was stronger than my stomach, and strange as it may seem, after three days my thoughts cleared and I had become God" (EJC, 5).

 

Rail Life

The element of trains in hobo life and hobo literature is perhaps the most easily overlooked, but most important. Amid the arguments of what bums, tramps and hobos did while they were wandering, it is how they wandered that may finally distinguish the trio from one another. Illegally riding on trains is prevalent throughout the texts and it is this fact that is perhaps the strongest argument for these texts to be considered part of Hobo Literature.

As these texts are all autobiographical, the choice of trains as a means to travel provides a drive and character to the texts that could have been acquired no other way. It also offers a constant tension throughout, since the protagonists are in constant danger from being injured or killed or caught by the law. The direction that they are headed is often vague, making their through-routes and destinations usually an unexpected surprise, "Half the fun of this kind of thing, anyway, is that the hobo is never absolutely sure where he is going to land," (GM, 116). The choice of these men to travel in this way offers a whole different dimension to their characters. It makes the world of the hobo seem more complex and dangerous, one that requires skill and knowledge to navigate.

And of course, there is the beauty of the passing American landscape. If there is anything that gives these texts a romantic flavour apart from the authors' ease at setting off for the unknown, it is the descriptions of nature viewed from a train. "There is no delight that warms the rambler's heart like a gondola [freight wagon - like an open-top shoebox on wheels] on a bright summer morning. The great, jolting, empty car, which you have all to yourself; the landscape visible on all sides, constantly shifting into new shapes; the rich odours from the meadows and woods; the bird songs; the lifting expanse of the sky. What is a tourist-car or luxurious observation-car compared to this?" (GM, 57).

There is also an element similar to the earlier chapter discussing these authors' level of choice in what they do. There is an almost mystical attraction to trains, either inherent or learned, that grips these authors and their companions. Tully offers that; "The whistling of a locomotive on a still night had a lure, unexplainable, yet strong, like the light which leads a moth to destruction" (BOL, 92). On gazing at a train pulling out of the yards, Mullin offers that at this moment, "a train is not harnessed to the sordid, uncouth uses of commercial transport. She is an enchanted caravan moving into the mysterious beyond, hailing with bells and song the blue distance that fades forever as she moves" (GM, 114).

The trains also seem to become a symbol of challenge, conquest and achievement for the authors and their companions. Having just hopped on his first train, Mullin questions, "What is comfort compared to the thrill of functioning smoothly in a savage adventure?" (GM, 20). Under Frisco's tutorship, a man who had "ridden in every place on a train where a hobo could possibly hang on by the eyelids" (GM, 138), Mullin does not shy away from dangerous challenges when it comes to riding trains. In doing so, and riding a train by himself on which other riders are being hauled or shot off at each stop by the authorities, finds Frisco's "respect for me as a hobo had risen several notches" (GM, 45).

The constant element of danger is certainly the aspect that gives hobo literature electricity not found in other genre based autobiographies. The focus is not so much on the author themselves but on what they are doing. Mullin at one point 'rides the rods' by lying on a beam no wider than a broomstick underneath the train, after admitting "the rods had come to be a symbol to me of all that was desperate and hazardous in train-riding" (GM, 158).

In a similar situation, Mullin is spotted underneath a train and must try and escape before he is caught. "I landed with a thump in the middle of the track. By this time the coach beneath which I was sprawling had begun to move, although I wasn't aware of it at the time. I flung myself over the nearest rail, and before I could gain my feet the rear trucks of the coach racketed past me with a snarling clickety-clack, clickety-clack" (GM, 187).

Despite this danger, Mullin's companion Frisco saw that it wasn't arriving at any particular place that was important, it was the act of getting there. "To ride crack trains and hold them down for long distances was his idea of sport. The greater the train's reputation for speed, the keener his zest in riding it" (GM, 38). Similarly, Cotton speaks of his young travelling companion, Jefferson, in a similar vein. "He didn't care where he was going as long as he could prove something to himself by getting there. He is the pride of all stories. A boy with frontier" (EJC, 153).

For these men, the advantage of riding trains as a means to travel America seems no better put this: "By the late 1800s America was cut up by fences and fences don't mean anything when you're on a train" EJC, 246.

 

Hobo: Getting into Character

Davis suggests that the dirtiest tramp is "often the most honest and respectable, for he has not the courage to beg either food or clothes, nor will he enter the doors of a workhouse" (AST, 172). Further, he gives a reason for the hobo to drink as "a teetotaller who lives in a common lodging house is to be heartily despised, for he shows himself to be satisfied with his conditions" (AST, 190).

The question of morals is ambiguous in this underworld where survival may depend on theft. Early on in Mullin's adventures, he enjoys the proceeds of a lunchbox that Frisco stole from the train station waiting room, claiming he "found it asleep" and "woke it up" (GM, 38). Later, Mullin and a road kid break into a rail car and "gaining entrance to the car, drank milk until our eyes were glazed. I forgot how many empty bottles we stacked up, but it was an astonishing number" (GM, 62). Mullin doesn't show regret for these actions, and later helps distract a pie salesman while an accomplice steals one of the pies. "Like most stolen goods, its savour suffered nought by expropriation," (GM, 249).

Of hobos and tramps in general, Tully offers the description: "Miserable men they were, the shabby tricksters of life. But they endured, like stoics, with a smile. They took what life, or the elements sent them. They fought and they drank; they begged and they robbed. But this can be written to their everlasting credit above the stars in the farthest sky - they did not whine" (BOL, 127).

The image of the hobo as a practical person, and one who looks out for his brethren, comes through in the texts. Mullin's companion Frisco carried "needles and thread for patching and mending" (GM, 25). Even in the present day Cotton describes his companion, Alabama, practicing the old tradition of if something is removed from a hobo camp, it should be replaced. "He took what was the left of the wood and arranged it in a neat pile and took one can of Jack's chilli and placed it by the pile," then "I ended up at that camp two months later and the wood was gone and the can of chilli had been replaced with a can of corn" (EJC, 43).

The hobo also comes across in some cases as a sort of theatrical, humorous figure. One cannot help but smile at characters like Mullin and Frisco run into, like Pennsylvania Shorty. Relating his lice problem in a wider perspective, he says: "A man's lice are like his sins and his debts, there's always more than you think there is" (GM, 54). Later, after sleeping in a park, Mullin witnesses the morning ritual of police officers going around the park with their batons, waking the many slumbering tramps by whacking them on the soles of their feet. While it may be just be Mullin's jovial approach to road life, it is hard to see the following description in an unfair or brutal light.

"One fellow who slept not far from me responded to the crack of the billy by waddling off on all fours, and then, pausing, hunched his back, yawned, and shook each foot vigorously and solemnly before standing erect" (GM, 64). In this description it is put forth the perspective that the tramp is satisfied with his place, or at least he has chosen it. His laziness works for him and he gets by, but he must pay the price for his unwillingness to attain to a higher position in society. If these men in the park were portrayed as victims then the scene would be an unpleasant brutal one instead of being amusing.

The clownish image is further offered by Mullin's meeting with another tramp, dubbed by Frisco as Cap'n Bohunkus. As most of the Capn's front teeth are gone, the task of smoking his pipe is somewhat difficult. "Occasionally his gums were unequal to the task of clamping it securely, and the bowl would suddenly turn turtle, filling his bosom full of fire. Then the Capn' would leap to his feet and caper about, scattering sparks and swearing" (GM, 93).

There is also a humour of extremes that is fairly unique to this genre. In the process of riding the rods, as I have previously described, Mullin describes with warmth the image of his companion reading an Oscar Wilde pamphlet. "I tried to imagine how incredible it would sound to the passengers above us in the Pullman if someone were to tell them that under their feet, hanging precariously to a rod, was a grimy hobo reading a socialist pamphlet by Oscar Wilde" (GM, 165). And a moment later the hungry pamphlet-reading hobo is splattered with discarded food from a drain further up the train. To have this humour amid the terrifying experience of riding the rods could only happen in these kind of texts, the terror/humour is not guided by emotion but by uncontrollable events that occur.

The emotional strength of the hobo is a liberating concept, that a person needn't be controlled by society or sometimes even his bodily needs. "When I suffered most from lack of rest, or bodily sustenance - as my actual experience became darker, the thoughts of the future became brighter, as the stars shine to correspond with the night's shade" (AST, 203). Cotton describes realising his strength when seeing himself in a bathroom mirror, "While looking at myself I felt something coming to the surface, something I never knew I had. It was the will to stand through so much with so little" (EJC, 62).

And further, "When the storm is over I'm travelled and troubled, but I still know that deep down that I'm going to be okay" (EJC, 67).

 

Writers and Tall Tales

The world of the hobo is full with storytelling, songs and poetry. Mullin's book begins with a song, "Hallelujah! I'm a bum" and once he has hopped his first train with Frisco, they triumphantly broke into triumphant song, singing "On the Road to Mandalay" (GM, 15, 20). Tully describes the urge of negroes to sing as a means to "relieve their snarled and wretched lives" (BOL, 98). The reason for the urge could fit just as well for hobos and tramps.

The language used in the texts is also interesting in places. Words with both positive and negative connotations are coupled together, since in the world of the hobo something 'good' may be, from wider perspective, bad or unattractive. Hence Mullin offers that in the case of 'shooting snipes' (the act of collecting cigarette butts for the portion of unsmoked tobacco), "I have often seen fellows with a pocketful of these disreputable gleanings." (GM, 56). Describing a train porter reaching for one of these snipes, Mullin sees "the porter's eyes glisten as his fingers closed upon the prize" (GM, 160).

The tales of experienced hobos are held in high regard, Mullin muses, "Frisco's philosophical animadversions did not usually interest me as much as hearing him recount his road adventures. They were infinitely various and would fill a large volume" (GM, 134). In fact, the reasons that Mullin and Tully were attracted to the road were because of hearing hobo tales, Mullin being ensnared by Frisco's "wild tales of the road" (GM, 15) and Tully listening to hobo tales in the Ohio freight yard, and that of a young vagrant - "He was proud of his exploits, and told of them grandly" (BOL, 1).

As individuals the authors see a future for themselves that is different from the bums and lazy tramps who seem to have no further schemes for life except to get by with the least amount of effort. In that way these authors are worthy hobos as they did make it in the end. The fact that their books were published is commendable on a level perhaps higher than that of a typical hard working hobo whose only contribution was to be another temporary cog in the industrial machine.

 

End of the Road: Conclusion

The autobiographies that I have studied all come to end in different ways, and the authors draw different conclusions from their time spent on the road. Davies had his road career cut short (no pun intended) after he fell while trying to mount a moving train which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. In his case by violent force, "all the wilderness had been taken out of me" (AST, 146). Davies saw this a liberation from his wanderlust, now "determined that as my body had failed, my brains should now have the chance they had longed for, when the spirit had been bullied into submission by the body's activity" (AST, 147). Although his tramping continued Davis saw, as he always had, that the road was temporary and not a means to an end. He wanted to succeed as a writer, and on comparing the rough life of the road with his ideal, "which was a small room by a cosy fire, in which I sat surrounded by books, I was sickened by the comparison" (AST, 181).

Mullin also found the road ultimately frustrating and hollow, "The freedom of the Road is certainly specious; it is too uncomfortably compromised everywhere by laws." And further, "One wearies after a while of the sordid outlawry of the Road. Its dramatic contrasts, its tatterdemalion lures and irresponsibilities, the richness and variety of its human contacts, had awakened in me an enthusiastic response; but now I was longing for something very different." Of all the authors, Mullin wishes for better company as well as more intellectual pursuits, "My thoughts at this time were constantly of books, pictures, music, the conversation of men and women who were of my own kind - not clods! Strange it was that the world I had broken with a few months before seemed then so drab and bloodless, that romance seemed to lie only on the ever-shifting horizons of Hoboland" (GM, 282). Jumping off a train in Chicago, home for Mullin, he concludes "I found the end of the smoky trail" (GM, 320).

Tully puts it simply, "There followed several years of wanderlust of which I was eventually cured" (BOL, 164). Like Davies and Mullin, Tully also yearned for intellectual stimuli, but was satisfied in stealing books from libraries and reading them while he travelled. On realising he had stolen only the first volume of Dostoievsky's Crime and Punishment, the incident exasperated him so much that he "was very careful to steal complete volumes in the future" (BOL, 165). Indeed, Tully said the road gave him "one jewel beyond price, the leisure to read and dream" (BOL, 164)

Cotton's autobiography ends with him heading for Mexico, the destination he had in mind all along. In this way Cotton had not reached the point the others had, deciding, "I would go home when I was broke. I know that a broke man is usually a single man, but a single man can go and do whatever he pleases. I was nineteen years old and strong and that reason alone was enough for me to keep trying" (EJC, 236).

The hobo's road has also come to an end. The texts shed light on the 'real' character of hobo - he may steal from washing lines if he needs clothes, he may get drunk and curse. It wasn't quite the sterilised image that the pseudo-historians created. It is perhaps the most futile thing is to try and categorise that which is too loose a concept to be predictable, in the societal sense that one will behave according to what 'class' or category of person they are. This cannot apply to the hobo. If there is anything that comes through in the texts it is that the environment of the hobo is constantly changing and his behaviour (and sometimes, morals) will change according to the situation. He must go on, he must survive.

'Tramp' and 'bum' have continued to be words used in the English language to describe the homeless, and the connotations of these words have got worse and worse over time as the economy of the west has improved - there are increasingly less reasons why someone should exist beyond the bottom rung of society today as there once were. These words would be most likely directed at those who are helpless drink or drug abusers, in other words, victims. The word 'hobo', despite being slightly vague, cannot be said to refer to a victim. As a word it has more or less slipped off the radar completely.

The branding of names in a literary sense depends on the context of the situation. In terms of the titles of the books, 'bum' would of course not feature, as it is the least attractive. At the time of publication of both Davies's and Mullin's books, 'tramp' would have attracted attention as this underclass in an increasingly civilised age was an area of interest. While society struggled with how to deal with the tramp problem, these books would have been seen as an informative glimpse into the newly emerging underclass of western civilisation. At that time of Davies's book, hobo seemed to be a word not yet born or widely used at the time - it is not mention once. But perhaps the unborn hobo was what Davies had in mind with the title of his book. Not a tramp but a Super-Tramp. Mullin's book is the least known of the four, and perhaps this is partly due to the uninspiring (from a contemporary viewpoint) title of Adventures of a Scholar Tramp.

Cotton chose 'Hobo' as the title of his book not because he claims to be one, but "because it conjures up an image" (EJC, xxii). He offers the interchangeable usage of the terms spoken by his friend, Stringbean. "Upon rising after a hard night of drinking, he will refer to himself as a "lousy no-good tramp"; at lunch, with his arms in the air, he will preach to all the "rubes" at the lunch counter about "the rambling gospel" that only a "true hobo" like himself would understand; at sunset he will seek out the company of a young lady and serenade her with his "very personal" tales of a "happy-go-lucky scenery bum." Obvious in this exemplification, these terms are as fickle as the men who use them" (EJC, xxii). Despite this contemporary view, it is clear that if the hobo was once a clearly defined character, he is no more.

Gypsy Moon, who researched the topic and interviewed many of the original hobos (as well as being elected 1990 National Queen of the Hobos) offered a more final, concrete definition. "While there are differing definitions and opinions, all seem to agree on one point: Hobos were committed to the work ethic. Though they experienced the pangs of hardship that labour shortages bring, they opted to work rather than panhandle" (DB, 6).

So the real hobo once existed, a man who travelled and worked and was proud to do so, and he may still exist. But it is clear that sometime during the past, those who shared very similar characteristics with the hobo have usurped his title. Those who rode his trains, slept in his camps and made irregular appearances in his line of work have had others deem them, or have deemed themselves, hobos. These people didn't share his work ethic but were 'higher' than tramps and not as 'low' as bums. It is interesting to note in the introduction of Beggars of Life, that Charles Willeford states that Jim Tully "was never able to escape the appellation of "hobo," a term his publishers considered more colourful" (BOL, IV). In this case we can see that the name has been used intentionally to spice up the image of Tully, who was in essence a "road kid".

Ultimately, the safe conclusion is that the hobo is dead, but people still 'hobo'. The verb defined by Cassell clearly defines what we have read: those who live or travel as tramps. While this may seem we have come full circle to a null conclusion, hobo as a verb offers a positive name to the actions of those who have or do live this lifestyle but who remain optimistic and driven and see that extra perspective to life. As a verb it also implies that it is temporary, and the conclusions of the texts imply that this is correct.

To conclude, Jim Tully proffers that "There was no object, save that around camp-fires by running brooks we could brag to grizzled and decrepit hobos how we had ridden a mail trail nearly six hundred miles through a populated section of the country. We knew that less daring men in a ragged profession would admire us for the feat. No object at all - yet it was about the same object that actuates the rest of humanity of every class and creed, the admiration that humans have for others who do the thing of which they are not capable, or daring, or foolish enough to do" (BOL, 101). That is Hobo Literature, how it came into being and why it remains a distinctive and important genre of American Literature today.

 

References

Anderson, N. (1923) The Hobo: The Sociology Of The Homeless Man (Phoenix Books, Chicago).
Cotton, E.J. (2002) Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America (Three Rivers Press, New York)
Davies, W.H. (1992) The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (Oxford University Press, Oxford)
Green, J. (1998) The Cassell Dictionary of Slang (Cassell, London)
Kerouac, J. (1972) On the Road (Penguin, London)
Mullin, G.H. (1925) Adventures of a Scholar Tramp (Jonathan Cape Limited, London)
Schmidt, J.K. (1996) Done and Been - Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos (Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis)
Tully, J. (2004) Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography (Nabat/AK Press, Oakland, CA)
White, S. (2001) In Search of The American Hobo (for American Studies Program at University of Virginia)