Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Vagabonds, Tramps, and Hobos

Illustration from the “Hobo” News 2:2, May 1916, p.14. From St Louis Public Library, scan taken by Owen Clayton.

Illustration from the “Hobo” News 2:2, May 1916, p.14. From St Louis Public Library, scan taken by Owen Clayton.

Travelling wanderers, whether called vagabonds, tramps, hobos or something else, have long held a romantic mystique in America culture. In the famous song King of the Road, for example, Roger Miller encapsulates the carefree life of a hobo who only needs to work a couple of hours to afford his humble room. Although the singer wears ‘Worn out suit and shoes’, he at least does not have to pay any ‘union dues’ — Miller being apparently unable to see the connection between these two facts. The song exalts the freedom of the individualist hobo, a quintessential American hero who rejects the constraints of a specific job or union. The pioneer hobo, an enduring figure from the so-called ‘Golden Age of Tramping’, represents the epitome of this free-spirited lifestyle. In my book, Vagabonds, Tramps, and Hobos: the Literature and Culture of US Transiency, 1890-1940, I delve into this period, exploring how the pioneer hobo became an iconic symbol of rebellion against the established order, while paradoxically reinforcing conservative notions of American exceptionalism, individualism, race, and gender. This legacy permeates canonical American literature such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as popular culture through movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise, the songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and many others.

Multinational corporations have also embraced the romanticized image of the hobo. In a 2016 advertisement for the Subaru Outback motorcar, a female passenger gazes at an empty freight train and daydreams about riding it before being transported into an empty boxcar, where she is joined by her male companion. As they embrace and observe the passing American landscape, the woman is awakened from her reverie by her companion, and they continue their journey towards the horizon. A voiceover assures the audience that ‘Great Adventures are still out there.’ Here, the hobo is a ghostly figure, absent in physical form but present in spirit. The advertisement suggests that riding freight trains may be impractical in the modern world, but the spirit of adventure lives on, presumably within the Subaru. Interestingly, the advert faced calls for its removal, and it now seems to have restricted access online, out of fear that it would encourage people to hop freight trains.

As Vagabonds, Tramps, and Hobos aims to demonstrate, the pioneer hobo image, as seen in Miller’s song and the Subaru advert, oversimplifies the era and fails to capture the complexity and diversity of cultural expressions from transient authors, poets, and musicians in early twentieth-century America. These transients were instrumental in creating what may be the first counterculture in the United States. Known as ‘hobohemia’, this working-class subculture thrived in areas like Chicago’s ‘Main Stem’, which served as hubs for labour opportunities and as for winter accommodation. Hobohemia produced a tapestry of fiction, poetry, autobiography, sociology, journalism, early feminist writings, and popular music, including contributions from women and African-Americans. Through this book, I shed light on forgotten or neglected materials that challenge the prevailing notion of hobos as exclusively white, straight, male hyper-individualists perpetuated by popular history.

Despite the idealization of the pioneer hobo, some have argued that transient writers and artists contributed little of cultural significance. In 1956, Frank Beck, for instance, claimed that hobos produced scant literature, virtually no philosophy, and little else of social or scholarly value despite their ample leisure time. One of the aims of Vagabonds, Tramps, and Hobos is to challenge this notion and demonstrate the substantial cultural contributions made by transient individuals. I argue that hobohemia was a working-class subculture that privileged storytelling, particularly in the tale tales that were often spun around jungle camp-fires. Since it was both a literate and literary subculture, many transients became authors, poets, musicians, journalists, and songwriters. Many of them were amateurs but many were published, in something of a mini-publishing boom for transient memoirs during the early twentieth century. Many were also published in newspapers run by transients themselves, especially the “Hobo” News, as well the radical papers such as Industrial Worker and Industrial Solidarity. The music created by hobohemia would have profound impact upon the later Folk Revival, which in turn would lay the groundwork for the development of Rock and Roll.

Another transient archetype was the vagabond, which I argue is someone who attempts to sightsee without money. This archetype first emerged in nineteenth-century fiction but in the twentieth century became a reality through the emergence of several ‘vagabond’ travel writers, whose exploits journeying around the world on little or no money provided great interest for their readers. This vagabond figure was deeply problematic because the solution to having no money was often for the (invariably white) author to use racial privilege to get by. The vagabond figure has re-emerged in the twenty first century both in the guise of websites and blogs advocating world travel on a budget, and in the phenomenon of the ‘digital nomad’ worker, untied to a particular workplace and able to travel seemingly at will. This is all in contrast, of course, to the refugees feeling war and climate disaster who are regularly turned away at the borders of wealthy western countries, and who often risk their lives to cross those borders illegally, not to mention the many thousands of people who live on the streets in the US and elsewhere. In short, the 21st century ‘vagabond’ seems as problematically privileged as its earlier counterpart that I discuss in my book.

Image Description: Map of hobohemia from Nels Anderson, The Hobo: the sociology of the homeless man. A study prepared for the Chicago Council of Social Agencies under the direction of the Committee on Homeless Men (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1961, text originally published 1923), p.15. Scan taken by Owen Clayton.

Vagabonds, Tramps, and
Hobos by Owen Clayton

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