The combined events of the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the first transcontinental railroad opening in 1869, and the financial crash of 1873, found large numbers—including thousands of former soldiers well used to an outdoor life and tramping—thrown into a transient life and forced to roam the continent, surviving on whatever resources came to hand. For most, the life of the hobo was born out of necessity. For a few it became a lifestyle choice. Some of the latter group committed their adventures to print, both autobiographical and fictional, and together with their British and Irish counterparts, whose wanderlust was fueled by an altogether different genesis, they account for the fifteen tramp writers whose stories and ideas are the subject of this book. The lives of some, like Jack Everson, Jack Black and Tom Kromer, are told in a single volume, others, like Morley Roberts and Stephen Graham, have eighty and fifty published works to their credit respectively. Some remain completely unknown and their books are long since out of print, others, like Trader Horn and Jim Tully, were Hollywood celebrities. Others yet, such as Black, Tulley, Horn, Bart Kennedy, Leon Ray Livingstone, and Jack London, had their stories immortalized in film.
The present terms of the lockdown make it tough times for any kind of tramp, defined by the sociologist Ben Reitman a century ago as “a man who doesn’t work, who apparently doesn’t want to work, who lives without working and who is constantly traveling”. Reitman, best known as the companion of the anarchist Emma Goldman, was himself a former hobo, a category he separated from tramping: “A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed labourer without money, looking for work”. Both are removed from the bum, who “begs or earns a few pennies a day. He is usually inebriate”.
These distinctions are quoted in Ian Cutler’s enjoyable new book, The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers. His subjects include some who will be known to readers – Morley Roberts, Jack London, W. H. Davies, Jack Black – and others whose stories are less familiar, including the only female tramp in the cast, the long-lived Kathleen Phelan (1917–2014). According to Mr Cutler, she “out-tramped all of the male vagabonds” in the book, having spent “77 of her 97 years living on the road. — (London) Times Literary Supplement