The Vagrant and American Literature

America has always been a nation of expansion, of travelling and growing and moving… Founded by explorers from across the Atlantic, pushing West and South, over deserts and mountains and forests, to the very limits of the continent… And into this frontier philosophy falls the place of the hobo, the vagrant, the bum… The rail-riding, independent, footloose man of America: as happy in the wilderness as in the city; as content to watch his nation pass from the side of a train as watching cars from the side of the road… These downtrodden and beaten figures have always been outcasts of society, yet they have a special place in the heart of the nation as brave troubadours who have shaped the cultural history of the country.

American literature and music is rife with hobo writers and characters – Walt Whitman, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen… They may not always be seen as the average American, but their influence upon America is undeniable. They celebrate and bring to popular culture the wandering cult of freedom, independence and exploration.

If one can put aside modern, preconceived notions of what America stands for – greed, aggression, oppression – then what remains is the transcendentalist idealism of rugged independence, true freedom, and communing with nature. This is a far cry from that which Ginsberg railed against, but certainly informs the sense of loss that inspired his anger at a government that had turned the world against all Americans.

And before, during and after the Beat period, the American government certainly appeared to be seeking out and destroying all that pioneering settlers and founders had dreamt of. Any variation upon the standard, government endorsed view of national identity and individual rights, was denounced as Un-American and Communist. Yet all through history, we see the outstanding pieces of literature questioning such ideology.

But the Beat Generation and subsequent offshoots and related movements leant towards an alternative approach. They actively sought to create their own little space in the world, without overthrowing the dominant views. They wanted a hedonistic lifestyle, and they didn’t originally protest for the right to live their way. Rather, they just did what they wanted and bore the brutal consequences. It seemed useless to try and to fail by creating a new and wrong regime that would dictate the lives of the people. “You can’t fight City Hall,” Kerouac said. “It keeps changing its name.” It was only really through Ginsberg’s later endeavours that protest took the form of subculture disquiet. The Beats tended to write the world as they saw it – in much the same way as Jackson Pollock painted in the confused, mad style of the world in which he lived.

And it was through living the way that they wanted that texts emerged that celebrated a way of life that had been American since the beginnings – the wandering free vagabonds that civilised folks looked down upon, but who so obviously embodied a frightening idealism that took hold in the early days of the nation’s founding.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath both celebrate a footloose lifestyle free of possession, while critical of government and dominant views. Of course, the same can be said of Bob Dylan, though it seems ridiculous to even need point that out.

And although it is clear to see many Beats’ respect for downtrodden and free-wandering individuals, and their disrespect for conformity and a system that would electro-shock those it deemed mentally unfit for society, it was most famously Kerouac who accurately and famously documented their existence and worth.

Starting with On the Road, Kerouac was more than willing to cast off the shackles of life and throw himself at the mercy of nature and his fellow human beings. He was eager for the life of a man with nothing tying him down, and with care only for that which made life worth living. He was content to become homeless, to ride the rails, sleep on the beach and hitch rides within anyone who cared to share their transport. All he wanted was pleasure and company and excitement in his life. Dean Moriarty was the ultimate hobo – a con-artist and hedonist, riding from one end of the country to the other, just for shits and giggles. And ole Sal was happy to come along, to take work when he needed money to move on, to experiment with a little fun, and just to be as free as it was possible to be in America. Kerouac shows us the world from the perspective of that guy on the side of the road, or riding the rails, or bumming a quarter, chasing skirt, getting drunk, smoking tea, and prowling the negro streets at dawn…

And if we take The Dharma Bums, then we see another sort of hobo. Japhy Ryder, the Buddhist nature man based upon Gary Snyder, is in stark contrast to Ray Smith’s (Kerouac’s) city life of drink and drugs and neon lights. He is happy surrounded by wilderness and free of possession and consumerist culture. The title itself suggests a strong link between Eastern philosophy and American vagrancy, something that informed the Transcendentalists a century before. Kerouac clearly sees a spirituality in the life of social outsiders and homeless wanderers.

“Colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness…” [The Dharma Bums: 1958]

In Lonesome Traveller, Big Sur and Desolation Angels, the theme is continued. In the titles alone we can see a respect for solitude and nature, and a beautiful link between the two ideas. The connection between travelling, the American wilderness and spirituality is impossible to ignore.

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength. Learning for instance, to eat when he’s hungry and sleep when he’s sleepy. [Lonesome Traveller: 1960]

Ah, life is a gate, a way, a path to Paradise anyway, why not live for fun and joy and love or some sort of girl by a fireside, why not go to your desire and LAUGH… [Big Sur: 1962]

These two quotes say it all. They’re hardly necessary to elaborate upon, as Kerouac summarises so succinctly the Beat/ Hobo philosphy.

It’s easy to get lost in the accepted ideas of hobos as mooching degenerates, too lazy to contribute to society or literature, but they stand as reminders of something important that was lost, and as something beautiful that is so casually painted with a distasteful brush. Hobos are as much a part of America as Guantanamo Bay and George W Bush, and as central to American literature as prosperity and freedom.

David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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