"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

18 Oct 2022

Women Tramp Writers

These were previously discussed as part of a review of Iain McIntyre's On the Fly but expanded on here: 


                          Kathleen Phelan                                                   Dolly Kennedy Yancey


Other than Kathleen Phelan and Dolly Kennedy Yancey (please see separate posts—and Yancey only just squeezes in), together with Agnes Thecla Fair (see at bottom), and in spite of rigorous research, I have failed to identify any other women tramps who have documented their own life and adventures. Biographies and fictions there certainly are, and these are discussed below, but it should be noted that I deliberately narrowed the scope of my work on tramp writers by limiting it along the lines of the writer Emily Burbank's definition, when she commented on Josiah Flynt, one of the writers in my own text, “it must be remembered that Flynt was the tramp writing, not the literary man tramping." And then further limiting my area of research by excluding tramps who were exclusively poets. This definition applied equally to the male tramp writers featured in my book '... Golden Age of Tramping', in which Kathleen Phelan was the sole woman representative. And so none of the famous (and exclusively male) writers featured in Arthur Rickett's, The Vagabond in Literature (1906)—subject of the last eight posts on this blog—were discussed in my own book on tramp writers as they fell within the definition of 'literary men tramping' rather than tramps who wrote.

And so, when I say I have failed to identify any other woman tramps writers, I am narrowly applying Burbank's definition. There were certainly no shortage of women, explorers, naturalists, mountaineers, missionaries and journalists, who walked vast distances and wrote about their adventures throughout the period covered. But for the most part, these women were funded for their expeditions and conducted them in the company of others, in some cases including a retinue of servants in the same manner of many of their Victorian male counterparts—not that this in any way lessens their incredible achievements with additional challenges faced precisely because they were women. 

Much closer to Phelan in terms of presenting a philosophy of walking itself, were the women subjects of Kerri Andrews superb book Wanderers: A History of Women Walking (2020), which addresses the obvious omission in Rickett's book, ignoring, as he did, all of the significant ambulatory women writers of the latter half of the 1700s through the 1800s. But again, as these fell into the definition of literary women walking, rather than the woman tramp writing, I have so far neglected them from my own writing. However, my book in progress, which addresses the philosophy of tramping and vagabondage by theme—in the manner of my extended review of Rickett's book—will include the writing of literary folk tramping such as those discussed by Andrews and Ricket, and many others beside. But for now, please find below some notes on those other stories of women tramps that I did not include in Golden Age:

Barbara Starke, according to her ‘autobiography’, Born in Captivity: The Story of a Girl’s Escape (1931), is an account of the 17 year old’s flight from the tedium of upper-class life in New England for the life of a hobo, tramping and hitching up the East Coast into Canada and back. However, some doubt has been raised that the book was in fact a fictional work by an English writer Helen Card. Regardless of this, Card or Starke clearly had an authentic knowledge of life on the road. Wearing corduroys and carrying only a few spare clothes in a small pack, she discusses the practicalities of being on the road, including keeping herself and her clothes clean. As with the only tramp writer in my own book, Kathleen Phelan, The Story of a Girl’s Escape describes the shift from train hopping to walking or hitching rides with motorists, with all of the added dangers and unexpected liaisons that such a mode of transport invited. Unlike Phelan, Starke admits to never raising her thumb for a lift, but like Phelan, she was very particular about what cars she got into and turned down lifts if she had any doubts about the intentions of the driver (see further note on women tramp writers below).

Ethel Lynn's The Adventures of a Woman Hobo (1917), while certainly authentic, describes a single trip she made with her husband by tandem bicycle and boxcars. Having said which, the trip was prompted by the triple disasters of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1907 financial ‘panic’, then receiving a diagnosis of tuberculosis, all of which succeeded in putting an end, for a time at least, to her work as a medical doctor. Yet this is not the biography of someone who has chosen tramping as a lifestyle choice for any extended period of time. Kathleen Phelan spent the best part of 70 years on the road, dying alone in her caravan two days before her 97th birthday. eBook available here 


Bertha Thompson’s adventures in Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha (2010), while a fascinating and informative read, was written by former hobo and radical activist Dr. Ben Reitman (later a medical doctor and husband of the anarchist Emma Goldman). The character Bertha is based on a composite of the many women hobos that Reitman encountered, both as a hobo and in his role as “whorehouse physician”—he served a 6 month jail sentence for advocating birth control. Reitman included a thirty-page classification of women tramps in his book.

Poster for the 1972 movie, Boxcar Bertha

Former hobo and Chicago sociologist, Nels Anderson, did not go to the lengths of Reitman to categorise women vagabonds but in his own study, which included five main divisions of male tramps, with 30 subdivisions, he simply dismisses women as a subdivision of “Other Classes” along with Cripples, Stew Bums, Spongers, and Old Men, further subdividing women tramps into three groups: prostitutes, dope fiends & drunks, and mental defectives. 

It is worth noting that Reitman and Anderson’s ‘studies’ coincided, not only with Chicago becoming the hobo mecca of America, but also the birth of the Chicago School of Sociology, responsible for popularising 'urban sociology' as a specific research area for the first time. Consequently, many works on tramping from the time concentrate on socio-political and historical investigations rather than getting underneath the very essence of tramping itself in the way that Iain McIntyre has done in On the Fly!: Hobo Literature and Songs 1879 to 1941 (see review HERE)

Jacqueline Schmidt deserves a mention before leaving this discussion on women tramp writers for her contemporary collection of hobo tales, Done and Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos (1996), including biographical details of her father’s hobo adventures. 

"While other children were hearing Mother Goose, I thrilled to adventures of my dad's real-life experiences. The stories were varied accounts of his hoboing days—riding the rods, jumping a rattler, or camping in the jungles - after he left his home in 1911 at the age of 


Woman Tramp Poet

Agnes Thecla Fair was introduced to me by McIntyre as one of the hobo writers he had wished he'd included in his anthology and discovered only following publication of On the Fly.

Given the dearth of women tramp writers, I’m making an exception here to excluding poetry from my biographies of tramp writers, to refer to Agnes Thecla Fair’s Sour Dough’s Bible (1910), a collection of her poetry that includes unique descriptions of hobo life in north western America at the start of the 20th century. Fair, whose own hobo adventures are referred to below, also published articles on her extraordinary exploits as a feminist and labour activist. These included a lengthy piece for the Seattle Socialist, the entire edition of which was confiscated by the Seattle police on the grounds that it contained “indecent matter”.

At the age of 37, convinced that her failing health would make it impossible for her to continue her campaigning work, Fair ended her life on January 11 1917 by stepping in front of an electric car on the interurban rail tracks in Sellwood, a neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon.

Harriet Chervin, whom Fair had been staying with in Sellwood, "knew of her guest's mental stress, but did not anticipate her act … She had been in failing health ... was in straitened  circumstances and appeared moody.” The Oregon Daily Journal, January 12th 1917.

Originally from the East Coast where she had been married, then divorced, from a W.P. Dougherty, Fair moved to Washington then Oregon by way of Vancouver where she became very active in the IWW and feminist movement. Her work as an activist started with the infamous Spokane free speech fights in November 1909 for which she was jailed along scores of other demonstrators. “She “spent three days in a rancid cell and was sexually harassed.” To a friend who asked her if she was afraid of men taking advantage of her, Fair laughed, shook her head, and replied:

None of the workingmen ever do, some of the silk stocking chaps do once in a while. But I have a sharp tongue and a hat pin, and know how to put any man down and out who gets foolish.” 

From Railway Carmen’s Journal, April 1914

And from Appeal to Reason, February 10 1917:

She was a rare character-a real woman hobo. She never hesitated to ride the rods. She went to hundreds of cities via the boxcar route. On such trips she wore overalls.”

Descriptions of two of the innovative projects Fair started to support the destitute and impoverished are described by her friend, Alfred D. Cridge in Railway Carmen’s Journal of April 1914:

In Spokane she established a down and out restaurant and with capable mechanical adeptness attached a gas stove she had “rustled” to a main with no meter between, and for months she was steward, chief cook and clerk of that strange institution. When taxed with her disregard for the sacred property rights of the gas company she laughed at the threats of arrest. Ascertaining that no jury in Spokane would convict her, no prosecution was made.”

In Los Angeles one winter she found a number of the “Side Door Pullman” tourists suffering from exposure, hardships, hunger, perhaps wounds and injuries. She established a rude hospital and interested a number of people in her activities until things got going, when she flitted to where there were ‘lots of sick babies and hungry women to look after,’ without telling me the locality.

In the same article, Cridge relates a conversation he had with Fair about her time in San Francisco just prior to her last visit to Portland. He describes her as suffering and thin:

I worked too hard in Frisco. There was so much to do. A lot of those labor leaders are awful crooks! I had to come away. I had no more strength. I am going to take a long rest. I have friends.

But, as Cridge continues, “Her mind wavered. She sought death to end it, and Thursday, January 11, she jumped in front of an oncoming electric train.”

Sour Dough’s Bible is available as an eBook here

See also review of Jenny Steele Scolding's book, Vagabond Girl

I would be extremely grateful to hear of any other women tramp writers not identified here

17 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 8

Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature

Return to Part 4 — The Abject

Return to Part 5 — The Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection

Return to Part 6  Peter Pan Syndrome

Return to Part 7   Fact or Fiction


“In looking back upon these discursive comments on the Vagabond element in modern literature, one cannot help asking what is the resultant effect of the Vagabond temperament upon life and thought. … Yet the question sooner or later rises to our lips.  This Vagabond temperament—is its charm and attractiveness merely superficial?  I cannot think so.  I think that on the whole its effect upon our literature has been salutary and beneficial. Rickett

Rickett’s chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson provides particular insight into answering these questions. He refers to two aspects of Stevenson’s character which he describes as the controlling forces of that writer’s nature, the Romantic and the Artistic:

It may be thought that these twain have much in common; but it is not so.  In poetry the first gives us a Blake, a Shelley; the second a Keats, a Tennyson.  Variety, fresh points of view, these are the breath of life to the Romantic.  But for the Artist there is one constant, unchanging ideal.  The Romantic ventures out of sheer love of the venture, the other out of sheer love for some definite end in view.  It is not usual to find them coexisting as they did in Stevenson, and their dual existence gives an added piquancy and interest to his work.  It is the Vagabond Romantic in him that leads him into so many byways and secret places, that sends him airily dancing over the wide fields of literature; ever on the move, making no tabernacle for himself in any one grove.  And it is the Artist who gives that delicacy of finish, that exquisitive nicety of touch, to the veriest trifle that he essays. The matter may be beggarly, the manner is princely.


And thus it is that in the letters alone do we find the Vagabond temperament of Stevenson fully asserting itself. … He does not care a fig for order, or logical sequence, or congruity, or for striking a key of expression and keeping it, but becomes simply the most spontaneous and unstudied of human beings.  He will write with the most distinguished eloquence on one day, with simple good sense and good feeling on a second, with flat triviality on another, and with the most slashing, often ultra-colloquial vehemency on a fourth, or will vary through all these moods, and more, in one and the same letter.” 

In Stevenson we find the same vagabond characteristics as those other, less well known, tramp writers, both in his temperament and his writing. He responds to internal humours and desires, not to societal pressures and expectations. Rickett lists three characteristics that he finds in the vagabond temperament and these apply equally to those tramp writers discussed in my own study: 

(1) Restlessness—the wandering instinct; this expresses itself mentally as well as physically.  (2) A passion for the Earth—shown not only in the love of the open air, but in a delight in all manifestations of life.  (3) A constitutional reserve whereby the Vagabond, though rejoicing in the company of a few kindred souls, is put out of touch with the majority of men and women.” 

In Rickett’s chapter on Henry D. Thoreau, we get closer to precisely what it is that puts the vagabond out of touch ‘with the majority of men and women’, and this has more to do with a rejection of wider societies norms and values than it does a ‘constitutional reserve’. “May not Thoreau’s energetic rebukes of the evils of civilization have received an added zest from his instinctive repugnance to many of the civilized amenities valued by the majority?” 

A few days before his twenty-eighth birthday, Thoreau went to live alone in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Walden Pond, a mile from the nearest neighbour. Rickett informs us that Thoreau was exceptionally practical and skilled at everything “from making lead pencils to constructing a boat” to the extent that, “had he been so disposed he could doubtless have made a fortune”. We are also told that he supported himself by manual labour throughout his life. Thoreau’s writing is full of attacks on the evils of money-making and ‘civilisation’ in general. Yet Thoreau’s escape to Walden Pond was more than simply a negative response to wider society’s evils, an “escape from ordinary life”, he rather saw it as a positive lifestyle choice, a natural way of fitting himself into an ordinary life.

Rickett credits much of Thoreau’s lifestyle to his sympathy with the Native American and his knowledge of their ways, a characteristic shared with other vagabond writers: “The Indians were to Thoreau what the gypsies were to Borrow.  Appealing to certain spiritual affinities in the men’s natures, they revealed their own temperaments to them, enabling them to see the distinctiveness of their powers.” That certain vagabond writers were drawn to those who lived on the margins of mainstream society, and also embraced ‘foreign’ cultures that complemented their own nature, has been a recurring theme for over two and a half thousand years going back to the mythical vagabond Heracles (Hercules), questioning the very nature of ‘civilisation’ itself:

We talk of civilizing the Indians, but that is not the name for his improvement.  By the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest-life he preserves his intercourse with his native gods, and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with Nature. […]

If one could listen but for an instant to the chant of the Indian muse, we should understand why he will not exchange his savageness for civilization.  Nations are not whimsical.  Steel and blankets are strong temptations, but the Indian does well to continue Indian.” 

Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Rickett acknowledges that the life of the woods came naturally to Thoreau because he, “had a sufficient touch of wildness to be able to detach himself from the civilized man’s point of view.”  Thoreau passed by indifferently, Rickett says, the luxuries and aspirations that mean so much to those who embrace main stream society. As with the Cynic Crates, who created his own republic from his immediate friends and family and recognised that man made laws were at odds with the natural laws of human nature, so to did Thoreau maintain his own integrity, “through obedience to the laws of his own being” 

A historical example of the vagabond's tendency to find an existence with the marginalised of society was the Cynosarges (Park of the Agile Dog). The Cynosarges was a gymnasium and a temple to the worship of the proto-Cynic Hercules located just outside the walls of Athens. Traceable to the sixth century B.C., the Cynosarges was the only place where Athenian ‘bastards’ were permitted to worship and exercise. Bastards were defined by Athenian law as including anyone with an Athenian father but whose mother was a slave, a prostitute, or a foreigner, as well as those whose parents were not legally married citizens. Generally well assimilated into Athenian life, a law passed in the fifth century B.C. prohibited bastards from exercising in the gymnasiums. For some reason this law did not extend to the Cynosarges which thus became a regular gathering place, not only for official bastards, but also self-proclaimed bastards: “men and women who were or felt illegitimate and foreign everywhere, and who lived ill at ease within the established civic community”. 

The vagabond and cynic philosopher would have us live our philosophy, the knowledge and wisdom that comes from hard living, rather than from the books and teachings of so called ‘experts’. This is the essence of vagabondage, a reconnection to our natural surroundings, trusting only the knowledge that we receive through our own senses, as opposed to academic and scientific knowledge with it's belief in first principals and external absolutes—the mindset that has dominated Western thought for over two thousand years. 

These eight posts, prompted by Rickett's book, have provided the prototype for my book in progress in which I am exploring these same themes informed by a wider reading on the subjects.

16 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 7

Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature

Return to Part 4 — The Abject

Return to Part 5 — The Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection

Return to Part 6  Peter Pan Syndrome


These men believe in the figments of their imagination, and make us believe in them. Stevenson is obviously sceptical as to their reality; we can almost see a furtive smile upon his lip as he writes. But there is nothing unreal about the man, whatever we feel of the Artist. … there is no make-believe here; here I am not merely amusing myself; here, honestly and heartily admitted, you may find the things that life has taught me.” Rickett

Rickett’s observation that vagabond writers, “believe in the figments of their imagination, and make us believe in them”, opens up an important theme of vagabond writing: the deliberate (as well as unconscious) insertion of the vagabond writer’s life into their fiction and the fictionalisation of parts of their ‘autobiographical’ works.

As I noted in my own book on tramp literature, there is a fine line to be drawn between biography and fantasy, and so for those obsessed with historical fact—which is for the most part illusive or fabricated anyway—tramp literature is best avoided; unless one is prepared to fully embrace the autobiographical in fiction and the fictional in autobiography. In any case, even for those who wish to ‘learn’ from history, I would argue that myth and legend can be equally instructive, sometimes more so, than so-called historical accounts. Perhaps more importantly, in terms of these vagabond texts, the ‘facts’, so far as they can be established, are often even more extraordinary than the fiction. But as Rickett has noted, the vagabond writer is less concerned at the blurring of fact and fiction than being true to their experiences and observations of life and, as will be demonstrated below, sometimes indulging in a deliberate playfulness to confound the reader. The fact/fiction dichotomy is directly discussed in Rickett’s chapter on George Borrow:

the Vagabond is never satisfied with things that merely happen.  He is equally concerned with the things that might happen, with the things that ought to happen.  And so Borrow added to his own personal record from the storehouse of dreams.  Some have blamed him for not adhering to the actual facts.  But does any autobiographer adhere to actual facts?  Can any man, even with the most sensitive feeling for accuracy, confine himself to a record of what happened?

Of course not.  The moment a man begins to write about himself, to delve in the past, to ransack the storehouse of his memory; then—if he has anything of the literary artist about him, and otherwise his book will not be worth the paper it is written on—he will take in a partner to assist him.  That partner’s name is Romance.” 

Rickett quotes directly from Borrow to address the issue head on, “What is an autobiography?  Is it a mere record of a man’s life, or is it a picture of the man himself?”  He notes that when Borrow started writing up his own life in Lavengro he had no intention of departing from the fact: “But the adventurer Vagabond moved uneasily in the guise of the chronicler.  He wanted more elbow-room.  He remembered all that he hoped to encounter, and from hopes it was no far cry to actualities.”

Things might have happened so!  Ye gods, they did happen so!  And after all it matters little to us the exact proportion of fact and fiction.  What does matter is that the superstructure he has raised upon the foundation of fact is as strange and unique as the palace of Aladdin.” 

Rickett discusses what are, on the face of it, contradictory aspects of Borrow’s character. On the one hand “the typical Anglo-Saxon in real life”, a white-haired giant of six foot three strong, assertive, beer-loving (but never a drunkard), an excellent athlete, “few better at running, jumping, wrestling, sparring, and swimming.” On the other hand:

there was the true Celt whenever he took pen in hand. … a Celt he was by parentage, and the Celtic part was unmistakable, though below the surface. If the East Anglian in him had a weakness for athleticism, boiled mutton and caper sauce, the Celt in him responded quickly to the romantic associates of Wales.”  

This characterisation of Borrow has many parallels with the real lives and writing styles of other tramp writers described below, not least the Celtics Tully and Phelan, fictioneers and pugilists both, and Horn, who claimed a direct descendancy from the Vikings, whose military tactics he employed in his river battles with pirates on the Ogowe River, yet excelled in the romantic with semi-fictional characters and narratives in his writing. Rickett’s further comments on Borrows extends to most of these tramp writers: 

as in all the literary Vagabonds, it is the complexity of the man’s temperament that attracts and fascinates. … a man, in short, of so many bewildering contradictions and strangely assorted qualities as Borrow cannot but compel interest.” 

Below are listed some brief examples from tramp writers discussed in my own book to further expand this theme about fact versus fiction in vagabond writing, at the same time evidencing that the truth of the writer was often more extraordinary than the fiction—though only a full reading of their adventures can do justice to this claim:

Thomas Manning Page (1841-1900), introduced earlier regarding his time as a bohemian artist, wrote a single volume in the first person without naming himself, or other family members, and so there are no clues that the hero of the book was even the author. When commencing a reading of The Autobiography of a Tramp (1884), in the full belief that Page is both author and narrator, it is easy to be baffled why nothing is given away about where or when Page was born, he simply teases his reader that he was born “in the usual way,” at an early age, and from a mother. A cynic par excellence, satirical irony is there from the book’s opening, as Page deliberately defies literary convention by opening his book with a postscript that contains a diatribe against prefaces. 

It was only on obtaining a copy of Page’s obituary that any ‘true facts’ concerning the writer could be established. One of these was that he had enrolled in the Confederate army at the age of 20, serving with some distinction alongside General Robert E. Lee before being wounded several times and eventually released in an exchange of prisoners when the Confederate Army finally surrendered at Appomattox in April 1861. This fact demonstrates the paradoxical, upside-down style of Page’s writing and cleared up at least one anomaly. Why, one might wonder, did the hero of Page’s autobiography, a child soldier in the Union army, express so many sympathies with the Southern cause?

Bart Kennedy (1861-1930) was the author of 22 books and a weekly broadsheet. A Sailor Tramp (unlike the more strictly autobiographical A Man Adrift or A Tramp in Spain in which Kennedy is clearly chronicling his own travels and adventures), is an autobiographical fiction. Clearly heavily informed by the author’s own experiences, here he is able to fully exploit both his imagination and personal philosophy as I described as follows in my book: 

A Sailor Tramp is an unsentimental essay on the brutality of human life, a critique of deprivation, desperation, physical and spiritual survival. It also concerns longing and desire. For through his principal character, Sailor, Kennedy exposes the human face of the tramp, even his ambivalence to tramping itself.”

Attempts have been made to categorise Jim Tully’s (1886-1947) 13 books and 2 plays as either autobiography or fiction, but again this is a somewhat futile exercise. In the case of his third book, Jarnegan, although written in the third person, Jack Jarnegan was modelled on Tully himself yet even his biographers were unable to reconcile certain facts about Tully from this and other of his works. It was a line in Jarnegan that lost Tully his job with Charlie Chaplin. Ever the cynic parrhesiast (his journalistic exposes had earned him the title of “the most feared and hated man in Hollywood”) Tully was given the choice of removing the offending line or losing his job. Tully chose the latter and, now approaching the peak of his own success, broke up with Chaplin.

Trader Horn (1861-1931) says in his third volume, The Waters of Africa (1929): “Beauty of fiction is you can suppress anything that’s not convenient.” He later describes the book as “fiction buttressed with truth” and that the story was “Founded on as much truth as fiction would allow.” The subtitle of his second book, Harold the Webbed (1928), includes fictionalising biographical information that readers normally take for granted: “... written by ALFRED ALOYSIUS HORN at the age of seventy-three, and the life with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience, taken down and here edited by ETHELREDA LEWIS.” Horn was in fact aged 67, not 73, when the book was published.

Trader Horn would yet have been just another unknown tramp and adventurer had he not arrived, in the spring of 1925 at the age of 64, peddling handmade kitchen implements at the Johannesburg home of novelist Ethelreda Lewis. Their shared interest in Viking history soon turned into a remarkable literary partnership that within only two years would make Trader Horn an international celebrity and in 1931 spawned the Hollywood movie version of his first book Trader Horn (1927). At his weekly visits to Lewis’ home, Horn would relate his tales and spend the week writing up his memories in a Johannesburg doss house. Lewis’ husband typed up the manuscripts but included all Horn’s idiosyncratic grammar and spelling mistakes. The ‘conversations’ between Horn and Lewis were also included in the final publications and often exceeded Horn’s own prose writing. Lewis describes Horn’s writing as follows: 

Mr. Horn has an enviable gift of speaking as if his characters really existed. the line between truth and fiction is but a shadow line with him. He casts the net of fiction over truth and of truth over fiction, enmeshing the listener by the same dexterous throw.” 

If Horn had the gift of speaking as though his characters existed, it is because many of them did exist. Often modest in his autobiographical ramblings, there is, paradoxically, more truth in much of what he relates than he has been given credit for, or gives himself credit for, including facts that were only verified long after his works were published. 

Jim Phelan (1895-1966) was well aware of what made a successful novel in purely marketing terms and knew just how to please the publishers and readers while having the last laugh at their expense. As did Trader Horn, Phelan subverted the commercial with his own skills at storytelling. Of his short stories, he says, “There is always the central bit, which looks like the story. But never is.” Phelan also refuses to engage with the fact/fiction dichotomy as noted in the opening passages of his preface to The Name’s Phelan

For a teller of tales, a fiction spinner, such as I have been for most of my life, even before I was a writer, any attempt at a straightforward factual narrative is very difficult indeed. It is so easy, and the temptation is so great, to round off a passage or tidy up an episode, to make a neat story instead of the succession of inconsequentialities which a life story usually is. Add the fact that I have always rather tended to dramatise my own existence, as also that I would much rather forget a great many of the things which have happened to me, and that it will be plain that the ordinary difficulties of autobiography are for me multiplied.

Jack London (1876-1916) needs less introduction and so will not be dwelt on here, but of his 120 short stories, 26 full-length prose works, 22 essays, 45 poems, and six plays, only three works are described as autobiographical: The Road, The Cruise of the Snark, and John Barleycorn. Yet even here these categorisations are not helpful. As with the other tramp writers discussed above, London’s autobiographies contain elements of fiction (for which he has received some criticism) and his novels elements of autobiography. 

These individual accounts demonstrate the tramp storyteller’s natural inclination to insert their life into their fictional works and fictionalise parts of their autobiographical works, and this is the magic (and for some, frustration) of this genre, a deception that is clearly deliberate and unabashed—in the case of Phelan and Tully it is also the delight of Irish blarney. In the final post of this series, with Rickett’s help, I will attempt to draw together some of these elements of vagabond writing to make some conclusions on the vagabond temperament itself.

Part 8 will discuss 'Fact or Fiction?'

15 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 6

Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature

Return to Part 4 — The Abject

Return to Part 5 — The Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection


These more eager, more adventurous spirits express for us the holiday mood of life. For they are young at heart, inasmuch as they have lived in the sunshine, and breathed in the fresh, untainted air.  They have indeed scattered “a new roughness and gladness” among men and women, for they have spoken to us of the simple magic of the Earth.” Rickett

From the mind of childhood there is more history and more philosophy to be fished up than from all the printed volumes in a library. The child is conscious of an interest, not in literature but in life.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Rickett’s observation that the vagabond is “young at heart” requires further analysis. A common theme in tramp literature is that the vagabond never loses their youthful innocence and has not been corrupted by the process of ‘education’. Jim Phelan has described the tramp as “a lost child”, Stephen Graham as “the boy who never grows old”, Morley Roberts declares, “my youth is not ended”, and Rickett notes the popular characterisation of Robert Louis Stevenson as “the eternal boy”. 

     Could it be that when the tramp or vagabond turn their back on the tyranny of man made rules and responsibilities and head for the horizon, that they are engaged in no more than a desperate attempt to hang on to the innocence of childhood? As Nietzsche observed, there is something that the child sees and hears that others do not, and that “something” is the most important thing of all. Roberts’, Tramp's Notebook, was published four years after Nietzsche’s death, and so it is entirely likely that he was influenced by that philosopher’s belief that real education is a far cry from the art of passing examinations, which, as Nietzsche claimed, “produce merely the savant or the official or the business man”.

     Roberts, along with both Phelan and Graham, believed that the world is a poorer place for having abandoned “old-fashioned habits of thought” and having allowed scientists to strip it of its magic. For Roberts’, education suppresses true knowledge and he describes his teachers as his jailers, whose only interest was the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and the passing of examinations. Bart Kennedy summarises all these arguments when he says that:

“… the fact is that men get more stupid as they grow older. The human being starts with a good bright mind. As everyone knows, children are famous for their straight and apt and acute way of viewing things. But the child's mind is soon, alas! dulled by the process that is called education. Schools and colleges and other brain-benumbing institutions kill the mother-wit that the human began with.”

Rickett claims that a characteristic attitude of the Vagabond, is an eager and insatiable curiosity towards life, “a good deal of the child’s eagerness to know how a thing happened, and who this is, and what that is.”  He talks about the impulse that gave Borrow his zest for travel in other countries and “the impulse that sent De Quincey wandering over the various roads of intellectual and emotional inquiry”, and so the natural inquisitiveness of childhood is also one of the driving forces behind wanderlust. But to return to the nature of childhood itself, when Rickett opens his chapter on George Borrow, he asks the question why we eagerly demand a story of our elders as soon as we can toddle, and why “once upon a time” can achieve what moral strictures are powerless to effect?

It is because to most of us the world of imagination is the world that matters.  We live in the “might be’s” and “peradventures.”  Fate may have cast our lot in prosaic places; have predetermined our lives on humdrum lines; but it cannot touch our dreams.  … Our bodies may traverse the same dismal streets day after day; but our minds rove luxuriantly through all the kingdoms of the earth. […] But there are dreams by sunlight and visions at noonday also.  Such dreams thrill us in another but no less unmistakable way, especially when the dreamer is a Scott, a William Morris, a Borrow.

Dreamers like Borrow, Rickett suggests, “are not content to see visions and dream dreams, their bodies must participate no less than their minds.” And so back to wanderlust again; hardships and privations will not deter the vagabond from setting forth in quest of the unknown and it is precisely the rare and the unexpected that drive their adventures and satisfy their desires. Below some characteristics of Rickett’s vagabond writers assist in opening up a more lengthy discussion on the Peter Pan syndrome:

Every Vagabond swaggers because he is an egotist more or less, and relishes keenly the life he has mapped out for himself.  But the swagger is of the harmless kind; it is not really offensive; it is a sort of childish exuberance that plays over the surface of his mind, without injuring it, the harmless vanity of one who having escaped from the schoolhouse of convention congratulates himself on his good luck.

In his discussion on Henry D. Thoreau, Rickett discusses that writer’s fondness for children which had the same roots as his fondness for birds or squirrels; something that also explained his lack of sociability towards fellow adults. In children he found something fresh, unsophisticated, and elemental, but this did not extend to any moral qualities:

A good deal of nonsense is talked about the purity and innocence of childhood.  Children are consequently brought up in a morbidly sentimental atmosphere that makes of them too quickly little prigs or little hypocrites. …  The innocence and purity of children is a middle-class convention.  None but the unreal sentimentalist really believes in it.  What attracts us most in children is naturalness and simplicity.  We note in them the frank predominance of the instinctive life, and they charm us in many ways just as young animals do.” 

Rickett maintains that it is this natural, simplistic and instinctive quality, “children who have the freshness and wildness of the woods about them”, that the vagabond relates to and seeks to emulate in their own life, in turn rejecting the civilised conventions adopted by their more conservative contemporaries.

Tramp writer Jim Phelan’s approach to the Peter Pan analogy is that, “a vagabond is really a lost child, who sometimes finds his mother—his mother being represented by a thousand women, in a thousand different towns.” The theme of Phelan’s “lost children”, whether searching for their home or their mothers, is returned to in the passage below from Tramping the Toby, where he shares Graham’s loss of a bygone age when old fashioned wisdom prevailed; the loss of childhood innocence clearly having parallels with the deprivation of earthly simplicity:

“people who live in the wild regions, shepherds and explorers and vagabonds, those who travel the lonely roads and know the dark silent places of the earth—those people have the old-fashioned habits of thought, and they believe in many things which the townspeople would call mere superstition ... and old fashioned and unscientific belief.

Why then, does the vagabond prefer an education outside of orthodox learning establishments like schools and universities. Like the ancient Cynics, the modern vagabond only trusts what is experienced directly through their own senses. Unlike the academic philosopher, the vagabond-philosopher is not interested in discovering why or how something is because such knowledge would destroy the magic and exotic nature of the phenomena or experience—rendering it mundane. Why should the vagabond care about the scientific discovery of how many sub-atomic neutrinos are emitted by the sun, it is enough simply to bask in its warmth; of course we find using a computer more convenient than writing on papyrus, but are our lives made any happier as a result? Is our writing any more potent? As with the ancient Cynics also, the vagabond-philosopher ‘lives’ their philosophy rather than preaching it. Childish curiosity, goes hand-in-hand with childish innocence, but also with wisdom. For the vagabond-philosopher, ‘civilisation’ represents the downfall of humanity, not its triumph, and in the following passage from Stephen Graham’s, A Tramp’s Sketches, we have the ultimate thesis on the wisdom of youth:

     “Old age, old age; I was an old, bearded, heavy-going, wrinkled tramp, leaning on a stout stick; my grey hairs blew about my old red ears in wisps. I stopped all passers-by upon the road, and chuckled over old jokes or detained them with garrulity. But no, not old; nor will the tramp ever be old, for he has in his bosom that by virtue of which, even in old age, he remains a boy. There is in him, like the spring buds among the withered leaves of autumn, one never-dying fountain of youth. He is the boy who never grows old.”

Morley Roberts also admits to a desire for perpetual youth when he states in his work, A Tramp’s Notebook, that, “without illusion one cannot write”, and that (and herein lies a perfectly expressed manifesto for the life of the professional tramp):

When the Queen of Illusion illudes no more youth is over.' [...] To do a little useful work (even though the useful may be a thousandth part of the useless) is the end of living. The only illusion worth keeping is that anything can be useful. So far my youth is not ended.”

The stupidity of adults absorbed through a process of maturation; not acquiring wisdom, but rather losing it through false learning, is a theme common to all vagabond writers. Humans are the most arrogant of animals, oblivious to the fact that in their attempts to understand the world and shape it to their will, they instead create the very chaos and disorder that they seek to control. At the core of the tramp's determination not to participate in the conceit that afflicts so many of their fellow humans, is a search for a simpler, more meaningful life. But don’t be fooled by the ragged appearance, something the modern vagabond-philosopher shares with their historical forebears like Diogenes of Sinope and Jesus of Nazareth, for behind it lurks a superior intellect. This again raises the question of who the real outcasts from humanity are; a theme picked up by Bart Kennedy in his book, Sailor Tramp (1918), and Stephen Graham in A Tramp’s Sketches (1913). Both of these vagabond-philosophers leave warnings for those who dismiss the tramp and hold him or her in contempt:

     “Tramps and outcasts. Be easy with them. For it may come to pass that they will be held up to honour as the brave rebels and pioneers, who guided men up the tortuous path of intelligence and happiness.” Bart Kennedy 

     “[The tramp] is necessarily a masked figure; he wears the disguise of one who has escaped, and also of one who is a conspirator. ... He is the walking hermit, the world-forsaker, but he is above all things a rebel and a prophet, and he stands in very distinct relation to the life of his time.” Stephen Graham

I want to finish this section on the Peter Pan Syndrome with an extended passage from Stephen Graham’s A Tramp’s Sketches because (aside from showcasing his phenomenal prose writing style) it also has clear links to the earlier sections on Wanderlust and the Lone and Lofty Perch. In the following passage Graham describes the “irreconcilables” as “lost children” or “kidnapped persons”, those who feel alien everywhere and search in vain for some corner of the world, or universe, that has not been plundered of it’s mystery: 

     “I sought them in towns and found them not, for the people … slumbered and slept. [...] We are many upon the world—we irreconcilables. We cry inconsolably like lost children [...] For perhaps we are kidnapped persons. Perhaps thrones lie vacant on some stars because we are hidden away here upon the earth. [...]  we irreconcilable ones; we stand upon many shores and strain our eyes to see into the unknown. We are upon a deserted island and have no boats to take us from star to star, not only upon a deserted island but upon a deserted universe, for even the stars are familiar; they are worlds not unlike our own. The whole universe is our world and it is all explained by the scientists, or is explicable. But beyond the universe, no scientist, not any of us, knows anything. On all shores of the universe washes the ocean of ignorance, the ocean of the inexplicable. We stand upon the confines of an explored world and gaze at many blank horizons. We yearn towards our natural home, the kingdom in which our spirits were begotten. We have rifled the world, and tumbled it upside-down, and run our fingers through all its treasures, yet have not come upon the charter of our birth.

Part 7 will discuss Fact or Fiction