"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

20 Nov 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping — Stephen Graham

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 11 of
Published by Feral House February 2020

So when you put on your old clothes and take to the road, you make at least a right gesture. You get into your right place in the world in the right way. Even if your tramping expedition is a mere jest, a jaunt, a spree, you are apt to feel the benefits of getting into a right relation toward God, Nature, and your fellow man. You get into an air that is refreshing and free. You liberate yourself from the tacit assumption of your everyday life. 
     What a relief to escape from being voter, tax-payer, authority on old brass, brother of man who is an authority on old brass, author of best seller, uncle of author of best seller, what a relief to cease being for a while a grade-three clerk, or grade-two clerk who has reached his limit, to cease to be identified by one’s salary or by one’s golf handicap.
Stephen Graham

Stephen Graham (National Portrait Gallery) 1926

Having written my Prologue, Introduction and history of Asceticism (a probable genesis of tramping), I now want to explore some testimonies of 'modern' tramps through their own writings. Many of the tramp authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; writers such as Josiah Flynt, Bart Kennedy, Jack Everson, Morely RobertsJack London, Jim Phelan, Jim Tully, W.H. Davies, Leon Ray Livingston, and Stephen Graham (the subject of this post) were tramps of choice rather than necessity; some even having the security of independent financial means to fall back on. But that did not in any way lessen the hardships and deprivations they endured as tramps, often exceeding those of their non-literary associates. I will get around to other (occasional) tramp authors such as George Orwell and Jack Kerouac all in good time, as I will also, ‘the vagabond in literature’—to use the title of Arthur Rickett's comprehensive 1906 study of this genre.

But these first hand accounts of tramping well serve my purpose, for in the writings of these tramp authors—often well read in philosophy, literature and the classics—is to be found their own personal philosophies on life and tramping. Furthermore, as the tramp is by nature an individual, the personal reflections on tramp life contained in my next few posts, although highlighting some common experiences, also draw on very unique insights. And, as personal accounts, they often also reveal the authors' prejudices. Graham, for instance, was a confirmed Christian, even if he was an advocate of Jesus' original 'peasant gospel'; deriding, as did Nietzsche, Paul's corruption of Christianity. Also, like Ben Reitman, the hobo physician and sociologist referred to in my Introduction, Graham attempts to distinguish between different categories of tramp. And although Graham sometimes takes a moralising and patronising tone, this does not detract from his undoubted commitment to the poor and disposessed, not to mention his hugely informative insights into tramping and a remarkable prose style—even if he occasionally lapses (unconsciously perhaps) into the scornful homilies of his class and religion:

I suppose one should draw a distinction between professional tramping and just tramping, especially as this whole book is to be called THE GENTLE ART OF TRAMPING. I am not writing of the American hobo, nor of the British casual, nor of rail-roaders and beachcombers or other enemies of society—“won’t works” and parasites of the charitable. While among these there are many very strange and interesting exceptions, yet in general they are not highly estimable people, nor is their way of life beautiful or worth imitation. They learn little on their wanderings beyond how to cadge, how to steal, how to avoid dogs and the police. They are not pilgrims but outlaws, and many would be highway robbers had they the vitality and the pluck necessary to hold up wayfarers. Most of them are but poor walkers, so that the word tramp is often misapplied to them.

But to be fair to Graham, he at least acknowledges his lapses of humanity when he admits of himself, ‘There is much to learn [in tramping], there are illusions to be overcome. There are prejudices and habits to be shaken off.’ And later also, Graham demonstrates even greater insight when he tells us: 

Class is the most disgusting institution of civilisation, because it puts barriers between man and man. ... But in the tramp’s motley you can say what you like, ask what questions you like, free from the taint of class. It also puts you right with regard to yourself. You see yourself as others see you, and that is a refreshing grace wafted in upon an opinionated mind.’ 

But these paradoxes in his writing (a common feature of even the greatest philosophers) do not lessen the vital and important insights one takes from reading Graham about just how much we have lost and are daily missing from our modern lives. 


Stephen Graham (1884—1975) was a British journalist, essayist, novelist and professional tramp. His adventures and observations are documented in over 50 books and essays, many no longer in print. The Hathi Trust Digital Library has the most comprehensive collection of his extant works, and Michael Hughes’ excellent website on Graham provides comprehensive biographical information which need not be repeated here. Graham spoke fluent Russian and many of his books concern his experiences of that pre-revolutionary state; as did his work as a freelance correspondent for The Times, Harpers and the New Yorker. When reading Graham, one can only wonder at just what a different place Russia was 100 years ago. Yet Graham also tramped thousands of miles across America, including large stretches of the Canadian border where he tramped with American poet Vachel Lindsay (see Tramping With a Poet in the Rockies, 1922). As well as tramping the American wilderness, Graham also tramped the Streets of New York (New York Nights, 1927), Chicago and other cities. He of course also tramped Great Britain as well as large tracts of continental Europe; and published two accounts of his time as a soldier on the Western Front: A Private in the Guards (1919) and The Challenge of the Dead (1921). 

For the purposes of this post, I am focussing on two of Graham's better known tramping texts. The first of these, A Tramp's Sketches (1913), is a travelogue and essays of Graham's pilgrimage on foot from London to Jerusalem; bizarrely over a 5,000 mile tramp via Northern Russia's White Sea port of Arkhangelsk! 

If I had attempted such a journey I should probably have failed to reach the great Shrine, for it is only a certain sort of people travelling in a certain sort of way who find admittance easily. By the Russian peasant I was enabled to go. It is strange to think that even when I was journeying northward to Archangel I was winding my way Jerusalem-ward in the sacred labyrinth.

The second, is The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), in which Graham shares his tramping experiences in a kind of 'how to' manual of instruction: the dos and don'ts of tramping, with chapters about how to attend to one's boots, clothes, fire, cooking, sleeping arrangements, etc.; as well as philosophical reflections on subjects like companionship and idleness. It is with the theme of companionship that I will open here. 





The Commercial versus the 'Natural' World




Motivation for Tramping and its Advantages

He who sleeps under the stars is bathed in the elemental forces which in houses only creep to us through keyholes. I may say from experience that he who has slept out of doors every day for a month, nay even for a week, is at the end of that time a new man. He has entered into new relationship with the world in which he lives, and has allowed the gentle creative hands of Nature to re-shape his soul.’

I now move on to (for me) the most important part of my post on Graham, the question I will ask of all my tramp writers, particularly as they did not turn to tramping of necessity. Exactly why was Graham drawn to tramping in the first place, and what kept him tramping into his advancing years? Maybe 'advancing years' is a good place to start, for it would seem from studying Graham's writing, that one of his motivations for tramping is to stay young, or rather, not to lose the innocence of childhood. As Nietzsche said, there is something that the child sees and hears that others do not, and that something is the most important thing of all. Graham puts it like this:

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.’

But the childlike innocence of which Graham speaks, also represents a resistance to the stupidity of adults, absorbed through a process of maturation; not acquiring wisdom, but rather losing it through false learning. Compare for example Diogenes’ response when asked why he was walking around in broad daylight with a lighted lamp; “I’m looking for an honest man,” with Nietzsche’s aphorism, ‘I looked for great human beings, but all I ever found were the apes of their ideals.’ Graham draws from these same maxims when he describes the 'irreconcilables', those who feel alien everywhere but claim everywhere as their home: the Cynic cosmopolite, the Wandering Jew, the tramp:

I sought them in towns and found them not, for the people, like foolish virgins forgetful of the bridegroom, 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.’ 

Here too then is Graham the postmodernist (before the term modernism came into being!—and so giving the lie to such 'conditions' as fixed points in history). If Graham was influenced by Nietzsche, another proto-postmodernist, he certainly could not have anticipated the new wave of philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard, who 80 years after Graham published 'Irreconcilables', provided us with just such a description of a world stripped of any real meaning by science’s attempt to understand, categorise and control it. But ignoring my PM digression, the point here is that the curiosity of the scientist is a very different curiosity to that of the tramp. The tramp is not interested in discovering why or how something is, such knowledge would destroy the magic and exoticness of the phenomena or experience—rendering it mundane. Childish curiosity, which goes hand-in-hand with childish innocence, is claimed by Graham as ‘THE principal motive of the wander-spirit’:

the desire to know what is beyond the next turning of the road, and to probe for oneself the mystery of the names of the places in maps. In a sub-conscious way the born wanderer is always expecting to come on something very wonderful—beyond the horizon’s rim. The joys of wandering are often balanced by the pains; but there is something which is neither joy nor pain which makes the desire to wander or explore almost incurable in many human beings. The child experiences his first wander-thrill when he is taken to places where he has never been before. I remember from the age of nine a barefoot walk with my mother along the Lincolnshire sands from Sutton to Skegness, and the romantic and strange sights on the way. What did we not build out of that adventure?

Another attraction of tramping for Graham—one that provides a clue to his own unique cynical brand of Christianity—is the availability of heaven on earth. Graham derides those who sacrifice a life on earth in the hope of obtaining deferred happiness in heaven. In a dialogue between Graham and a fellow tramp, he proposes that: ‘Many live their lives of toil and gloom and ugliness in the belief that in another life after this they will be rewarded. They think that God wills them to live this life of work.’ His companion responds, ‘Then perhaps in the next life they will again live in toil and gloom, postponing their happiness once more. Or on the Day of Judgment they will line up before God and say with a melancholy countenance, “Oh Lord we want our wages for having lived!”

I will need to corroborate after reviewing the writings of other tramp authors, but a clear indication is emerging that—even for the tramp-come-Christian—a prime motive for tramping, as it was with the Cynics, is to maximise life here on earth, as free as possible from painful preoccupations, in the full knowledge that 'heaven' (in the supernatural sense) does not exist. The tramp knows that the most simple and fundamental pleasures in life can be obtained without the need of money. Furthermore, those who spend their lives chasing material wealth, risk sacrificing some of life's greatest pleasures; even if they avoid the outright misery that can result from avarice.

In the following passage, for example, Graham extols the virtues of the sun. And allowing that the targets of his diatribe are not the poorest in the world who suffer from the lack of rain, nor modern victims of melanomas, his argument is a potent one. Interestingly, a stance also expressed over 2,000 years ago by Diogenes when sunning himself in a Corinth park after being asked by Alexander what wish he ('the Great') could grant him. The Cynic responded, “Stand out of my sun!”

Have you not realised that we [tramps] have more than our share of the sun? The sun is fuller and more glorious than we could have expected. That is because millions of people have lived without taking their share. We feel in ourselves all their need of it, all their want of it. That is why we are ready to take to ourselves such immense quantities of it. We can rob no one, but, on the contrary, we can save a little to give to those who have none—when we meet them. You must pull down the very sun from heaven and put it in your writings. You must give samples of the sun to all those who live in towns. Perhaps some of those attracted by the samples will give up the smoke and grind of cities and live in this superfluity of sunshine.

If one of the advantages of tramping for Graham was greater access to the free benefits of outdoor life, another was the ability to jettison the unhealthy trappings and preoccupations of civilisation. The example this time, one that requires no further explanation from me, is a diatribe from Graham ridiculing our obsession with time:

The tramp carries no wrist-watch. He has no zero hour—no zero plus forty-three at which he must take his section over the top. In his cave he has no presentation timepiece mounted on lions or mermaids. As he walks he does not raise his eyes to scan Big Ben through the gloom—for his life is not parcelled out in Parliamentary quantities. He has no dashed repeater in his pouch, no alarm clock at his ear. The death-watch does not sound in the wall of his forest house; he does not live and sleep beside that coffin on end called a grandfather, “his life-seconds numbering tick-tock-tick.” He listens for no morning hooter; he boils his eggs without a measure of sliding sand; he punches no time-clock when he begins his day’s tramp, and at the end the last trump shall catch him unawares—an irrelevancy. The most profound philosophers have been engaged for any number of years trying to explain time, and they are all agreed that it is an illusion.

But significantly, Graham also observes from his invective on time, that if an initial motivation for tramping is a rejection of, and a protest against, the forces of civilisation; once on the road and free of such preoccupations, a different mindset takes over: ‘You will discern that going tramping is at first an act of rebellion; only afterwards do you get free from rebelliousness as Nature sweetens your mind. Town makes men contentious; the country smoothes out their souls.’

And yet for all Graham's warnings about city life and endorsement of living close to nature, as with the Cynic and for that matter the hobo too, he is continually drawn back to urban surroundings. He is both fascinated and repelled by cities. Yes, he admits to getting bored with nature at times, but then he seems to get bored by any condition that cannot sustain his desire for the extraterrestrial: ‘It is true the wanderer often feels bored, even in beautiful places. I am bored some days every year, no matter where I spend them, and I shall always be. I get tired of this world and want another. That is a common feeling, if not often analysed.’ And so in spite of Graham's yearnings for the country, he is well aware that metropolitan conurbations are not short on novelty and other-worldliness; and what's more, Graham knows just how to profit from what cities have to offer. I could have provided countless examples of advice from Graham on how to get the most out of tramping, but the suggestion that most sticks in my mind, and one I am resolved to try out, is his 'zig-zag walking'; an entirely novel method of exploring both familiar and unfamiliar city streets:

There is a type of tramping which belongs more to the future; a new type, and an even more fascinating one, and that is the taking of cross-sections of the world, the cutting across all roads and tracks, the predispositions of humdrum pedestrians, and making a sort of virginal way across the world. This can be tried first of all as a haphazard tramp—a setting out to walk without the name of any place you want to get to. Hence the zigzag walk ... Keep taking the first turning on the left and the next on the right, and see where it leads you. In towns this gives you a most alluring adventure. You get into all manner of obscure courts and alleys you would never have noticed in the ordinary way.’


This cannot, of course, be a conclusion on tramping. Graham's is only the first of many tramp testimonials I intend to explore before putting together what may be considered a philosophy of tramping. But, and acknowledging that there are also many disadvantages to being a tramp, I will draw together what I believe to be some of the profits of tramping as seen by Graham:
  • getting closer to nature to provide a rhythm both with yourself and the world that is right for you
  • the satisfaction of partaking of the pleasures (and frustrations) of nature for free
  • liberation from unnatural preoccupations with everyday life—such as worrying about time
  • the ability to live in the present: taking pleasure now, not deferring it (whether for a pension or the promise of heaven)—something that eludes most other mortals
  • not being defined by one's position or role in society—however exposing this may be
  • sovereignty of the spirit and citizenship of the world, in contrast to narrow provincialism.
  • the ability to enjoy relationships without being bound by them
  • maintaining youthful innocence, at the same time acquiring wisdom


At the beginning of this post I discuss how Graham and others have attempted to categorise various classes of tramp. It is curious then to note, that when Charles Dickens undertook just such an exercise in his satire 'Tramps', published in the The Uncommercial Traveller in 1860, he singled out the 'educated tramp' as the most undesirable of the species. It would be interesting to know just how Graham and the other tramp writers would have responded to the following lines from Dickens:

THE "EDUCATED" TRAMP ... the most vicious by far, of all idle tramps ... is more selfish and insolent than even the savage tramp. He would sponge on the poorest boy for a farthing, and spurn him when he had got it; he would interpose (if he could get anything by it) between the baby and the mother's breast. ... this pitiless rascal blights the summer road as he maunders on between luxuriant hedges; where to my thinking, even the wild convolvulus and rose and sweetbriar, are the worse for his going by, and need time to recover from the taint of him in the air.’

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