"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

15 Feb 2013

A Philosophy of Tramping — Wonderings 1

The notes of this post provided background material for the introduction of
Published by Feral House February 2020

'Old Boston Mary' from Josiah Flynt, Tramping with Tramps
I feel the need to take a break every now and again from my research and simply ponder on the task to which I have committed myself. I had not imagined when I set out on this investigation into tramping, just how many tramps had put pen to paper and recorded their adventures. The more I look into my subject, the more writers emerge, and one can only marvel at the extent of their individual exploits and, to varying degrees, their literary endeavours. The list below, in chronological birth order, is of those born in the second half of the 19th century, and therefore spanning most of the 'depression eras' from the 1870s to the 1930s. I should be pleased to hear of any others I may have omitted:

Thomas Manning Page                  1841—1900       American 
Morely Roberts                              1857—1942       English
Bart Kennedy                                1861—1930       English
Alfred Aloysius (Trader) Horn          18611931       English
Josiah Flynt                                  1869—1907       American 
W. H. Davies                                 1871—1940       Welsh
Jack Black                                    1871—1932      American
Leon Ray Livingston                       1872–1944        American
Jack Everson                                1873—1945       American
Jack London                                  1876—1916       American
Harry Kemp                                   1883—1960      American
Stephen Graham                            1884—1975       Scottish 
Jim Tully                                       1886—1947       American 
Jim Phelan                                    1895–1966         Irish

I will, of course, consider the legacy of iconic tramp writers such as Jack London and Jack Kerouac in due course, but I am particularly committed to exploring the chronicles of those who remain unknown or forgotten. Tramping is, after all, largely an activity of the dispossessed. And my primary interest is in those who choose to dispossess themselves. Dispossess themselves, that is, of mainstream societies attitudes and values to live in and around the margins of civilisation. And although some tramps, like the Jacks, may have achieved celebrity status (a contradiction to be explored) there are many more who remain obscure, cast out with the waste of a history that has no place for those who either taint or deride their nation's self-importance.

But perhaps being a rebel and a celebrity is not such a contradiction. Some of those described as founders of the 'Beat Generation'; direct inheritors of the bohemian side of hobo culture, did not seek celebrity but rather had it thrust upon them. Kerouac, like beat comedian Lenny Bruce, arguably became victims of their celebrity status, tragically dying prematurely with their cynical integrity still intact. William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg also, in spite of celebrity, never lost their raison d'être of ridiculing the lies and dogma that are the veneer of 'civilised' society; even if proto-hippy Ginsberg fully embraced his celebrity, while proto-punk Burroughs defied respectability to his death—even if the rewards of that success meant that he could live out his last days in comfort. 

Of course, what identifies all true tramps and cynics: those who refuse to embrace the bullshit the rest of us endure for the sake of 'fitting in', is that they are, first and foremost, individuals. The tramp writers I have studied so far, certainly did not belong to any tribe. True that by the 1950s and 60s, society had perfected the classification of groups of rebels or outcasts into 'movements', hence the Beat Generation and later, Hippies, Punks, etc. And although there are those who deliberately identify themselves with popular movements through style and language, within all such groups there are also those who reject the group's internal rules and references. Those credited as the founders of the Beat Generation, for example, clearly distanced themselves from many of their disciples and hangers-on. Burroughs provides just such testimony to Kerouac's individuality:

‘Kerouac was a writer. Now that is he wrote. The difference being a bullfighter who fights a bull, is different from a bullshitter who makes passes with no bull there.’

But it should be noted that there is nothing particularly unique about these movements of dissenters, other than the time they emerged and the individuals involved. There is nothing the Beats signified that the Dadaists had not thirty years earlier, or the ancient Cynics gave expression to over two thousand years before: protests through language or performance that, for the most part, stood outside of politics (Ginsberg aside). What these rebels had in common, was that they held up a mirror to human corruption and stupidity, rather than offering solutions for change. 

Of course, most individual tramps are not motivated, like the groups just discussed, by a compulsion to make a public stand against what they regard as civilisation's corrupting effects. Their lifestyle represents a more private protest, a personal strategy for survival. Neither am I suggesting that all tramps are cynics, or that all cynics are tramps. What these species of human do have in common is their rejection of man made borders, laws and customs in favour of an aesthetic (and often abject) lifestyle, one that rather embraces the enticements and seductions of the 'natural' world. It is also the ability to come and go as and when one pleases, free from the restrictions and responsibilities imposed by rules, regulations or decrees; constraints that the tramp or cynic regard either ideologically as artificial, or more simply, just an impediment to their natural human instincts. The price paid for this emotional or ideological freedom, is to be outcast at best, but often also persecuted or punished, including beatings or periods incarcerated in prisons.

Another explanation given by some commentators for the lure of tramping, is escape from domesticity. Not so much the domesticating effects of society at large, but that certain individuals were, and still are, disinclined or unprepared for the rigours of family life. This would have been particularly acute at the end of the Civil War in 1865, when thousands of former soldiers, well used to a tramping, outdoor life and the fellowship of other single men, would have found themselves homeless and ill prepared for the domestic responsibilities of home and civic life.  

But the question I want address here is, why is there so little mention of women tramps? Or, with the sole exception of Hypparchia, women cynics? And why does my list of tramp writers above contain no women? In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there were many women tramps in history, and that during the depression eras in America, as many as a quarter of all child tramps riding the rails may have been girls. In terms of women tramp writers, one needs to turn to the Edwardian/Victorian 'lady traveler'. I use the term advisedly, because it was the privilege of an upper middle class background and independent means, that enabled these intrepid women explorers to travel unaccompanied by a male escortto tramp abroad in a way that would have been impossible in the streets of their home towns and cities. And so, in contrast to the privations sufferedand enjoyedby the male tramp writers listed above (with some probable exceptions that I need to research further such as Belgian-French explorer Alexandra David-Néel), the lady traveller rather took all the trappings of their imperial lifestyles with them.   

Tim Cresswell has provided the most comprehensive study of women and tramping in his book The Tramp in Americaincluding an extended discussion on the imperial lady traveller. Those who wish to learn more about 'Gendering the Tramp' are urged to read that chapter of his book. Cresswell explains that in America, women were excluded by definition from tramp laws, as a result of which a tramp could only legally be a man. He then goes on to describe the phenomena referred to above (and not entirely absent today) that, in Victorian/Edwardian times, if a woman was seen alone in a public space she was likely to be regarded as a prostitute, a dope fiend, or mentally defective. Only men could respectably occupy the streets alone, society confined woman's place exclusively to the domestic space of the home. Cresswell talks about the anxiety created in society, by women transgressing ‘the boundaries that separated the masculine world from the feminine one. The lady traveller aside, many, though by no means all, of the women tramps Cresswell describes, disguised themselves as men or simply wore men's clothing, so reports about women tramps are likely under-reported. See also Ben Reitman's book, Sister of the Road, The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha, and the chapter titled 'Old Boston Mary' in Josiah Flynt's Tramping with Tramps.

But I'm digressing—even though that is the purpose of these wonderings and wanderings—and will return to the subject of women tramps later; although it is difficult to see how Cresswell's thesis could be improved upon. My current research remains firmly fixed on tramp writers (so far exclusively men) of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, including what has been described as the Golden Age of Tramping in America; though, covering the depression years, 'golden' is somewhat euphemistic. My impression so far, is that there are no common set of circumstances that prompted any of these individuals to take to tramping in the way they did. The depression eras certainly helped provide the backdrop of a hobo culture, one that also featured railways as a means of quickly (if not dangerously) covering vast distances. But the three tramp writers I have researched so far, all had middle class upbringings. And with regard to the other popular explanation for tramping: alcoholism, only Flynt was a drinker, and then not uncontrollably; even though drink and drug abuse did helped to hasten his premature demise. Of course there were 'events' that prompted all these individuals to take to the road, but, apart from the ideological objections to mannered society described above, the only plausible explanation for maintaining what was by all accounts a very harsh way of life, is the imprecise condition described as Wanderlust. As I discussed in my book on Cynicism, there are certain mindsets and world views that individuals seem to be born with rather than develop in response to external influences. Wanderlust and cynicism well seem to fit such endogenous conditions, but I want to continue further with my research before attempting to grapple with such vexatious, if not fascinating, philosophical questions, and offer extended theories on the subject; if there are indeed any truths to be found.

Living in Wales, I am of course aware of William Henry Davies (1871-1940) and his The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. I had planned to write a piece on Davies by now, but in the process, came across two other volumes also titled The Autobiography of a Tramp. The one, by Jack Everson, sadly out of print, was the subject of my last post, and then I found yet another The Autobiography of a Tramp (prefixed by the main title Bohemian Life), this time written by one Thomas Manning Page; the second edition which was published in 1884 and is still in print. Neither have I yet explored why Davies' volume deserves the prefix Super, apart from the fact that he lost an entire foot riding the rails, while Everson only lost a toe. I have yet to discover what Manning Page's hero lost as a result of his tramping exploits, but now return with some enthusiasm to reading of that workespecially as Page was also a cynic par excellence.


  1. Jim Phelan was my grandfather. See this link; http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00h0p0m


    Myself, when a boy, was a failure at home,
    For I always felt wishful to ramble and roam
    While my family said I was fickle as foam
    And rebuked me in dignified high tones..
    My duty in life, very plainly they showed,
    And good moral advice day and night they bestowed,
    But in spite of it all, I set out on the road
    And I went along, counting the milestones.

    My friends all declared I should ramble no more,
    For I’d meet a bad end on a faraway shore,
    Or I’d wander and die on some desolate moor
    Where the crows would come picking my white bones.
    To comfort I’d come, in the towns I was told;
    A fine job and big money to have and to hold,
    Or to find me a wife who’d have silver and gold,
    But I’d rather go counting the milestones.

    With nothing to buy and nothing to sell,
    That I roam far and near you can easily tell,
    And the good people everywhere taught me right well,
    That all drifters and vagrants were vile drones.
    Each sensible citizen keeps to a base,
    And I realise well it should be my own case
    To reside in a home, and to stay in one place
    ……..but I laugh while I’m counting the milestones.

  3. When it comes to women tramps in the strictest sense, I don't know of any. But as for women travelers who dispossessed themselves of the mainstream and spent their life wandering, I'd recommend checking out Isabelle Eberhardt. Fascinating women who lived and died in the early 20th century.