"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

12 Aug 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jim Tully

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 12 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


That he was a road-kid for six years (although a tramp in spirit throughout his life) is not the only remarkable fact about Jim Tully (1886-1947). At the age of six, following the death of his mother, Tully was left by his father in an orphanage. Determined to write even at that young age, he would become, among other things, a hobo, a chain maker, a pugilist and a tree surgeon, before becoming a minor Hollywood celebrity and finally a successful writer. But as this series is a profile on tramp writers, it is Tully's tramping and writing that I will focus on here.

Those who wish to discover all there is to know about Tully, should read his remarkable biography, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover and Hollywood Brawler, written by Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak. I am indented to these two writers for much of the insight and chronology about Tully's life not available from his own writings. The researchers were helped and hindered in equal measure (the book was 19 years in the making) by the discovery in UCLA's archives of a never previously opened hoard of 117 boxes. The collection had been donated to the University in 1952 by Tully's third and last wife Myrtle. Incredibly, the boxes were filled with Tully's unpublished works, papers, letters, magazine articles and other memorabilia.

Preamble on Tully's Writing Style

As with most of the other tramp profiles on this site, I intend to rely principally on Tully's published works to get a sense of the man and his philosophy on life. But as noted previously, the magic and the frustration of this approach is the tramp storyteller's natural inclination to fictionalise their life, and insert their life into fiction. And so, to those for whom historical accuracy matters, this biography will be found lacking. I read for the pleasure of the text, not for historical truths—which are in any case invariably treacherous. And in spite of the mountain of archives available to them, even Bauer and Dawidziak struggled to reconcile certain facts about Tully. But that is the price and the delight of engaging with Irish blarney.

I will try and establish some chronology where possible, but no attempt will be made to distinguish fact from fiction in the writing itself. Others have tried to categorise Tully's writings into autobiography and fiction. I consider all his writing to contain an element of both, to greater or lesser degree. As with Trader Horn, the deception is often deliberate and unabashed, and one must allow that, in any case, the truth is often more unbelievable than the fiction. Underneath a certain desire for celebrity, the books also reveal their author's extreme modesty, even self-deprecation. The truth that Tully does engage with, is extreme candidness. The brutal honesty that frightens those with more delicate sensibilities, and threatens those who prefer the lie of idealism to human beings' baser instincts laid bare. Or as H.L. Mencken, Tully's lifetime friend, editor and sometime publisher, said in his Introduction to Nietzsche's Antichrist: ‘The majority of men prefer delusion to truth. It soothes. It is easy to grasp. Above all, it fits more snugly than the truth into a universe of false appearances.

It is for this reason that Tully's writing style has been described as 'hard-boiled', and is best defended in the words of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, when he warns us that, 'Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit.' Those tramps who chose vagabondage as a way of life—as opposed to those who have it thrust upon them—do so precisely to protect their integrity from what they regard as Mencken's 'universe of false appearances'. To quote Sloterdijk again: ‘In a culture in which one is regularly told lies, one wants to know not merely the truth but the naked truth. This is Tully's considerable contribution to literature. He presents reality exactly as he sees it, stripped of sentimentality, and, considering the extreme censorship of the times, in the most unrestrained form he can get away with.*

*For responses to Tully's books at the time of their publication, one should read the numerous book reviews he attracted, and which are reproduced in Bauer and Dawidziak's biography. They make fascinating reading and provide much insight into the cultural and literary nuances of the period.

Tully's response to his critics in his Introduction to Blood on the Moon, reveals his contempt for self-appointed guardians of literature and his defiance against conforming to the literary tastes of the time. It also reveals just how aware Tully was that his writing challenged these literary conventions:

'While I am immune to the ink-stained bullets of the moral Social Soldiers who carry Truth as a mask, I have thought it best to change names in "Blood on the Moon" to keep them from shooting at those who are my friends. ... If I have not been able to invent a new medium in my picaresque books, I have at least been strong enough not to conform to one that is outworn.

But Tully's writing style was not entirely unique for the time in which he wrote, even if it did upset literary orthodoxy. Other tramp writers display a similar gloves-off approach. Neither was he the only tramp writer to have engaged in the pugilistic arts (although he probably went further in the professional circuit than most). Jack Everson, W.H. Davies, Trader Horn, Bart Kennedy, Al Kaufman, and Jim Phelan,* all boxed for money at some point in their tramping careers.

*Although one was American and the other European, there are many other parallels between Tully and Phelan. In addition to writing, tramping and fighting, both had poor Irish ancestry, both spent their early lives in steelworks, both wrote about crime and punishment, both where involved with screen plays, both had friendships with H.G. Wells and Paul Robeson (on different sides of the Atlantic), and both had three wives, one son, and one daughter—at least, that they knew about.

Below is a list of Tully's published works (those underlined are linked to free digital publications of the full text):

Beggars of Life (1924)
Jarnegan (1926)
Black Boy, with Frank Dazey (1926/ play—performed but no published script available)
Twenty Below, with Robert Nichols (1927/ play)
Circus Parade (1927)
Shanty Irish (1928)
Shadows of Men (1930)
Beggars Abroad (1930)
A Man of the New School (1931/ pamphlet)
The Bruiser (1936)
Biddy Brogans Boy (1942)
A Dozen and One (1943—thirteen profiles of Hollywood actors and acquaintances including his onetime friend and employer Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Chandler, Clark Gable, and lifetime friends, the former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsy and publisher and journalist H.L. Mencken)

Tully's writing style is further discussed below, but I know wish to turn to the genesis of 

Early Years

Tully was the second youngest of six siblings, two girls and four boys. But after his mother Biddy died aged thirty-five giving birth to her seventh (stillborn) child, Tully's father (also named Jim, and who worked away from home for long periods digging ditches) could no longer care for his 6 surviving children. The two girls, Maggie and Anna the youngest, would go to live with their maternal uncle, the eldest son, Hugh, was able to work, but the other three boys (Tom, Charlie and Jim) were sent to St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum in Cincinnati, over 100 miles distance from their home in St. Marys, at the suggestion of the local priest. There they would learn to read and write and be instructed in the Catholic faith.

Tully was six years old when he entered the orphanage and would remain their for the next six years. Not once did his father write or visit him during his stay at St. Joseph's. 


Road Kid

Most of the following accounts of Tully's adventures as a road kid come from his second book Beggars of Life. There are also some powerful tales of tramping in his ninth book, Blood on the Moon; a work that includes some of the most unrestrained and ribald episodes of Tully's life, including drinking, whoring, stealing, fighting, as well as begging and tramping. As the New York Post's review of the book at the time states, 'Mr Tully writes with a sledgehammer.' Other of Tully's books that include tales of his life on the road are: Emmett Lawler, Circus Parade, and Biddy Brogan's Boy. A full reading of these books is recommended, as the following summary can only provide a brief account of Tully's seven years on the road, not the total immersion necessary to appreciate the joys and miseries of tramp life......

Full story now available in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage

Images from the original post retained below:

Tully on the movie set of Beggars of Life with actors Louise Brooks,
Wallace Beery (Oklahoma Red) and Richard Arlen (playing Tully)

Mary Lygo

Tully with Max Baer (left) and Jack Dempsey (right)

Florence with Tilly, Tully and Alton

Tully with Chaplin


Tully in Way for a Sailor (1930), his only acting role

Tully and Myrtle

Tully with W.C. Field

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