"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

27 Jun 2018

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jack Black

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 6 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


Although Jack Black (1871–1932) shares the same credentials as the other tramp writers discussed on this site: beating trains, sleeping in ‘jungles’, familiar with starvation, jail and beatings from police, Black’s principal profession was that of a professional criminal, or ‘yegg’; a term previously discussed as applying to the more feared ‘outlaw hobos’. In Black’s case, within his principal activities of burglary, armed robbery and safe-cracking, he developed a strong moral code that rejected wanton violence, even bringing trouble down on his own head to protect friends and other unfortunates from harm. Like Flynt and London, Black was also addicted at various times to narcotics—in his case combined with the thrill of gambling. Although born near Vancouver, British Columbia, Black was raised in Missouri. His adventures and philosophy on life started at the age of ten and are contained in a single volume titled You Can’t Win (1926), published six years before his death. Black’s autobiography is also the subject of a 2016 movie of the same name, starring, co-produced and co-written by Michael Pitt. As with Flynt and London also, Black’s writing had a major influence on the Beat movement and its writers, particularly William Burroughs, who in his first book, Junkie (1953) reflected much of the style and subject matter of You Can’t Win. Burroughs wrote a Foreword for the later 1988 Amok Press edition of You Can’t Win, and commenting on the book’s title, American society at the time, and Black’s own philosophy on life, Burroughs acknowledges, ‘Well, who can? Winner take nothing. Would he have been better off having spent his life in some full-time job? I don’t think so.’

Black was a reformed character and professional journalist by the time he wrote You Can’t Win, and part of his motivation for writing it was to dissuade would-be-criminals from a life of crime, at the same time pointing out the inability of the courts and judiciary to deliver justice. Paradoxically, it was while working for the San Francisco Bulletin, and during a circulation war between the Bulletin and Randolph Hurst’s San Francisco Call, that Black was near fatally wounded by a stomach shot from a rival journalist. True to his code of never snitching to the police, Black later refused to identify his would be assassin and the case was dismissed. During his writing period Black wrote essays and participated in lecture tours. The most recent edition of the book, and the one used as the research for this post, was published by Feral House in 2013. As well as Burroughs’ 1988 Foreword, the Feral House edition also includes a biographical essay on Black by Donald Kennison, Joe Coleman’s original artwork from the 1988 Amok Press edition, and two of Black’s extended articles: ‘What’s Wrong with the Right People’, Harpers Magazine (1929) and ‘A Burglar Looks at Laws and Codes’, Harpers Magazine (1930). As a first person witness, Black also wrote extensively about the Folsom Prison Breakout of July 27 1903, the penitentiary where he served an eight year sentence and was released the following year:

This break was a protest of helpless men against hopeless conditions. Wrought up to a frenzy by brutality, violence and fear, the men rose, cut down guards, rushed a gatling gun tower and captured it with no weapons but razors taken from the prison barber shop. They took officers of the guard as hostages and escaped with them to the woods.’ 

As with Jim Phelan’s writings on penology (Chapter 13), Black’s writings represent an important social history on many aspects of criminality and prison life during the particular period covered. Black spent about fifteen years of his thirty year criminal career in various jails and penitentiaries that included several prison breakouts.

As with most of the tramp bio’s on this site, one has to read the voice of the author himself to fully appreciate not only the unique quality of the original text but also the full extent of his adventures, only some of which it is possible to record here. Black’s book is, among other things, a page turner, and so I urge the reader to acquire a copy of You Can’t Win to fully appreciate Black’s story.

Early Life

Black’s mother died when he was ten years old following which, and although his father was kindly, he was pretty much left to his own devices running around the hotel where he was left alone while his father was out working until he took him off to a Catholic boarding school one hundred miles away. During his three years at the school Black was a model student and avid reader. One of the things he read and became obsessed with were newspaper reports about the life and death of the outlaw Jessie James, following which he devoured newspaper reports of other outlaws and their activities..........

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

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