"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

4 Aug 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 1


After my own book on tramp writers had been published in 2020, I came across two invaluable texts on the subject of Tramp Literature, The Tramp in British Literature, 1850-1950 (2022), by Luke Lewin Davies, and the book discussed here. How I managed to overlook Rickett’s 1906 volume I do not know but my son, Max, always on the lookout for books that might interest me, presented me with a hard copy which I proceeded to devour, anxious to discover if, 116 years ago, Rickett shared any of my own conclusions about this much neglected aspect of literature.

On scanning the book, my first discovery was that Rickett’s area of interest was not that of the vagabond as a fictional character but, as with my own study, the vagabond temperament of the writer them self. The main distinction between our two texts was less the separation of 116 years in which they were published—although that provided its own fascination for me—so much as that, unlike my own obsession, the vagabond writers who were the subject of Rickett’s interest were, and for the most part still are, household names in the world of literature. A shortcoming of Rickett's book is that his work is exclusively confined to seven male writers and none of literary women vagabonds of the same period. This omission has now been rectified by Kerri Andrews in her book Wanderers: A History of Women Walkingpublished the same year as my own book in 2020.

That both Rickett and Andrews' books feature exclusively 'celebrity' writers rather than 'tramp writers', is a distinction best described by the writer Emily Burbank when she commented about Josiah Flynt, one of the characters in my own text that, “it must be remembered that Flynt was the tramp writing, not the literary man tramping.” I used this definition in selecting the fifteen chapters of my own book because, with the possible exceptions of Jack London and Trader Horn, I was interested in rescuing what I regarded as forgotten writers from obscurity and, as with Burbank’s definition, wanted to consider tramps who were drawn to writing—even if some of them undoubtedly wanted to achieve literary success—rather than celebrated writers who tramped to inspire their writing. For the purposes of these posts, the distinction is less important because both categories of vagabond writer are driven by the same urges, even if some are ‘full-time’ tramps by compulsion or lifestyle choice and others indulge in tramping on a more ‘part-time’ basis.

In this examination of Rickett’s text then, I will use the term ‘vagabond writer’ generically to use for all the writers discussed, the term ‘tramp writer’ I use specifically to refer to those I have identified above who were tramps first and foremost. I will present my findings along the main themes covered by the writing and the philosophy of tramp literature that emerges. In each section, after discussing the writers in Rickett’s book, I will expand the discussion by referring to some of my previous work on the same subjects:


Affinity with Nature

Bohemianism -v- Vagabondage

The Abject

Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection


Peter Pan Syndrome

Fact -v- Fiction 

The Vagabond Temperament

At the risk of boring my reader, I will again summarise the philosophy of ancient Greek Cynicism as it is highly relevant to the phenomenon under discussion. Cynicism represents the first organised vagabond philosophy and closely mirrors the personal philosophy of the vagabond writers discussed in these posts—many of whom themselves refer directly to cynicism in both its ancient and modern meanings. As the claim is made here that Cynicism is essential to a proper understanding of the themes of vagabond literature that follow, I have included the following summary from my book, Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert, and ask the reader to hold it in the back of their mind when considering the discussions that follow. The only aspect of Cynicism I suggest is not shared by the modern vagabond writer, was the Cynic's role as ‘performance artist’, the deliberate strategy of shocking their ‘audience’ into a reevaluation of what the Cynic believes to be human beings' false values. But then neither did all Cynics engaged in such public ‘performances’ and many vagabond writers did seek to challenge their readers through their writing if not publically. For the most part, their’s was a personal philosophy for surviving in what they regarded as a hostile world. Anyway, here is brief portrait of the Cynic:

He or she would have worn similar attire, probably a simple cloak; any meagre possessions being carried in a small bag or wallet. We also know, that in spite of their close association with nature and their view that city life was unnatural, they would curiously almost always be seen in urban surroundings. The Cynic had no loyalty to family or state and rejected what they considered to be false values, adopting any customs which complemented their lifestyle. They considered themselves citizens of the world, or cosmos: the first cosmopolitans. The Cynic’s ability to move around freely was further assisted by their resistance to being owned by possessions. They had no interest in trying to convert others to their way of life, but welcomed anyone, regardless of social background or race to join their ranks. Whatever teaching a Cynic undertook was likely to be performed in public, sometimes in an irreverent or shocking manner, and if a Cynic did something, it was because they wanted to do it, not because they were compelled to do it. Diogenes in particular, reminded us that in spite of our pretensions as civilized beings, a denial of our animality was a repudiation of our true nature. An understanding of which, required focussing exclusively on the physical world in which we live, and abandoning supernatural and metaphysical beliefs (particularly religious faiths) which could only lead to disillusionment. The Cynic would not, therefore, defer happiness but live each day as though tomorrow might never arrive. Life, in any case did not follow a progression toward enlightenment but a cyclical series of mundane repetitions punctuated by occasional highs and lows. The Cynic did not believe in fortune or pre-destiny, rather striving to be masters of their own destiny. Askesis and ponos were the means by which the Cynic could achieve self-sufficiency and the indifference necessary to cope with all eventualities. If Cynicism was a philosophy at all, it was a practical one, aimed at training for a harsh life which was the Cynics expectation. And finally, their mission—certainly Diogenes’—was to deface the currency of human beings’ false values and customs and thus discredit the fabrication that was civilized society.” 

INTRODUCTION: the vagabond element in modern literature

There are some men born with a vagrant strain in the blood, an unsatiable inquisitiveness about the world beyond their doors.  Natural revolutionaries they, with an ingrained distaste for the routine of ordinary life and the conventions of civilization.” Arthur Rickett 

Early in his book, Rickett raises the question as to whether tramps are born or made. In my own book I also questioned whether adopting the lifestyle of a tramp is a conscious choice. From the evidence, I allowed for the possibility that the tramp is simply born a tramp through some endogenous but unexplainable sense of “not belonging”, or belonging to the world in a different way to his or her fellows; some kind of autistic gene that does not identify with the superficial preoccupations the tramp regards as satisfying the 'neuro-typical' world. Such a condition is also linked to the tramp’s natural affinity to nature and to non-human animals with whom we share the natural world. This is discussed further below under the heading ‘Affinity with Nature’.

At the end of the American Civil War, thousands of former soldiers, well used to an outdoor life and tramping, found themselves homeless and ill prepared for the domestic responsibilities of civilian life. With the first transcontinental railroad opening in 1869, followed by the first of a series of catastrophic international financial crashes and associated “depressions” (1873, 1893 and 1930), it is not surprising that, through choice or necessity, large numbers were thrown into a transient life, forced to roam the continent surviving on whatever resources came to hand. A few of these chose to maintain a tramping lifestyle from a sense of moral purpose and a rejection of wider society's misguided morality which they found difficult to reconcile with. Such individuals created their own sense of a 'republic', one not restricted to a geographical place, an ethnic group, religious or cultural traditions; a republic without boundaries or social distinctions. Like the ancient Greek Cynics, they regarded themselves as “citizens of the world”, free to roam wherever they felt the fancy, and adopting any customs and habits that suited their needs.

Tramp writer Bart Kennedy noted that we should listen to, rather than ridicule, those who maintain the tramping tradition; for it is they who truly understand how to live the “finer and calmer life.” Yet in more recent times there was a renaissance of vagabondage that, as Jack Kerouac observed in 1960, was already being outlawed and driven out of existence. And so, in some respects, the phenomena of vagabondage described in these pages no longer exists today. After thousands of years of tramping as an accepted—if not maligned—tradition, it has all but virtually been driven out of existence. What with the ubiquitous CCTV and electronic databases that analyse even our shopping habits, to remain under the radar today, without money, a registered address or ID, requires no little skill and has succeeded in eradicating the vagabond tradition in a way that even various vagrancy acts failed to achieve. Homelessness and refugeeism may be on the increase of late, but these are not vagabondage unless from a deliberate lifestyle choice which would be an absurd suggestion.

The writers discussed in Rickett’s book all share similar personality traits to those other, less famous, tramp writers discussed elsewhere on this blog. So what are the core elements that make up the character of the tramp or vagabond writer:

Part 2 will discuss Wanderlust

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