"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

9 Aug 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 2

Return to Part 1


Restlessness, then, is one of the notes of the Vagabond temperament.

Sometimes the Vagabond is a physical, sometimes only an intellectual wanderer; but in any case there is about him something of the primal wildness of the woods and hills.” Arthur Rickett    

Rickett acknowledges that a characteristic of the Vagabond is restlessness. Yet at the start his book he regards this condition for the most part as pathological, neither, does he say, should it be confused with the kind of superabundant nervous energy that he ascribes to Dickens in his earlier years. “The stress of life upon the nervous system in this era of commercialism [the Industrial Revolution] has produced a spirit of feverish unrest which, permeating society generally, has visited a few souls with special intensity.”  This spirit Rickett paraphrases in a quote from Ruskin who declared that our two objects in life were: “whatever we have, to get more; and wherever we are, to go somewhere else.” To which Rickett adds that, “Nervous instability is very marked in the case of Hazlitt and De Quincey; and there was a strain of morbidity in Borrow, Jefferies, and Stevenson.”

And yet, there are many examples later in Rickett’s book that describes wanderlust as a positive character trait. In the chapter on Thomas de Quincey, Rickett describes the compulsion to wander as follows, “A characteristic of the literary Vagabond is the eager versatility of his intellectual interests.  He will follow any path that promises to be interesting, not so much with the scholar’s patient investigation as with the pedestrian’s delight in ‘fresh woods and pastures new.’ ” And from Henry D. Thoreau’s ‘Essay on Walking’ we have that writer's regret that the average walker is not nearly adventurous enough, noting the phenomena of the tourist hiker as long ago as 1862.

We are but faint-hearted crusaders; even the walkers nowadays undertake no persevering world’s end enterprises.  Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearthside from which we set out.  Half of the walk is but retracing our steps.  We should go forth on the shortest walks, perchance, in the spirit of stirring adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdom.  If you have paid your debts and made your will and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.” 

By the time we get to Rickett’s chapter on Thoreau, he is fully embracing the positive nature of wanderlust and acknowledges that this is why the literary vagabond is such excellent company, having wandered from the beaten track he is able to bring back accounts that those of us who never stray far from home could not imagine.  “There is a wild luxuriance about his character that is interesting and fascinating …  The riotous growth of eccentricities and idiosyncrasies are picturesque enough, though you must expect to find thorns and briars.” In Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay ‘Walking Tours’ that writer describes the pleasures of walking as follows: 

It must not be imagined that a walking tour, as some would have us fancy, is merely a better or worse way of seeing the country.  There are many ways of seeing landscape quite as good; and none more vivid, in spite of canting dilettantes, than from a railway train.  But landscape on a walking tour is quite accessory.  He who is indeed of the brotherhood does not voyage in quest of the picturesque, but of certain jolly humours—of the hope and spirit with which the march begins at morning, and the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest.  He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on or takes it off with more delight.  The excitement of the departure puts him in key for that of the arrival.  Whatever he does will be further rewarded in the sequel; and so pleasure leads on to pleasure in an endless chain.” 

William Hazlitt’s 1822 essay, ’On Going a Journey’, gets closer to the true vagabond wanderlust spirit when he acknowledges: ‘One of the pleasantest things is going on a journey; but I like to go by myself. . . .  The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.’ ” 

Although Hazlitt acknowledges the true tramping spirit, I must return to the distinction I made earlier between the writer-who-tramps and the tramp-who-writes, because although the writers in Rickett’s book get close to the true spirit of wanderlust, it seems there is always an element of choice in their wanderings that is not the case with many of the latter category of vagabond writer. These appear to more closely fit Rickett’s earlier account of wanderlust as a pathological compulsion that cannot be resisted, almost an addiction that while produced by an overwhelming desire for pleasure, nevertheless is often accompanied by the ‘thorns and briars’ aforementioned.

The following passages from contemporary vagabond writer Jim Christy’s unpublished work, Wandering Heart, captures this compulsion and is all the more poignant as they were written from the confines of a hospital wheelchair where Christy, recovering from a stroke, was incapable of responding to those powerful forces calling him to hit the road:

What I felt sitting in my wheelchair down at the end of that hospital hallway was the lust to wander, pure and simple. I’ve always wanted to carry my passport with me wherever I go whether to the supermarket or the next town on an errand. I fancy ducking out on my errand, giving up my serious pursuits to head for the airport and buy a ticket anywhere. With my horizons narrowed, I fancy walking out the door and just going with no preconceived notion, no plan, turn left or right it doesn’t matter.

     There is sometimes while traveling a powerful feeling of happiness without thinking of happiness, of expanded consciousness and being a part of everything around you. … My most intense memory of this state of being, perhaps it was what Colin Wilson called the St. Neot’s Margin—a feeling of expanded consciousness that came over him while passing through that English town on a bus. For me it was the old bus station in Barcelona some time in the early Seventies while I stood in the big hall waiting to leave for Morocco. I had never been happier or more at ease.

     The feeling can come over you in the most unlikely of places; it is not necessary to be in Tibet or Barcelona. One time, I was sitting on the wooden steps of a general store in Effingham, Illinois, just come down from Chicago, waiting for the bus to St. Louis and bam, all of a sudden I felt as if I was hovering over the steps, floating above the rooftops, surveying the scene of shops and houses and cars; the small town bicycle world of kids.” 

It is a credit to Christy that he continued to explore the world and marvel at its wonders long after most Westerners, smug in the knowledge that the world had been mined of its secrets, sat back to glory at their cleverness in university campuses or simply be passive spectators on their now ubiquitous TV and other devices. Below, Jack London reinforces in his book The Road, the random and serendipitous nature of tramping described by Christy above:

Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is protean—an ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment. He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance.”

These earlier tramp writers have left us with many perspectives of this same phenomenon. From Josiah Flynt’s book Tramping with Tramps, we are given the viewpoint of the child-tramp or road kid. A class of tramp of which he, together with Livingstone, Everson, Davies, Kennedy, London, Horn, Tully, Phelan, and indeed Christy, were all representatives: 

they [road kids] are possessed of the "railroad fever" ... the expression in its broader sense of Wanderlust. They want to get out into the world, and at stated periods the desire is so strong and the road so handy that they simply cannot resist the temptation to explore it. A few weeks usually suffice to cool their ardor, and then they run home quite as summarily as they left, but they stay only until the next runaway mood seizes them.” 

Tramp writers frequently present wanderlust as this urge to hit the road coming in waves and for no particular reason. In the following passage from W. H. Davies’s book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, this compulsion is also linked to the health benefits of tramping:

What a glorious time of the year is this! With the warm sun travelling through serene skies, the air clear and fresh above you, which instils new blood in the body, making one defiantly tramp the earth, kicking the snows aside in the scorn of action. The cheeks glow with health, the lips smile, and there is no careworn face seen, save they come out of the house of sickness of death. And that lean spectre, called Hunger, has never been known to appear in these parts.” 

In the following passage from her book The Tramp Woman (1909), Dolly Kennedy Yancey describes the other side of wanderlust, precisely what it is that she seeks to escape from when she takes to the road:

Does it pay only to live to accumulate property and junk, which to a traveller would prove expensive ‘excess baggage?’ Does it pay to harden one’s heart against the cultivation of healthy, human instincts, and to live a narrow, selfish life in a conservative community where one is always subjected to unkind criticism? Why unkind? Oh, Conservatism, what sins are committed in thy name!

Yancey’s joy in tramping and affinity with nature will be cited later but accords with that of Kathleen Phelan (1917—2014). Phelan was perhaps the most prolific of the tramp writers, in terms of responding to wanderlust at least, spending 77 of her 97 years on the road. Phelan's second solo trip (following the death of her husband, tramp writer Jim Phelan), took 3 years in which she walked and hitchhiked, with her few possessions in a basket on wheels, through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and ending in Nepal, adding other countries on the return trip. Below, from an article Phelan wrote for Woman’s Own, in 1972, “I am a Vagabond”, she describes her own attitude to being on the road:

Fine weather or foul I am out on the road. I own nothing but what I stand up in and can carry with me; I rarely have more than a couple of copper coins to rub together and yet you’d have to go far to find a happier woman.

     There is nothing to compare with the excitement of walking each day and never knowing who you are going to meet and where you are going to find yourself by nightfall.

In the passage below from Trader Horn’s Harold the Webbed, he makes the case that, given the world created for us, not to submit to wanderlust is an absurdity:

Doesn't the dawn come everyday calling you to move on? No camp should last forever. And that's where civilization makes the mistake of its life, trying to cage the natural man. Trying to make a stationary object behind bars. Did the great Onlooker give us the world plus the ocean to entice the thoughts of the roamer if he meant us to stay in one spot. ... All the luxuries of the haut ton are neither more or less than neck-irons to a slave. And what's worse they make heaven itself into the image of a cage. Why, the son of Mary Himself couldn't stand too much of the synagogue. ... Consider the lilies, he said. But the religioners've put no lilies in heaven.”

Yet no one has captured the pure existential spirit of wanderlust better than Leon Ray Livingston when he describes in The Curse of Tramp Life, his complete disregard for his own mortality in the thrill of hurtling at top speed through the night, hanging underneath a train, death only inches from his face as the tracks hurtle past beneath him: 

I at last felt that I had given up everything but life itself, to please that bane of my existence. ... There, hanging on with only those weak, human hands, out of reach of any possible succour, speeding through the night, I felt at peace with all the world.”

This passage reveals a fundamental element of tramp psychology: that it is the momentum of tramping itself and not the destination that pulls the tramp ever onward. Although the tramp is occasionally forced to stop and rest from sheer exhaustion, sometimes due to illness or disability, sometimes for the respite of a bite to eat, the destination of the journey is always deferred as described below by Robert Louis Stephenson in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.

I acknowledged this fundamental aspect of wanderlust in the final sentence of my book, Jim Christy: A Vagabond Life: “This is tramping as a sheer life force. Without the constant onward movement the tramp is unable to breath and loses the reason for their existence.” So here I leave the final word on wanderlust to Jim Christy himself:

What is this wanderlust? There’s no way to define it, one just knows when one has it, or is afflicted by it. It is more than just wanting to go somewhere. Some might call it a form of neurosis, and maybe they’re right. It may come upon you when you least expect it to. You don’t need to have heard, as did Hank Williams, that lonesome whistle blow. You may be watching a police drama on television or buying your oat bran in the supermarket and all of a sudden you feel the need to change the view out the window …

Part 3 will discuss the vagabond's AFFINITY WITH NATURE

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