"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

16 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 7

Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature

Return to Part 4 — The Abject

Return to Part 5 — The Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection

Return to Part 6  Peter Pan Syndrome


These men believe in the figments of their imagination, and make us believe in them. Stevenson is obviously sceptical as to their reality; we can almost see a furtive smile upon his lip as he writes. But there is nothing unreal about the man, whatever we feel of the Artist. … there is no make-believe here; here I am not merely amusing myself; here, honestly and heartily admitted, you may find the things that life has taught me.” Rickett

Rickett’s observation that vagabond writers, “believe in the figments of their imagination, and make us believe in them”, opens up an important theme of vagabond writing: the deliberate (as well as unconscious) insertion of the vagabond writer’s life into their fiction and the fictionalisation of parts of their ‘autobiographical’ works.

As I noted in my own book on tramp literature, there is a fine line to be drawn between biography and fantasy, and so for those obsessed with historical fact—which is for the most part illusive or fabricated anyway—tramp literature is best avoided; unless one is prepared to fully embrace the autobiographical in fiction and the fictional in autobiography. In any case, even for those who wish to ‘learn’ from history, I would argue that myth and legend can be equally instructive, sometimes more so, than so-called historical accounts. Perhaps more importantly, in terms of these vagabond texts, the ‘facts’, so far as they can be established, are often even more extraordinary than the fiction. But as Rickett has noted, the vagabond writer is less concerned at the blurring of fact and fiction than being true to their experiences and observations of life and, as will be demonstrated below, sometimes indulging in a deliberate playfulness to confound the reader. The fact/fiction dichotomy is directly discussed in Rickett’s chapter on George Borrow:

the Vagabond is never satisfied with things that merely happen.  He is equally concerned with the things that might happen, with the things that ought to happen.  And so Borrow added to his own personal record from the storehouse of dreams.  Some have blamed him for not adhering to the actual facts.  But does any autobiographer adhere to actual facts?  Can any man, even with the most sensitive feeling for accuracy, confine himself to a record of what happened?

Of course not.  The moment a man begins to write about himself, to delve in the past, to ransack the storehouse of his memory; then—if he has anything of the literary artist about him, and otherwise his book will not be worth the paper it is written on—he will take in a partner to assist him.  That partner’s name is Romance.” 

Rickett quotes directly from Borrow to address the issue head on, “What is an autobiography?  Is it a mere record of a man’s life, or is it a picture of the man himself?”  He notes that when Borrow started writing up his own life in Lavengro he had no intention of departing from the fact: “But the adventurer Vagabond moved uneasily in the guise of the chronicler.  He wanted more elbow-room.  He remembered all that he hoped to encounter, and from hopes it was no far cry to actualities.”

Things might have happened so!  Ye gods, they did happen so!  And after all it matters little to us the exact proportion of fact and fiction.  What does matter is that the superstructure he has raised upon the foundation of fact is as strange and unique as the palace of Aladdin.” 

Rickett discusses what are, on the face of it, contradictory aspects of Borrow’s character. On the one hand “the typical Anglo-Saxon in real life”, a white-haired giant of six foot three strong, assertive, beer-loving (but never a drunkard), an excellent athlete, “few better at running, jumping, wrestling, sparring, and swimming.” On the other hand:

there was the true Celt whenever he took pen in hand. … a Celt he was by parentage, and the Celtic part was unmistakable, though below the surface. If the East Anglian in him had a weakness for athleticism, boiled mutton and caper sauce, the Celt in him responded quickly to the romantic associates of Wales.”  

This characterisation of Borrow has many parallels with the real lives and writing styles of other tramp writers described below, not least the Celtics Tully and Phelan, fictioneers and pugilists both, and Horn, who claimed a direct descendancy from the Vikings, whose military tactics he employed in his river battles with pirates on the Ogowe River, yet excelled in the romantic with semi-fictional characters and narratives in his writing. Rickett’s further comments on Borrows extends to most of these tramp writers: 

as in all the literary Vagabonds, it is the complexity of the man’s temperament that attracts and fascinates. … a man, in short, of so many bewildering contradictions and strangely assorted qualities as Borrow cannot but compel interest.” 

Below are listed some brief examples from tramp writers discussed in my own book to further expand this theme about fact versus fiction in vagabond writing, at the same time evidencing that the truth of the writer was often more extraordinary than the fiction—though only a full reading of their adventures can do justice to this claim:

Thomas Manning Page (1841-1900), introduced earlier regarding his time as a bohemian artist, wrote a single volume in the first person without naming himself, or other family members, and so there are no clues that the hero of the book was even the author. When commencing a reading of The Autobiography of a Tramp (1884), in the full belief that Page is both author and narrator, it is easy to be baffled why nothing is given away about where or when Page was born, he simply teases his reader that he was born “in the usual way,” at an early age, and from a mother. A cynic par excellence, satirical irony is there from the book’s opening, as Page deliberately defies literary convention by opening his book with a postscript that contains a diatribe against prefaces. 

It was only on obtaining a copy of Page’s obituary that any ‘true facts’ concerning the writer could be established. One of these was that he had enrolled in the Confederate army at the age of 20, serving with some distinction alongside General Robert E. Lee before being wounded several times and eventually released in an exchange of prisoners when the Confederate Army finally surrendered at Appomattox in April 1861. This fact demonstrates the paradoxical, upside-down style of Page’s writing and cleared up at least one anomaly. Why, one might wonder, did the hero of Page’s autobiography, a child soldier in the Union army, express so many sympathies with the Southern cause?

Bart Kennedy (1861-1930) was the author of 22 books and a weekly broadsheet. A Sailor Tramp (unlike the more strictly autobiographical A Man Adrift or A Tramp in Spain in which Kennedy is clearly chronicling his own travels and adventures), is an autobiographical fiction. Clearly heavily informed by the author’s own experiences, here he is able to fully exploit both his imagination and personal philosophy as I described as follows in my book: 

A Sailor Tramp is an unsentimental essay on the brutality of human life, a critique of deprivation, desperation, physical and spiritual survival. It also concerns longing and desire. For through his principal character, Sailor, Kennedy exposes the human face of the tramp, even his ambivalence to tramping itself.”

Attempts have been made to categorise Jim Tully’s (1886-1947) 13 books and 2 plays as either autobiography or fiction, but again this is a somewhat futile exercise. In the case of his third book, Jarnegan, although written in the third person, Jack Jarnegan was modelled on Tully himself yet even his biographers were unable to reconcile certain facts about Tully from this and other of his works. It was a line in Jarnegan that lost Tully his job with Charlie Chaplin. Ever the cynic parrhesiast (his journalistic exposes had earned him the title of “the most feared and hated man in Hollywood”) Tully was given the choice of removing the offending line or losing his job. Tully chose the latter and, now approaching the peak of his own success, broke up with Chaplin.

Trader Horn (1861-1931) says in his third volume, The Waters of Africa (1929): “Beauty of fiction is you can suppress anything that’s not convenient.” He later describes the book as “fiction buttressed with truth” and that the story was “Founded on as much truth as fiction would allow.” The subtitle of his second book, Harold the Webbed (1928), includes fictionalising biographical information that readers normally take for granted: “... written by ALFRED ALOYSIUS HORN at the age of seventy-three, and the life with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience, taken down and here edited by ETHELREDA LEWIS.” Horn was in fact aged 67, not 73, when the book was published.

Trader Horn would yet have been just another unknown tramp and adventurer had he not arrived, in the spring of 1925 at the age of 64, peddling handmade kitchen implements at the Johannesburg home of novelist Ethelreda Lewis. Their shared interest in Viking history soon turned into a remarkable literary partnership that within only two years would make Trader Horn an international celebrity and in 1931 spawned the Hollywood movie version of his first book Trader Horn (1927). At his weekly visits to Lewis’ home, Horn would relate his tales and spend the week writing up his memories in a Johannesburg doss house. Lewis’ husband typed up the manuscripts but included all Horn’s idiosyncratic grammar and spelling mistakes. The ‘conversations’ between Horn and Lewis were also included in the final publications and often exceeded Horn’s own prose writing. Lewis describes Horn’s writing as follows: 

Mr. Horn has an enviable gift of speaking as if his characters really existed. the line between truth and fiction is but a shadow line with him. He casts the net of fiction over truth and of truth over fiction, enmeshing the listener by the same dexterous throw.” 

If Horn had the gift of speaking as though his characters existed, it is because many of them did exist. Often modest in his autobiographical ramblings, there is, paradoxically, more truth in much of what he relates than he has been given credit for, or gives himself credit for, including facts that were only verified long after his works were published. 

Jim Phelan (1895-1966) was well aware of what made a successful novel in purely marketing terms and knew just how to please the publishers and readers while having the last laugh at their expense. As did Trader Horn, Phelan subverted the commercial with his own skills at storytelling. Of his short stories, he says, “There is always the central bit, which looks like the story. But never is.” Phelan also refuses to engage with the fact/fiction dichotomy as noted in the opening passages of his preface to The Name’s Phelan

For a teller of tales, a fiction spinner, such as I have been for most of my life, even before I was a writer, any attempt at a straightforward factual narrative is very difficult indeed. It is so easy, and the temptation is so great, to round off a passage or tidy up an episode, to make a neat story instead of the succession of inconsequentialities which a life story usually is. Add the fact that I have always rather tended to dramatise my own existence, as also that I would much rather forget a great many of the things which have happened to me, and that it will be plain that the ordinary difficulties of autobiography are for me multiplied.

Jack London (1876-1916) needs less introduction and so will not be dwelt on here, but of his 120 short stories, 26 full-length prose works, 22 essays, 45 poems, and six plays, only three works are described as autobiographical: The Road, The Cruise of the Snark, and John Barleycorn. Yet even here these categorisations are not helpful. As with the other tramp writers discussed above, London’s autobiographies contain elements of fiction (for which he has received some criticism) and his novels elements of autobiography. 

These individual accounts demonstrate the tramp storyteller’s natural inclination to insert their life into their fictional works and fictionalise parts of their autobiographical works, and this is the magic (and for some, frustration) of this genre, a deception that is clearly deliberate and unabashed—in the case of Phelan and Tully it is also the delight of Irish blarney. In the final post of this series, with Rickett’s help, I will attempt to draw together some of these elements of vagabond writing to make some conclusions on the vagabond temperament itself.

Part 8 will discuss 'Fact or Fiction?'

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