Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings. Edited by Richard W. Etulain

A companion to The Road
The year 1894 was a defining year for author Jack London. Fed up with toiling as a “wage slave,” London quit his job, hit the road, and spent much of the year tramping across America and Canada. Part of that journey was spent as a member of Kelly’s Army, which was an offshoot of Coxey’s Army, a protest march of jobless laborers who converged on Washington, DC to protest the government’s inadequate response to rampant unemployment. During this time, London kept a “Tramp Diary” of his travels, which only covers the two months spent traveling from Oakland, CA to his aunt’s house in Michigan. This collection, edited by Richard W. Etulain and published by Utah State University Press in 1979, reprints “The Tramp Diary” along with an assortment of related London writings about hobos and tramps.

Though the darker underbelly of society that London experienced on his cross-country journey was instrumental in convincing him to make a living with his brains and pursue a career as a writer, he would later look back on his hobo days with nostalgic fondness. London immortalized his tramp adventures in the excellent 1907 book The Road. An essay from 1897, also entitled “The Road,” can be seen as a preliminary sketch for that book, but less light-hearted in tone. London breaks trampdom down into several social substrata, from the experienced “profesh” to the novice “road-kids.” In this essay, he views America’s tramps through the same sociological lens he employed in his book on poverty in the city of London, The People of the Abyss, expressing both admiration and pity for his subjects. The 1900 article “Jack London in Boston” is a rather uneventful account of his tramping through that city. He seems more concerned with demonstrating his own erudition than with elucidating the reality of tramp life. “Rods and Gunnels” is a largely unintelligible explanation of the difference between the two parts of a train car and the ways in which they are ridden by hobos. London rather smugly corrects the misunderstanding between the two means of conveyance, in essence trumpeting himself as an expert “profesh” who has dared ride the rods and lived to tell about it.

The rest of the hobo writings included here can be found elsewhere. “Frisco Kids’s Story” and “And ‘Frisco Kid Came Back” are two of London’s “uncollected stories” which can be found in many Complete Works collections. “How I Became a Socialist” and “The Tramp” are included in his collection of essays The War of the Classes. Another essay, “What Life Means to Me” appears in the collection Revolution. One poem is included, entitled “The Worker and the Tramp.” There are also four short stories: “Local Color”, from Moon-Face; “The Apostate,” from When God Laughs; “The Hobo and the Fairy,” from The Turtles of Tasman; and “The Princess,” from The Red One. Etulain also contributes an introduction that provides an overview of London’s tramp literature. Etulain is a prominent historian of the American West, but not particularly known as a Jack London scholar. He doesn’t even seem to be a fan of London, and expresses a dislike for almost every piece he’s included in this collection, even “The Apostate,” which I consider to be one of London’s best short stories.

Much of this book falls under the category of ground already covered, and there’s nothing here that really competes with London’s book The Road. For those scholars or fans hoping to learn a bit more about the story behind that book, however, the rarities included here are worth reading.

Pieces in this collection:
Introduction by Richard W. Etulain
The Tramp Diary
’Frisco Kid’s Story
And ’Frisco Kid Came Back
The Road
Jack London in Boston
The Worker and the Tramp (poem)
Rods and Gunnels
How I Became a Socialist
Local Color
The Tramp
What Life Means to Me
The Apostate
The Hobo and the Fairy
The Princess

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