Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Road by Jack London

Hallelujah, I’m a bum!
The Road is Jack London’s memoir of his days spent tramping across North America. Each of the nine chapters of this book discusses a different aspect of hobo life, such as jumping trains, begging for meals, or run-ins with the law. Part autobiography, part instruction manual, part glossary of hobo jargon—The Road provides an excellent first-hand account of the tramping experience. It brilliantly encapsulates a way of life practiced by thousands of unemployed men during the glory days of the railroad at the turn of the last century.

London vividly captures the siren call of the wanderlust within his soul, which finds satisfaction only in the freedom of the open road. Yet despite the fond reflections of his tramping youth, he does not sugarcoat his experiences. While much of the book is lighthearted in tone, he also gives ample treatment to the dangers of the road, including injury or death from locomotives, brutality by police or railroad employees, and violent altercations with other tramps.

The most fun and exciting chapter of the book is “Holding Her Down,” in which London describes in detail his intricate strategy for catching a train, riding the blinds, and avoiding being ditched by the train crew on a wild ride across Canada. In “Pinched” and “The Pen,” London tells of his arrest for vagrancy at Niagara Falls, his speedy trial (or lack thereof), and his incarceration in the Erie County Penitentiary. In “Two Thousand Stiffs,” London joins up with Kelly’s Army, an organized group of tramps who marched eastward toward Washington, DC in 1894 to protest unemployment. London’s involvement in the group, however, was purely motivated by self-interest rather than political activism. In recalling the Army’s trek across Iowa, he admits he was anything but a model recruit in this ragtag band of poverty’s soldiers.

Although written in the first person and ostensibly an autobiographic work, London makes himself out to be such a supertramp that it’s hard to believe he accomplished all the remarkable exploits pictured here. More likely the book is an amalgamation of his personal experiences and hobo lore he picked up in the course of his travels. Regardless, The Road is a thoroughly enjoyable ride through the cities, towns, and farmlands of late 19th-century America. If you have ever felt the siren call of wanderlust yourself, some time spent with these tramping tales will make you want to pack yourself some provisions and head for the nearest railroad tracks.

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