Historical and Contemporary Approaches to the Mythical Tramp Culture

Compassion and Fear of Tramps in Literature

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2 Compassion and Fear of Tramps in Literature

Tramps and vagrants on account of the ambivalent qualities ascribed to them by the general public were criminalized and victimized and yet pitied and treated with compassion. It is not surprising therefore to find the same complexity of their portrayals in literature. Although it would be an exaggeration to suppose that the realm of literature provides a veracious reflection of the outer world, nevertheless it would be equally wrong to claim that the literary world is merely based on fictional unreal events or ideas conjured up by the writers, who aim at dissociating themselves from the outer reality, creating an imaginary art for art’s illusion. If the authors of popular literature of its time tackled the issues of vagrancy and tramps, it is reasonable to presuppose that their literary portrayals of tramps were either based on personal knowledge of some of the difficulties the roving destitute faced or they at least echoed some of the prevalent stereotypical notions of vagrancy. Either way, the literary world, as far as the depiction of tramps and vagrants was concerned, did not detach itself from reality but rather strove to give a more or less accurate account of the tramp issue. Thus, literary accounts conveying the issue of vagrancy to the reading public have to be acknowledged as a valuable testimony of perception of tramps and vagrants by the society at a particular time of history. What is more, the veracity of their literary portrayals is difficult to challenge, as the relevant literature pertaining vagrants was scarce, and only a fraction of literate society drew its knowledge of this incoherent class of vagrant destitute on anything else but the very same literary portrayals of these individuals by popular writers.

That the vagrant population arouse fear and compassion in the minds of settled population is hard to question. Naturally, depiction of tramps in popular literature was likewise bound to echo those ambivalent sentiments as well. Tramps as fearsome predators and incorrigible criminals as well as unfortunate victims of cruel fate have their well-deserved place in the literary canon. Nonetheless, it might be argued that whereas instances of sympathetic as well as fearful illustrations of tramps in literature are abundant, their interpretation may somewhat differ. While depiction of a fearsome vagabond reflects a deeply rooted stereotypical image of a tramp in the minds of the general public, compassion and sympathy could be seen as a response to extensive criminalization and victimization of the tramp by society.

Since the treatment of tramps and vagrants by law in England was rather harsh and severe, compassionate and pitiful portrayal of tramps in literature as victims of unfounded criminalization and social injustice, should be interpreted in the context of social and legal environment that was generally hostile to them. It is in the light of the collective treatment of tramps that George Orwell’s and Jack London’s critique of their mistreatment comes from. In other words, if fear of tramps was the driving force behind the development of oppressive laws against vagrancy, the enforcement and administration of these oppressive laws gave rise to public compassion and pity on tramps.

In his autobiographical social novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, capturing his personal experience of living with the wandering destitute, George Orwell launches a social protest against the law and the local authorities who cruelly and unnecessarily victimize and criminalize the tramp. His portrayal of the tramp is predominantly sympathetic and humane. He does not view the tramp as a criminal predator but rather as a victim and prey of local authorities’ harsh and absurd law. Also, unlike some representatives of law he does not stigmatize tramps with any preconceived notions of alleged criminal impulses or desire to sponge on society. Quite the contrary. Most of tramp characters he encountered are portrayed as individuals trapped in a vicious circle of perpetual poverty without a chance to escape it: “There was, clearly, no future for him but beggary and a death in the workhouse” (Orwell 137). Orwell views tramps and vagrants as individuals subjected to harsh treatment of the official law which punishes tramps for their vagrancy but does not in return promote any improvement of their case. His tramp characters are victims struck down by unfortunate accident bringing about a loss of permanent employment and forcing them to turn to the road: “…the same morning he fell from a stage on which he was working, forty feet on the pavement and smashed his right foot to pulp…He had lived hand to mouth ever since, half starved throughout the winter and often sleeping in the spike on the Embankment” (Orwell 137). London too maintains that the majority of the wandering destitute are victims of a unfortunate confluence of affairs that render them helpless and thus dependent on public relief and charity: “The last place in which she had worked was a coffee house, hours from seven in the morning till eleven at night…Then she had fallen sick, and since emerging from the hospital had been unable to find anything to do” (London 90).

There is not a trace of romanticism in Orwell’s depiction of tramps. He suggests that tramps are referred to as tramps simply because they travel – tramp from place to place in the search of relief. The motivation behind their wandering is not an ecstatic enjoyment out of being in open air but rather obligation to move around from one causal ward to another. His tramp characters travel out of necessity. They do not purposefully seek a generous bounty of various different parishes but they are bound to travel by the law: “A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps to the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so“ (Orwell 165). Thus, the tramp is forced by legal definition to become a vagrant because “by the state of law, it is that or starve” (Orwell 165). This sentiment is shared by London, who dismisses a commonplace myth, that tramps opt for their tramping existence as a preferable alternative to honest work: “The men and women I have met upon the street and in the spikes and pegs are not there because as a mode of life it may be considered a ‘soft snap’” (London 114). He also draws an interesting parallel between English and American tramps. Whereas the American ‘hobo’ opts for the tramping existence voluntarily, finding in it softer and more appealing way of life, his English counterpart, would much rather become an ‘honest worker’ but is compelled, unable to find employment, against his will, to sustain his life of permanent vagrancy. While, as London states, the American tramp is a ‘discouraged worker’, the English tramp is a ‘discouraged vagabond’ (London 115).

Unlike Orwell and London in their rather compassionate, partial pro-tramp attitude, Dickens makes use of a slightly ironical tone for describing tramps’ habits of putting themselves into the position of victim to solicit compassion. He views this practice more as a well-rehearsed part of the tramps’ ‘professional trade routine’ – begging, rather than the truthful account of their unhappy lives. He parodies some of the clichéd typical turn of phrases the tramps draw on to sound authentic: “Sir, it is not begging that is my intention for I was brought up by the best of mothers and begging is not my trade” (Dickens 134). Elsewhere he mocks the habit of tramps to put their current destitution down to ill-fate or treachery:…and I was favourably known to the Solicitor-General, the Attorney General, the majority of the judges and the ole of the legal profession but through ill elth in my family and the treachery of a friend…I was cast forth with my tender partner and three young children” (Dickens 134).

His satirical caricature of tramps suggests that tramps often purposefully exploit their haggard appearance and rather than searching for an honest way of living, prefer to stick to their work-free begging trade. He gives account of a typical idle tramp who imposes himself on others in a profoundly humble way: “As you approach nearer to it, you observe the figure to uncock its hat, to become tender of foot, to depress its head and elevate its shoulders, and to present all the characteristics of profound despondency” (Dickens 133). Another type of tramp that he warns his readers to beware of is a tramp who “generally represents himself, in a vague was, as looking out for a job or work; but he never did work, he never does, and he never will” (Dickens 130). Unlike Orwell and London Dicken’s critical stance hints at exploitative tendencies of tramps to solicit favour of the public.

Orwell illustrates an apparent lack of logic in some of the regulations pertaining to vagrancy. He acknowledges that society seeks to reduce a number of destitute by reforming their loose work ethic. On the other hand he cannot comprehend an absurdity of such a law which effectively makes it impossible for tramps to find a permanent employment by keeping them on the hop through the system of workhouses and casual wards. In particular, he criticizes the practice of releasing tramps from a workhouse late in the morning and forcing them to register at other workhouses at a specific location early on in the evening, thus not giving them enough time and space to find an employment: “The law sez I can’t get in another casual ward that night less’n ten miles distant. Have to hurry an’ walk to be there in time that day. What chance does that give me to look for a job” (London 49)?

Orwell further challenges a superstitious fear of the poor which he considers unfounded. One of the reasons behind this fear is the belief of society that there is a clear distinct line separating the poor from the rich. The poor are seen as an almost different race of species whose mere existence threatens the stability of the rich: “The educated man pictures a horde of submen, wanting only a day’s liberty to loot his house, burn his books, and set him to work minding a machine or sweeping out a lavatory” (Orwell 100). Orwell concludes that the poor are in their essence no different from the rich except for the fact of being poor. It is therefore foolish and irrational to fear them.

Elsewhere he questions himself why there is such a negative stigma attached to tramps. He wonders what motivates tramps to continue in their precarious roving existence and arrives at a conclusion that tramps are despised and scorned largely because their trade does not earn them wealth and many material rewards. He maintains that society above all appreciates and respects material wealth. If tramps and beggars managed to earn and maintain a reasonably high standard of living they would be respected for being successful in what they do. As they happen to live from hand to mouth and have no means to accumulate a considerable property they are seen as failures and dregs of society who “made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich” (Orwell 144). Orwell also holds a view that as much as the settled population would like to separate itself from the tramps it cannot because tramps, as well as members of the more fortunate settled and affluent public have to earn their living. Their means of obtaining their livelihood may seem repulsive to society but that does not change anything about the fact that the population of tramps and the population of employed and productive individuals differ only in the extent of futility and uselessness of their efforts. While tramps have to endure a lot of physical as well as mental strain, including perpetual hunger and poverty to obtain a few pennies to survive yet another night in the dreary conditions of the casual ward, the majority of the employed population may exert less than half that effort to live a life of luxury.

One of the things he has learnt from being hard up, as he says, is to “never expect gratitude from a tramp” (Orwell 175). He maintains that tramps and beggars although dependent on charity and help of society, nevertheless, hate their benefactors and feel degraded and humiliated when being offered charity. One of the tramps he portrays goes as far in his ingratitude to society as to have developed a hatred and scorn of fellow tramps who “did not have the decency to be ungrateful” (Orwell 138). He also mentions instances of depriving tramps of what they deserve. He criticizes the system of meal ticket allotment, providing them with a meal ticket worth sixpence. Yet, when paying with them in coffee houses along the designated route to another workhouse, the tramps frequently encounter exploitation from the hands of the proprietor who will only provide four pence worth of food. He fears that “this kind of victimization will go on as long as people continue to give meal tickets instead of food” (Orwell 153). Yet another instance of victimization of tramps is presented in a workhouse, where paupers, working in the kitchen, throw away surplus food so that it would not end up on the plate of tramps. Later, when discussing the practice with a fellow tramp, with whom he had a recourse on injustices of law towards the vagrants, Orwell learns to his amazement that, although generally condemning the treatment of tramps by official authorities, his “superior tramp” is only too happy to condone the wastage of food: “’You don't want to have any pity on these here tramps—scum, they are. You don't want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They're scum, just scum‘” (Orwell 163).

Among the instances of absurdities of the law Orwell mentions begging. While outright begging was under the Vagrancy Act strictly forbidden and could result in imprisonment, indirect begging was nevertheless tolerated and even defined as a “legitimate trade” (Orwell 143). Similarly, London illustrates another absurdity and ‘ridiculousness’ of the vagrancy law concerning sleeping rough at night. He is perplexed by the practice of ‘powers that be’ to deprive the homeless of sleep at night by keeping them on constant march, only to let them back in to the parks at five o’clock in the morning: “If it is their intention to deprive them of sleep, why do they let them sleep after five in the morning?” (London 72). He finds this illogical policy even more incomprehensible since the sight of these wretched, ragged homeless sleeping on the park benches during the day cannot be an eye-pleasing sight to the walking citizenry: “It was not a pleasant sight for them, those horrible, unkempt, sleeping vagabonds; while the vagabonds themselves, I know would rather have done their sleeping the night before” (London 72).

Among the three worst social evils tramps have to put up with Orwell states hunger, enforced idleness and celibacy. While hunger is clearly one of the basic features of the tramp’s life that instantly springs to mind, enforced idleness and celibacy may not be traditionally associated with the lives of tramps. Enforced idleness, despite conventional belief is particularly harsh on those who have no means of steady employment. Orwell argues that while educated individuals being forced to temporarily accept the condition of enforced idleness can, thanks to their education, get through this experience mentally unharmed, tramps and vagrants having no means to occupy their mind struggle worse and harder than the rest of society. That is why, he argues “it is such a nonsense to pretend that those who have come down in the world are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank resourceless mind” (Orwell 150). Concerning celibacy, Orwell maintains it is a prospect a male tramp is condemned to from the very start he takes to the road to the moment he dies: “He is absolutely without hope of getting a wife, a mistress, or any kind of woman except—very rarely, when he can raise a few shillings—a prostitute“(Orwell 167). Women, he observes, are few and far between among the tramps and even those who have come down from the world and found their way into the tramp population do not take kindly to fellow male tramps whom they scorn rather than respect and consequently any chance of a male tramp forming a long-term attachment with a female is out of the question: “He told me once that he had not had to do with a woman for two years—since he had lost his job, that is—and he had forgotten that one could aim higher than prostitutes” (Orwell 127). The scarcity of contact with the opposite sex may lead to homosexual patterns in behaviour. Orwell himself recalls a personal experience of being sexually approached by a fellow male tramp: “He said that his wife had promptly deserted him when he lost his job, and he had been so long away from women that he had almost forgotten what they were like. Homosexuality is general among tramps of long standing, he said” (Orwell 123).

In his account of living with the wandering destitute Orwell only rarely makes an allusion to tramps being an object of fear and when he does he does it with the intention to dispel the myth of a tramp presenting a danger to public community: “…very few tramps are dangerous, because if they were dangerous, they would be treated accordingly” (166). He further goes on to claim that tramps are in fact the most docile, broken-spirited creatures imaginable” and victims of bullying officials in the workhouse (Orwell 166). Elsewhere he illustrates an example of the deeply rooted popular belief of tramps as villainous individuals, when he and a fellow tramp ask for work at back doors of a country house. Having completed their work of chopping up firewood, they witnessed a terrified maid who was to serve them tea: “I remember the terrified way in which she brought it out, and then, losing her courage, set the cups down on the path and bolted back to the house, shutting herself in the kitchen. So dreadful is the name of ‘tramp’ ”(Orwell 158). Nevertheless, to break the pattern of sympathetic accounts of tramps as harmless powerless individuals he narrates a scene he witnesses during a religious ceremony in the church. Having flocked to King’s Cross church to obtain a free tea, tramps decided to sit through a religious service. Their conduct during ceremony astounded and shocked Orwell: “…the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church” (Orwell 151). Orwell attributes the unruly conduct of tramps to their understanding that, being in the majority against a few helpless religious representatives and a handful of god-fearing members of the general public, they could give vent to their frustration of being at mercy of their benefactors and could for once live up to their reputation of fearsome predators: “What could a few women and old men do against a hundred hostile tramps? They were afraid of us, and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us” (Orwell 152).

London, narrates a blood-chilling experience of encountering a group of homeless vagrants, whom he characterizes with an animal-like imagery of horror: “It was a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beats…there was strength in those meager bodies, the ferocious, primordial strength to clutch and gripe and tear and rend” (London 163). London entertains no doubt regarding their criminal potential: “They possess neither conscience nor sentiment, and they will kill for a half sovereign, without fear or favor, if they are given but half a chance” (London 164).

Not even otherwise sympathetic Orwell denies the latent criminal potential of his tramp characters: “He was the enemy of society, and quite ready to take to crime if he saw a good opportunity” (Orwell 138). In David Copperfield, Dickens portrays tramps and vagrants as ferocious and dangerous individuals. When faced with an option to stay overnight in a lodging house, young David wisely decides against such a course of action for fear of the “vicious looks of trampers” he had overtaken (Dickens 238). Later on his journey he alludes to tramps as “ferocious looking ruffians” (Dickens 242). Eventually, he finds himself in a face-to-face encounter with a ‘typical representative’ of their kind. The tramp he crosses path with is a tinker, representative of the tramp population who abstained from outright begging but preferred to give some value for the money he extracted. The tinker character is drawn along the lines of a stereotypical image of tramp as a rude, aggressive predator: “’Come here, when you are called,’ said the tinker, gripping the bosom of my shirt ‘or I will rip your young body open’” (Dickens 242). In a vein similar to that of Jack London Dickens applies an animal repulsive imagery when presenting his tramp characters in Uncommercial Traveller: “Over against me, stood a creature remotely in the likeness of a young man, with a puffed sallow face, and a figure all dirty and shiny and slimy, who may have been the youngest son of his filthy old father” (Dickens 23). During his night walk around Saint Martin’s church, he stumbles into a tramp, whom he, however, portrays with compassion rather than fear: “Suddenly, a thing that in a moment more I should have trodden upon without seeing, rose up to my feet with a cry of loneliness and houselessness…the creature was like a beetle-browed hair-lipped youth of twenty, and it had a loose bundle of rags on…” (Dickens 164).

Both Orwell and London’s accounts picture tramps as predominantly harmless individuals, unjustly victimized by society, which drew its knowledge of tramps and vagrants on popular stereotypical notions which both novelists consider unfounded. Dicken’s portrayal of tramps has a more criminal feel to it although it is far from passing a collective judgment on them as a group. This could be justified by London’s lack of personal experience living with the wandering poor for a prolonged period of time. On the other hand, Orwell and London personal acquaintance with the tramp issue may have swayed their critical perception to slightly uncritical partial view. This, nevertheless goes without saying since having gone through the tramping phase of their lives inevitably brought about a certain degree of togetherness with the this distinctly indistinct group.

3 Romanticizing Tramps in Literature

It is undeniable that precariousness and volatility of vagrant lifestyle has some irresistible appeal and sway over the majority of the settled population. The figure of a tramp as a free wandering spirit provides a lot of latent romantic potential to be explored by poets and novelists. The question stands what realistic grounds there are for the latent admiration of the tramp existence to materialize itself into the form of explicit exaltation of the virtues of roving lifestyle. The potential for the British tramp to be romanticized was, although considerably smaller than that of his American counterpart, far from negligible. With the emergence of a romantic stream in British literature in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the tramp had become associated with those individualistic virtues and characteristics that the settled institutionalized society had long considered lost: “...the tramp was not only his traditional self, but had taken on a new form as the guardian of primeval instincts against the encroachment of business and city life. Being close to nature, he understood elemental values” (Crowther 107). On the other hand, there was a substantial body of public opinion, spearheaded by critical realists who from their personal experience knew better then applaud and sentimentalize the capriciousness of tramps’ wanderings. Orwell’s and London’s portrayals, as suggested earlier leave very little if no room at all for romantic literary rendering of the tramps’ lives. Although their perspectives on tramps and vagrants have been explicitly illustrated in the preceding chapter examining the social and criminal approaches to this heterogeneous group, a short reiteration of their basic views will be provided to convey their stance on the romantic potential of the ‘nomadic wanderers’.

Orwell maintains that any romantic sentiments on the part of the general public towards the tramps are misguided and unfounded. Similarly, London, although entering the world of literature as an accomplished author of romantic adventurous novels dismisses any appeal of tramping to tramps themselves. Both Orwell and London view the British tramp as a social casualty rather than ‘romantic voyager’, ‘explorer of the unknown’ or ‘aesthetic traveller’. The above mentioned constitute some of the basic arguments favouring the critical approach to the issue of tramps and rejecting their possible romanticizing.

What could then be the cause for the public exhilaration at the purported lure of the tramp’s existence? It is not the objective of this work to give a definite answer to this question but certain speculative effort will be made to hint at a possible conclusion. Without putting a too fine a point on it, it may be argued that the principle cause beyond romanticizing the tramp lies in the public ignorance of reality and purposefully selective approach of writers when narrating the issue to their literary audience. Poets and novelists, while praising the beauty of an independent footloose existence to the reading public, constructed an imaginary alternative image of the peculiarities of vagrant lifestyle while carefully avoiding less appealing aspects of wandering that might not fit the desired romantic image: “Romanticization of vagrancy produced blurred vision about the realities of tramp life” (Crowther 107). Among the features ascribed to vagrant life that were most likely to awaken and enhance the romantic appeal among the readers were immense personal freedom, unrestrained mobility and unpredictability of existence.

One of the elemental features of any member of the general public leading a conventional life is his settled lifestyle - lack of mobility. His everyday life revolves around a limited, well-defined set of tasks binding him to a particular place. Such an individual is tied down to a particular location by his work, family and friends. The loss of a permanent employment, however, inevitably leads to the disruption and eventual breakdown of this lifestyle. In contrast, one of the defining principles of the tramp lifestyle is the lack, or in fact, non-existence of such a monotony. The Vagrant without a permanent employment, has to travel, move in the search of procuring the means of livelihood. Naturally, his everyday life is anything but immobile or fixed; his daily tasks are not related to specific space and his social life is likewise not confined to socializing with a restricted number of individuals.

Among other notable aspects of life of any member of the settled population is predictability of his current as well as future pursuits. His everyday life is bereft of the unforeseen and unknown which is naturally conditioned by the security and immobility this mode of life presents. Much as he would like to he cannot escape this predictable existence without sacrificing all this and causing an irretrievable damage to the network of the already established social relationships. The tramp, on the other hand, is incessantly faced with a new horizon, with each day representing a new set of yet indefinable events that can hardly be foreseen. He can wander from a place to place without causing any damage to his friends and relatives. His acquaintances are recruited almost exclusively from the ranks of the fellow tramps, who share his wandering mode of life.

Yet another element of the sedentary life of any individual is his limited personal freedom. Even supposing that he lives in a democratic society of free-thinking individuals he is bound to have his freedom restricted by various norms, conventions and laws society imposes on him to follow. Provided he wants to remain part of the settled society and wants to preserve the benefits resulting from being a member of this society, he must be prepared to sacrifice part of his freedom. The vagrant, however, does not have to succumb to the pressure of society as he finds himself outside of it. By abandoning his settled existence he is implicitly consenting to having been excluded from the ranks of his fellow citizens, forfeiting the benefits that are due to the members of the society. The bright side to the loss of certain social securities and benefits is the tramp’s infinite personal freedom, unrestrained by social norms and conventions, which he, being no longer a member of the society, is not bound to observe.

If literary proof were needed that even highly distinguished and educated members of the reading public could occasionally get carried away by the lure of the road, then the preface of G. B. Shaw to W. H. Davies’s autobiographical novel The Autobiography of a Super-tramp would serve as a good case in point: “When I think of the way I worked tamely for my living during all those years when Mr. Davies, a free night of the highway, lived like a pet bird in titbits, I feel that I have been duped out of my natural liberty” (Shaw in Davies xii). Elsewhere in the preface Shaw portrays the tramp as a solitary figure who “has the endless trouble of doing what he likes with himself” and someone who “has no orbit” and is “free from divine exploitation” (Shaw in Davies xiii). Although Davies himself only rarely resorts to downright romanticizing and sentimentalizing his wanderings, his narration of a lonely sensation of starry night has an almost poetic air to it: “It seemed as though extra bodies of stars had been drafted that night into the heavens to guard and honour the coming of age of a beautiful moon” (Davies 195). He further concedes to a charm that this form of “open-aired” existence exercised over him: “This seemed to me a glorious life, as long as summer and one had money to buy food in the towns and villages through which he passed” (Davies 195).

The sweetness of life and ecstatic amazement with the open air is best portrayed in R. L. Stevenson poem The Vagabond:

Bed in the bush with stars to see,

Bread I dip in the river-

There is the life for a man like me,

There is the life for ever…

Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,

Nor a friend to know me;

All I ask, the heaven above

And the road below me” (Stevenson 1-3).

In a collection of short novels titled Travel Stevenson narrates his solitary vagrant travels in France. In the first short story titled An Inland Voyage he recalls an encounter with a well-to-do hotel omnibus driver whom he describes as “a mean looking man with a spark of something human in his soul” who would rather trade in his secure existence for travelling: “How he longed to travel. How he longed to be somewhere else, and see the round world before he went into grave” (Stevenson 14). Stevenson finds this urge highly commendable and better than anything a secure life has to offer: “Better a thousand times that he should be a tramp, and mend pots and pans by the wayside, and sleep under trees, and see the dawn and the sunset every day above a new horizon” (Stevenson 14). In another short story, Travels with a Donkey, he hails the unpredictability and aimlessness of his wandering: “to be found by morning in a random woodside nook in Gévaudan not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth, an island castaway - was to find a fraction of my day-dreams realized” (Stevenson 127). His motivation for travelling, he maintains, is travelling alone: “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…” (Stevenson 131). He is preoccupied with the open air of the outer world which he sees as an antithesis to a sheltered housed life inside: “Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature” (Stevenson 156).

George Borrow’s supposed autobiographical novel Lavengro provides a similarly explicit romantic exhilaration of aimless footloose wandering. While it does not directly concentrate on tramps as a particular group of wandering people, it does applaud and glorify the wandering as a form of life: “…from my infancy I was accustomed to travelling and wandering, and looked upon a monthly change of scene and residence as a matter of course…” (Borrow 9). While regarding himself as a scholar, he affirms that he “had not forgotten the roving life, nor its delights” (Borrow 92). Perhaps the most powerful part of the novel in which the sheer pleasure of tasting the life by mouthfuls is to be found in its purest form featuring his alter-ego character engaged in a discussion with his gypsy “brother” Petulengro, whose exalted words represent an ecstatic joy of being alive: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there is likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother, who would wish to die?” (Borrow 164). One can observe from these stirringly romantic words that what is praised and glorified in this novel is not so much the figure of a tramp as the beauty of roofless and rootless wandering under the stars.

The romantic illustrations of vagrant mode of life in British literature have, for the sake of this work been kept short and selective. It has been intimated at the beginning of this chapter that romantic rendering of the tramp’s issue has a limited potential as far as British reality is concerned which is not a revelation given the ‘appeal’ vagrancy presented to the British tramp. Even the above suggested literary attempts at romanticizing the figure of tramps tends, as can be observed, to concentrate more on the external features that this life involved, than on the real practical challenges the tramps as a group were up against. Further still, even the purported outward virtues of the precariousness of the tramping life are nonetheless, subject to strong uncritical romantic bias. If confronted with some of the realistic previously suggested arguments by Orwell and London aimed against the romantic interpretation of tramp’s life, they may well not hold the water and sound rather naïve and misguided, since all three of the supposed privileges of wandering existence – boundless freedom, unpredictability and mobility - can be disproved and dispelled as mythical: “The mystery of the travelling life fostered myths which became so much part of the literary tradition that they were accepted as reality, in spite of their contradictory messages” (Crowther 109). Yet, without the mythical exaltation of the purported attributes of tramp’s life and selective approach of the men of letters to suppress and minimize the hardships the migrating masses had to confront, the romantic image of tramp as a restless, free, nomadic spirit would hardly ever find its way into the minds of the reading public.

4 The Emergence of the American Tramp

While the tramp population in America inevitably shared some common characteristics with their British counterparts, due to the uniqueness of American environment, the vastness of space and other socioeconomic differences, the American tramp became a distinct independent figure and symbol of American society and way of life, far from being a mere transplantation and imitation of its British predecessor.

The word ‘tramp’ as such, had not come to be associated with the homeless unemployed until February 1875 when it appeared as a noun in the New York Times (Pitsula 116). Before the Civil War the word tramp referred to long tiresome journey (Ocobock 19). According to Seelye, tramps in America were almost unheard of and an unknown phenomenon prior the Civil War: “Americans had boasted a beggar-free land, and foreign visitors were almost sure to marvel over this, as well as over the endlessly rocking chairs and iced water” (Seelye 542). To that effect the Civil War is an important milestone in American history, as far as the emergence of tramp population in America is concerned: “This tramp system is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the war; the bummers of our armies could not give up their habits of roving and marauding, and settle down to the honest and industrious duties of the citizen…” (Seelye, 543). After the Civil War masses of jobless vagrants swarmed the country and local authorities were forced to confront the truth that American tramp had become a firmly established reality.

The American tramps, as well the British ones, formed an elusive, incoherent and heterogeneous group that defied any attempt at general classification. Crowther’s claim about the tramps as a group inspiring as irreconcilable emotions in the settled public as fear, pity and envy can be likewise extended to the American environment, with the exception, reflecting on London’s remark that the life of American tramp or ‘hobo’ was somewhat more appealing and thus the American tramps were more susceptible to romantic literary portrayals than the British ones.

What the industrious American society found disturbing was the fact that tramps with their work-shy, reluctant, roaming lifestyle struck at the very heart of protestant moral ethic: “And as we utter the word ‘tramp,’ there arise straightaway before us the spectacle of lazy, shiftless, sauntering or swaggering, ill-conditioned, irreclaimable, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage. He fears not God, neither regards man ” (Pitsula 117). In the light of the fear of the disruptive influence of loose tramp ethic on honest hard-working individual, charity organizations in America strongly opposed any indiscriminate charity which might “demoralize the poor and made paupers of them” (Pitsula 119). Tramps were thus forced to earn the sympathy and compassion of society by reforming themselves and their degenerate work ethic. To that end, various institutions were commissioned to elaborate detailed discriminative studies of those groups of tramps who were eligible for state relief, and those who were deemed unworthy of it, on account of their being physically capable of finding permanent employment.

The embodiment of a tramp individual capable of sustaining hard physical work, yet unwilling to search for one, became the so-called “sturdy beggar” or “professional tramp.” It was largely these healthy individuals, abusing the system of social allowances that the somewhat harsh state policies were targeted at. The Law Relating to the Relief and Care of Dependents, is a crucial piece of legislation, issued in 1898, representing such an attempt at drawing a distinction between the poor unfortunate destitute individuals, who are qualified for the government charity and relief and those who are to be viewed as an unwanted individuals exploiting and abusing the system of government relief. While it refers to the tramps as “able-bodied persons roaming from place to place, asking or subsisting upon charity” (Millis 642), it exempts from such classification similarly conditioned males who are confined to similar existence due to bodily incapacitation and also all females and minors without distinction. This piece of legislation further contains a clause suggesting that “we have to not so much with a question of public relief as of the oppression of frauds and the punishment of those who would live upon private charity” (Millis 642).

There can be no mistaking that compassion and pity were not the underlying principles behind the implementation of this document. Key to monitoring and “educating” tramps was as well as in Britain a system of casual wards in The House of Industry, prohibiting tramps from staying more than three consecutive nights. In 1882 Toronto, the Associated Charities introduced a mandatory labour test for each and every tramp wishing to receive board in the casual ward (Pitsula, 124). In other words, tramps were made to earn their daily bread in the sweat of the brow by working on the stonepile. The incentive behind the introduction of such a scheme was an effort to reduce the number of applications for casual relief and not welfare of tramps. From the above mentioned examples, it is to be derived that state-regulated measures to grant relief to tramps were accompanied and motivated by attempts to regulate, reform and encourage tramps to abandon their foot-loose way of life for the conventional settled existence of a hard-working American individual.

Having briefly suggested possible tools exercised by government and local authorities to prevent tramps from abusing social relief, that is, illustrating how legal and social perspective on the tramp issue can be coordinated, brief examination follows to illustrate how the American society dealt with the existence of tramp population as such. In his novel On The Road Jack London expresses his righteous anger and frustration at having been arrested in the Erie County Penitentiary on the grounds of vagrancy: “What had I done? What crime had I committed against the good citizens of Niagara Falls that all this vengeance should be wreaked upon me?” (London 242). London had been arrested on grounds of vagrancy law, which though differing in particulars from one American state to another, was aimed against the very basis of tramp life – aimless wandering, unsettled existence and begging. The implication of this law meant that any individual meeting certain preset parameters to qualify for a vagrant, could be arrested or fined depending on the legislation of individual states: “If any able-bodied person be found loitering or rambling about, not having the means to maintain himself…he shall be taken and judged a vagrant and guilty of a high misdemeanor” (Millis 648). What made things worse for tramps was that even if they had not been caught in the act of begging, the very fact of their “loitering” and wandering around made them eligible to be arrested as vagrants. Hence the sincere frustration of London for having been arrested without begging for food or sleeping rough: “I had not violated their ‘sleeping out’ ordinance…I had not even begged for a meal, or battered for a ‘light piece’ on their streets. London personifies the legislation against tramps in the symbolical figure of “John Law:” “John Law was abroad in the town, seeking eagerly for the hungry and the homeless…” (London 190). Last but not least, tramps and vagrants, having been arrested for vagrancy and serving their sentence in the county jail were required to perform hard physical labour to make themselves useful to the community: “A sentence to prison without hard labour is not very effective in repressing vagrancy” (Millis 646).

London’s bitter personal experience with the local authorities and law in general is somewhat different from that of W. H. Davies, as narrated in his autobiography The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. His experience with the law seems much more favourable and serving a sentence in penitentiary is portrayed as a highly recommended and advisable way of enduring hardships of cold winter: “We visited, and were entertained, in several jails during this winter, and emerged from the last in the middle of April” (Davies 63). Davies even goes as far as to disclose a corruption of local authorities, being in fact, subsidized for each tramp “arrested” by ignorant taxpayers:… “The marshal gets a dollar each for every arrest he makes…the judge receives three or four dollars for every conviction and the sheriff is paid a dollar a day for boarding each prisoner under his charge…we benefit by a good rest, warmth, good food and plenty of sleep, and the innocent citizens have to pay for it all” (Davies, 59). Nevertheless, he admits that the corrupt system was abolished once the citizens realized the truth: “Seeing how they had been robbed, they deposed several officers and the upshot of it was that travellers never again visited that part of America in quest of comfortable jails” (Davies 64). Although the legislation related to tramps was generally very harsh, as illustrated by personal experience of Jack London, W.H. Davies’ experience hints at somehow softer and corrupt approach of some local authorities.

As mentioned earlier, tramps inspired ambivalent feelings among members of general public. Apart from fear and pity their lifestyle seemed to arouse a measure of envy. Whether justified or not this particular emotion contributed most to the mythical status of tramps in American society and it is due to romantic literary accounts of novelists like Jack London or Jack Kerouac that the image of a tramp as a romantic wanderer remains the most enduring one in the minds of literary public. Among the most attractive features most commonly associated with the lives of tramps in America are personal freedom, restlessness, uncertainty and unpredictability of existence, independence on society and wanderlust. In the works of Jack London tramps (or hobo’s) independence on society turns into a form of a revolt, a political statement and life philosophy.

In his novel The Road London recalls his own experience from youth of tramping in America along with other hobo gangs at the end of nineteenth-century America. He praises the unpredictability and restlessness of an American hobo who “knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance” (London 218). Similarly, Davies in his novel The Autobiography of The Super Tramp, set approximately at the same time period, makes frequent allusions to the restlessness of the tramp’s spirit: “I soon left New Orleans, being possessed with restless spirit” (Davies 123). In his novel On the Road Kerouac refers to the unknown calling and compares it to “the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesized, long a-coming” (Kerouac 8). Later he discloses the source of his life’s joy to be the ignorance of what the future holds: “But why think about that when all the golden land is ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you are alive to see” (Kerouac 135). Jon Krakauer’s novel Into The Wild, set approximately a century after Jack London roamed the country as a hobo, captures a real life story of a young man called Christopher Johnson MacCandless, who, being an enthusiastic reader of London, forsakes his family, friends and all material possessions and embarks on an adventurous and spiritual two-year journey of self-exploration across the entire length and breadth of the United States, leading essentially a hobo existence. He assumes a new identity for himself embodied in his new name “Alexander Super Tramp.” By abandoning his previous conventional life Alex aims to free himself from the oppressive rules imposed by society and becomes a “hobo” from his own conviction. Among the merits of newly discovered hobo life he particularly applauds the sense of unpredictability of such life: “…in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future” (Krakauer 57). Another symbolic feature ascribed to the tramp’s life is an unlimited personal freedom he enjoys: “Driving west out of Atlanta, he intended to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience” (Krakauer 23). London.

Tramp characters are often portrayed as individuals being empowered by irresistible longing and wanderlust driving them on the road: “The Swede sat up and anathematized passionately the wanderlust in man that sent him tramping and suffering hardships such as that” (London 265). London himself confesses what made him turn tramp: “I became a tramp – well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest” (London 274). Davies likewise expresses exhilaration at open air: “…the air clear and fresh above you, which instils new blood in the body, making one defiantly tramp the earth…” (Davies, 152).

Independence is another virtue attributed to tramps, which, however, can be interpreted as a protest against the oppression imposed by society on an individual: “I started to protest, but at that moment his Honour was calling the name of the next hobo on the list. His Honour paused long enough to say to me, ‘Shut up!’” (London 233). Analogically, the hero of Krakauer’s novel Alex MacCandless rejects the middle class ethic and conventional lifestyle of his peers and is portrayed as “an ideologue who expressed nothing but contempt for the bourgeois trappings of mainstream America” (Krakauer 39). Alex’s idealism, thus, springs from his political as well as social conviction.

London’s and Davies’s accounts of ‘hobo’ wandering in America are, from the chronological point of view set in approximately the same period – towards the of the nineteenth century. Davies’s exhilaration by the life on the road , nevertheless, wanes in its crude intensity when compared to London. London’s exhilaration by the open air is, however, echoed by a young idealistic hero of Krakauer’s novel, set about hundred years later, Christopher MacCandless. An intriguing analogy can be drawn between both young men. The driving force behind their resolve to pursue the life on the road was not a sheer ecstatic wanderlust and romantic notions of the freedom of footloose wandering. It was more than that. Both young men, being firmly convinced idealists and believers in their respective worldviews set about proving to the society that an alternative non-materialistic mode of life was within their grasp to reach. Acting on their impulses their staged a protest against social norms and conventions. Each of them saw himself as an individualist defying the collectivism of society, an individualist aware of his unalienable personal rights. Whether the degree of their individualism was far-fetched and misguided is not for me to judge.

Whereas the unshakeable belief in the righteousness of their pursuits was what they shared, what separated them was the measure of aimlessness in their roving. MacCandelson conceived his tramping as a purposeful quest of self-exploration and spiritual reformation. His wandering had a clear purpose and aim to it. He had his own master plan he was bent on fulfilling. London, however, possessed no such goal during his youthful ‘hobo’ experience and his quest, supposing he was following some, was that of purposeful yet aimless nature. Finally, MacCandelson’s adventurous two-year spell, although ending tragically by his death, is a living example that the lure of the road is still present in the contemporary America.


The aim of this work was to provide a brief outline of three basic approaches of society to the issue of vagrancy in Britain and the United States and their corresponding reflections in the works of literature. Tramps have been portrayed as potential criminals invoking fear, social casualties worthy of public compassion as well as romantic wanderers enjoying an enviable unlimited personal freedom. For each of the three emotions the tramps inspired in the general public – fear, compassion and envy – I endeavoured to justify the popular literary portrayals by alluding to ways in which the issue of the roaming dispossessed was perceived and tackled by society as a whole. The first three chapters concerned solely the British reality while the remaining fourth chapter hinted at parallel perspectives on tramps in America.

The emphasis of this work rests on the first chapter, examining a close relationship between compassion and criminalization of tramps and traces the historical origin of this relationship to early seventeenth century marking the beginning of linking Poor law, meant to address the needs of eligible destitute, to repressive Vagrancy legislation punishing those vagrant paupers who were seen to abuse the system of relief. This chapter maintains that the compassion shown to vagrants was not indiscriminate, but rather conditioned by their eligibility, which could be earned by consenting to follow oppressive protective measures of government. Thus, the compassion found its form in an organized provision of relief, which however, was motivated by government’s wish to control and tame the roving masses. One of the oppressive tools of local government to control and monitor the provision of relief to tramps was a system of workhouses. Literary illustrations of the general dislike the workhouse system found with the vagrants is provided. Orwell, London and Greenwood, having experienced living conditions and diet in workhouse themselves, unanimously condemn the realities they encountered. Greenwood, being a journalist, dares spend only a single night in the workhouse never to relive it again and his sole experience is thus based merely on spending a single one night within its walls. London and Orwell, on the other hand, spends a prolonged period in a large variety of workhouses and their experience is inevitably all the richer for that. Nonetheless, all of them join in unanimous condemnation of living conditions in the workhouse. Orwell and London, unlike Greenwood are likewise concerned with the absurdity of the whole relief system, of which the workhouses play their vital part. In particular, they are worried that the stringent rules compelling vagrants to tramp from one workhouse to another make it almost impossible for them to search for honest employment.

The second chapter concerns compassion and fear of tramps in literature. It suggests an objective basis to both contradictory emotions the vagrants aroused in the general public although compassion is portrayed as the more prevalent of the two. This chapter further alludes to possible motivation of tramps to assume their roving existence. While Orwell and London unanimously portray vagrants as social casualties, who did not opt for their mode of life voluntarily, Dickens is more critical and sarcastic in his approach, often viewing tramps as individuals who have made begging their trade and who, applying skilful begging techniques purposefully exploit public sympathy.

In the third chapter I ponder the possibility or romanticizing vagrant’s life in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Britain. While critical social novelists such as London and Orwell are dismissive as regards to the romantic potential of the wandering tramps, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel and George Borrow’s Lavengro suggest otherwise. Stevenson’s and Borrow’s romantic portrayals are maintained to be more concerned with the purported outward attributes of the wandering life rather than with the real objective challenges tramps have to endure. This chapter intends to suggest and define elementary virtues of vagrant mode of life which may well have contributed to the romantic appeal of tramps in literature. Among the purported virtues which were most likely to strike a romantic chord with the public were personal freedom, unlimited mobility and unpredictability of existence.

The final chapter is related to the emergence of tramps in America. While the tramps on both sides of the Atlantic inevitably shared some basic elemental features and likewise confronted suspicion and hostilities of the local government, this chapter intends to narrate the peculiarities of the American ‘hobo’ who experienced comparatively more freedom and comfort in the vastness of American landscape and whose tramping has been often spurred by the attraction that this mode of life presented. London’s tramping novel The Road presents his ‘hobo’ wanderings in joyful, light-hearted manner and on several occasions throughout the narrative he maintains that his tramping was initiated by wanderlust and restless yearning. This is echoed by Davies who in his autobiography The Autobiography of a Super Tramp narrates his experience of tramping in America in fashion not quite different from that of London. Kerouac’s beat novel On the Road, although set more than fifty years later still preserves the indefinable feeling of itchy feet and a desire to explore the unknown. Perhaps the strongest is the romantic appeal of aimless wandering portrayed in the character of Christopher MacCandless, the hero of Kerouac’s non-fiction narrative Into the Wild, for whom the lure of distant horizons turns into a matter of life and death and whose exploration of the wild is closely linked to the spiritual exploration of his inner self.

Tramps and vagrants as characters portrayed in the works by Orwell and London are predominantly depicted with certain partiality on the part of the novelists. This sympathetic account of the difficulties and often hardships of their day-to-day wanderings are based on personal knowledge and experience of both writers . Among the hardships from which the tramps allegedly suffer the most Orwell mentions hunger, enforced idleness and celibacy. He believes that being without permanent employment tramps suffer from lack of intellectual stimulation which proves to be more damaging to them than to an educated individuals. Due to lack of contact with women tramps may resort to homosexual encounters with fellow male counterparts.

London’s critical and compassionate outlook on vagrancy in England is somewhat at variance with his livelier, more joyful and vigorous narrative of his tramping experience in America. London himself maintains in The People of the Abyss that British tramp is in fact a ‘discouraged vagrant’ while his American counterpart is a ‘discouraged worker.’ This analogy I consider fitting as it reflects peculiarities of tramping in both countries with the chief difference being the vastness of American landscape offering tramps an escape from the supervision of local authorities while the masses of the British roving unemployed were kept constantly under the state supervision by the system of workhouses. Workhouses and strict Vagrancy legislation in America were as much part of the vagrants’ every-day lives as they were in England but they were concentrated and made their presence felt in cities separated from each other by large stretches of uninhabited areas where the power of local authorities could be avoided.

These arguments aside, the figure of a tramp, or rather his supposed mode of life fell under the spell of romantic tendencies in England too finding its outlet in glorifying vagrant’s boundless personal freedom and restlessness in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and George Borrow. Still, I believe that their admiration and laudation of the purported pleasures of free wandering life were concerned primarily with the mode of life of an independent traveller who found himself unbothered by law and authorities and who, could afford the luxury of ecstatic enjoyment of being in the open air.
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Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Hardmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1966.

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