Jack London: “The Road”

Published in 1907, The Road is Jack London’s reflection and commentary on hobo life at turn-of-the-century America.  He based this book on his 1894 experiences as a hobo and convict for vagrancy.  It covers many of the same themes considered in The People of the Abyss: the ability of working people to survive in the face of long odds and the corruption of states and the oppression of the poor through institutions controlled by the powerful such as the prison, the courts, and the police.  He does not exert much energy in political lectures or expose his socialism.  In some ways this makes it a stronger work.  One reason for its strength is that London seems to prove that the working poor are not necessarily the hopeless, exploited masses described in The People of the Abyss.  Instead they show the ability to create alternative structures of power and subsistence.  His description of American hobos shows that it was not necessarily better “managament” that the working poor needed, but instead a release from the crushing hand of the state.

London begins with a story showing what excellent liars hobos could be.  He frames his illustration as an apology to a woman in Salt Lake City that he convinced to provide him subsistence.  He made an interesting point on how the ability to tell stories, invent a new past, and recreate ones identity is not only made easier by the anonymity of the hobo lifestyle, but was a requirement for survival.  I must admit a degree of attraction for their ability to put on new masks at will, even though this skill seems often used to run a game on the others.  A flexibility with the truth allows us in a class society to challenge some of the rigid boundaries imposed on us by the elite.  In the same way that a masquerade allows the transgression of class lines.

The next chapter examines some other skills of the hobo, the most important of which is the “holding down” of the train.  This meant maintaining their dwelling space despite the efforts of the workers to kick them off the train.  Again, the reader is struck by how the hobos had to create a unique set of skills that are not only necessary for hobos but seemingly easily acquired when the need approached.  A tool of power is the fear of the unknown.  How many people are stuck in boring jobs, dull marriages, or hideous monotony because they fear the unknown?  It is easier to be oppressed then to brave a life of freedom.  It is not surprising that so few people try to live free.  In this section of The Road, London reminds us how quickly we learn and how survival is not as difficult as we sometimes imagine.

In London’s mind the tramp life seems to exist between the natural institics and the civilized world.  When discussing a memory of a brutal beating of two children and a women he wrote: ”

Well, and what of it? It was a page out of life, that’s all; and there are many pages worse, far worse, that I have seen. I have sometimes held forth (facetiously, so my listeners believed) that the chief distinguishing trait between man and the other animals is that man is the only animal that maltreats the females of his kind. It is something of which no wolf nor cowardly coyote is ever guilty. It is something that even the dog, degenerated by domestication, will not do. The dog still retains the wild instinct in this matter, while man has lost most of his wild instincts — at least, most of the good ones.  Worse pages of life than what I have described? Read the reports on child labor in the United States, — east, west, north, and south, it doesn’t matter where, — and know that all of us, profit- mongers that we are, are typesetters and printers of worse pages of life than that mere page of wife-beating on the Susquehanna.” (226)

The relationship between the hobos and the law is explored in the next few chapters.  London was arrested, along with some other hobos, for vagrancy and sentenced to 30 days in jail.  London experienced first hand the capriciousness of the judicial system.  He was convinced he could say his peace to the judge, and was shocked when he was treated superficially like all other convicts.  In almost a humorous display of naivete, London recalls his sense of moral outrage and his desire to cling to his very American conception of rights and justice.  In reality, however, justice had but a small role in the decisions of these courts.  “I’d show what an American boy could do when his rights and privileges had been trampled on the way mine had. I had been denied my right of trial by jury; I had been denied my right to plead guilty or not guilty; I had been denied a trial even (for I couldn’t consider that what I had received at Niagara Falls was a trial); I had not been allowed to communicate with a lawyer nor any one, and hence had been denied my right of suing for a writ of habeas corpus; my face had been shaved, my hair cropped close, convict stripes had been put upon my body; I was forced to toil hard on a diet of bread and water and to march the shameful lock-step with armed guards over me -and all for what? 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? I had not even violated their “sleeping-out” ordinance. I had slept outside their jurisdiction, in the country, that night. I had not even begged for a meal, or battered for a “light piece” on their streets. All that I had done was to walk along their sidewalk and gaze at their picayune waterfall. And what crime was there in that? Technically I was guilty of no misdemeanor. All right, I’d show them when I got out.” (241-242)

“The Pen” turned out to be a place as exciting and dynamic as the tramp lifestyle itself.  They conveyed messages, ran an underground economy, and shared stories.  They all had unique backgrounds, coming from many nations, but all shared a common history of being jailed for crimes against the bourgeois life (debt, vagrancy, theft). “Our hall was a common stews, filled with the ruck and the filth, the scum and dregs, of society — hereditary inefficients, degenerates, wrecks, lunatics, addled intelligences, epileptics, monsters, weaklings, in short, a very nightmare of humanity. Hence, fits flourished with us. These fits seemed contagious.” (253)

The rest of the book details different aspects of tramp life, including their diverse backgrounds and “monicas.”  He also documents his participation in “Kelly’s Army,” which showed the ability of the hobos to participate directly in political agitation.  The final chapter of The Road goes back to the question of law and order and considers the paradox that the hobo is almost a necessity because of the large number of people employed in regulating them.  An entire industry of “bulls” was sustained by the hobo lifestyle.  And in an interesting dialectical way, the hobos and the enforcers danced in the towns, rail stations, camps, and jails of the great American interior.

Throughout The Road we are face with numerous examples of hobo ingenuity, creativity, adaptation, flexibility, and even freedom.  If we learn anything from this tale it should be that the hobos prove that we do not need our bosses.  The world outside of our cubicles and offices and cookie-cutter homes is only as scary as you make it.

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One response to “Jack London: “The Road”

  1. Pingback: Langston Hughes, “Not Without Laughter”; Work, Mobility and Freedom | Neither Kings nor Americans

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