Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 13 Oct 2017

Hard Travellin’ by Kenneth Allsop

Kenneth Allsop died at the age of 53 in 1973, very possibly as the result of a deliberate barbiturate overdose. I was only vaguely aware of him during his life and in my teenage years assumed he was just another rather dull grey BBC news broadcaster. It wasn’t until much later that I became aware that he was something much more than that – an essayist, literary critic, polemicist and pioneering green conservator.

He was also something of a popular sociologist and his gloriously entertaining 1967 examination of the US Hobo culture, Hard Travelin’, is a mix of rollicking storytelling and erudite social history. Allsop takes us on a journey of some 900 miles across the hobo-routes of America and explores the different manifestations of ‘hobo’ life. The American hobo tradition is essentially different to the British ‘tramp’ because the hobo life is not first and foremost driven by deficit, loss or deprivation – although there are elements of all of these to be found amongst the various hobo traditions.

These are men (and sometimes women) who did indeed travel hard. They were the migrant workers, the builders of railroads, the seasonal workers who found they could travel (often illegally) by rail and road and stay almost permanently on the move. The character of the hobo was also often seen as synonymous with dissent and stood as a direct challenge, contradiction even, to the American dream of economic and social security.

The mythology of the solo traveller captured so well by Roger Miller’s popular song, King of the Road, articulated the edgy romance of these ‘knights’ of the highways and byways. But Allsop’s book is an excellent antidote to this over-painted picture and he uses interviews with a (then) new generation of hobos to demonstrate that it is a life on the margins and a culture of alienation. These hobos are hard-faced, sparing with their words and their experiences have certainly left them damaged.

The jacket of the book provides an excellent summation:

It illuminates the profound dichotomy in the American attitude towards the loser - and particularly towards the mobile casual worker, needed and romanticized yet hated and feared because of his nonconformism. It examines the violent antagonism towards migrants' unions and also the hobo's creation of his own legend to compensate for his rough and lonely life. Glorified by poets and lyric writers as the one surviving free man, the hobo is revealed in Mr. Allsop's fascinating portrait as being an inevitable byproduct of the American system, the inhabitant of a strange and separate world. It is a harsh, turbulent and often disturbing story that Mr. Allsop documents; but it is an important and extremely vivid one.

If Allsop’s interviews tell us something about the reality of the hobo life it also asks the important question about why the romantic mythology of the hobo emerged and why it seems to be still so critical to the American psyche. He postulates an interesting answer to that seeming conundrum – the hobo represents the wildness, the unpredictable frontiers that have otherwise been conquered. Allsop puts it this way:

Why amongst all this ebullition, should the hobo be noticed? Yet he does enter into the anxieties and preoccupations of the others. Machine culture brought unparalleled ease of convenience and efficiency to the better off American. Deliverance from frontier drudgery came, nature was whipped and overcome, but to be replaced by another wilderness, that of the apparatus of mass production, mass living, mass organisation, at the heart of which lingers the fear that something irreplaceable and unique has been extinguished..

So, is the hobo the embodiment of the last free American? Can constant mobility challenge the spiritual atrophy of modern existence? It is an ache that is constantly there says Allsop but it is also an urge that will always be resisted by the establishment:

…therefore mobility for its own feckless sake must be held to be bad, for it is the act of a renegade and puts in jeopardy the American declaration of intent.

Sometimes I found Allsop’s prose a bit mannered and long-winded and, of course, much of it is now dated and what was then a ‘modern’ American psychology is now a historical curiosity. But I think there is enough enduring significance in the central thesis and the intriguing anecdotes that will keep you reading - and no-one can deny the range of his exploration.

 There is a 1993 paperback published by Pimlico that can be bought for pence on the internet but you wont pay too much more for a second hand hardback.


Terry Potter

October 2017