Took a class this summer at the Newberry Library called Flux Americana: Tramps and Hoboism in American Culture. It ran Wednesdays from 6/8 thru 7/27.
We will explore the shifting cultural attitudes toward the American tramp and hobo as represented in literature, film, and music. Resources include those by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Jack London, Alison Murray, Ben Reitman, Jean Toomer, and Walt Whitman. How do these writers help explain the tramp’s transformation from outcast to everyman? We will also draw upon the John Drury, Dil Pickle Club, Charles Kerr, and Industrial Workers of the World collections at the Newberry. A walking tour of Chicago’s "Towertown" is part of the course.
We really enjoyed this class. I learned a lot of random stuff but mostly I learned how some little things fit in with the big picture. Like all the people after the Civil War who really didn't have any place to go home to. And how Chicago played a big part in the labor movement of the nation. But most of all I loved to find out about this "secret" area in my city that I never knew of before! I have no idea that Chicago was known for hobos, bohemians, and artists in the early 20th century.
The Road, Jack London
Hobohemia, Frank Orman Beck
The Rise & Fall of the Dil Pickle Club: Jazz-Age Chicago's Wildest & Most Outrageously Creative Hobohemian Nightspot, Franklin Rosemont
Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha, Dr. Ben Reitman
Cane, Jean Toomer
Week 1: Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark! The Coming of the Tramp
In Week 1 we will talk about the emergence of the tramp in the late nineteenth century. We will examine how this figure was initially regarded as a social problem but quickly became a source of romance and adventure for a variety of audiences. Murray's film (Allison Murray's Train on the Brain, 2000) shows how this spirit of romance and adventure associated with tramps and tramping survives into the twenty-first century.
Week 2: From Coast to Coast with Jack London
In Week 2 we look at the career of the first "celebrity" hobo, Jack London. In the early 1900s, London produced a series of essays that offer a DIY approach to tramping. London was one of the individuals responsible for rehabilitating the tramp in the essays he wrote for popular magazines.
Week 3: Hobohemia
Week 3 brings us to Chicago, which became the Hobo Capital of the United States in the early 1900s. We look at the response of the Chicago School of Sociology to this new subculture of tramps and hobos taking shape on West Madison Street. We look at the career of Frank Beck, theology professor and minister, who built upon Chicago School's work and began giving tours of "Hobohemia" for a curious public. We will look at original pamphlets and broadsides from Beck's "Reconcilliation Trips" preserved in the John Drury Collection at the Newberry.
Week 4: The Dil Pickle Club
Just off Washington Park, aka Bughouse Square, was located the Dil Pickle Club, which combined intellectual debate and avant garde art with a particular hobo sensibility. In Week 4 we will examine the Newberry's extensive collection of Dil Pickle-related materials and consider how hobos, bohemians, and academics all shared a space and a forum in the 1920s.
Week 5: Tower Town
After two weeks of talking about Hobohemia and the Dil Pickle Club, we will use the work of John Drury, Chicago Daily News reporter, ad a guide for our own walking tour of the Towertown neighborhood. We'll drop by Bughouse Square, the Dil Pickle Club, the Wind Blew Inn, and the Radical Bookstore among other locations. We will visit the sites where hobo culture linked up with bohemian culture.
Week 6: Sisters of the Road, Women Tramps
In Week 6 we look at "women adrift." Anti-tramp laws passed in the 1870s often defined the tramp as a white male over the age of sixteen, although minorities, women and children all took to the road. Boxcar Bertha's autobiography offers a rare account of a woman's experiences on the road - but like most hobo tales, it can't be trusted entirely. We also look at the career of the "King of the Hobos," Dr. Ben L. Reitman.
Week 7: Hallelujah! I'm a Bum
Chicago sociologist Robert Park claimed that the tramp's greatest contribution to our culture was his poetry and song. In Week 7, we trace a long history of tramp and hobo songs and consider how they inspired the labor movement. In our discussion we will draw upon materials in the Newberry's Rosemont-IWW collection.
Week 8: The Great Migration
Tramps and hobos weren't alone in their migratory movements. After the First World War, an immense number of African Americans moved from the South to cities in the North, including Chicago. The seminar ends by looking at the relationship between the Great Migration and the movements of the tramp.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a hobo song we learned about which really says it all.
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