Supertramps

The Welsh hobo-poet William H. Davies was born on this day in 1871. Davies was very popular in turn-of-the-century England, especially after being praised by G. B. Shaw as “a genuine innocent” who wrote with “a freedom from literary vulgarity which was like a draught of clear water in a desert.” This comment comes from Shaw’s introduction to The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, Davies account of his six hobo years in North America. He lost a leg while attempting to hop a train to the Klondike Gold Rush, but his book paints an alluring portrait of tramp life. One of the poems Davies includes is “A Drinking Song,” which lifts a glass to the road in the Omar Khayyam spirit:

A Bee goes mumbling homeward pleased,

He has not slaved away his hours;

He’s drunken with a thousand healths

Of love and kind regard for flowers.

Pour out the wine,

His joy be mine….

As a teetotaler, Shaw could not endorse the drinking, but he clearly supported the social criticism implicit in the tramp’s drop-out lifestyle, and clearly enjoyed couching his endorsement of Davies in a mock-disclaimer:

I hasten to protest at the outset that I have no personal knowledge of the incorrigible Super-tramp who wrote this amazing book. If he is to be encouraged and approved, then British morality is a mockery, British respectability an imposture, and British industry a vice. Perhaps they are: I have always kept an open mind on the subject….

Shaw aside, it was the turn-of-the-century social and economic conditions which fueled the popularity of Davies and other tramp-writing. The following is from the opening paragraph of “Road-kids and Gay-Cats,” one of the chapters in Jack London’s autobiographical tramp book, The Road, published just a year before Autobiography of a Super-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. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because—well, just because it was easier to than not to.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.