Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped Americaby Todd DePastino
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In the years following the Civil War, a veritable army of homeless men swept across America's "wageworkers' frontier" and forged a beguiling and bedeviling counterculture known as "hobohemia." Celebrating unfettered masculinity and jealously guarding the American road as the preserve of white manhood, hoboes took command of downtown districts and swaggered onto center stage of the new urban culture. Less obviously, perhaps, they also staked their own claims on the American polity, claims that would in fact transform the very entitlements of American citizenship.
In this eye-opening work of American history, Todd DePastino tells the epic story of hobohemia's rise and fall, and crafts a stunning new interpretation of the "American century" in the process. Drawing on sources ranging from diaries, letters, and police reports to movies and memoirs, Citizen Hobo breathes life into the largely forgotten world of the road, but it also, crucially, shows how the hobo army so haunted the American body politic that it prompted the creation of an entirely new social order and political economy. DePastino shows how hoboes—with their reputation as dangers to civilization, sexual savages, and professional idlers—became a cultural and political force, influencing the creation of welfare state measures, the promotion of mass consumption, and the suburbanization of America. Citizen Hobo's sweeping retelling of American nationhood in light of enduring struggles over "home" does more than chart the change from "homelessness" to "houselessness." In its breadth and scope, the book offers nothing less than an essential new context for thinking about Americans' struggles against inequality and alienation.
Brad D. Lookingbill
Evelyne Savidge Sterne
- University of Chicago Press
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How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America
By Todd DePastino
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The Politics of Hobohemia
On September 1, 1908, a barnstorming band of nineteen hoboes departed
Portland, Oregon, on a 2,500-mile journey across the wageworkers'
frontier. Led by J. H. Walsh, one of hobohemia's premier labor activists
and sidewalk impresarios, the gang jumped aboard a cattle car and rode to
Seattle, where they spent a night in jail for trespassing. A few days
later, they headed east and continued hopping freights across the Great
Plains, preaching the gospel of revolutionary industrial unionism in every
main stem, hobo jungle, and boxcar they encountered along the way. Unlike
the Industrial Armies of 1894, the self-described "Overalls Brigade" had
their sights set not on the nation's capital of Washington, D.C., but
rather on the hobo capital of Chicago, where the fourth annual convention
of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was about to open.
Flamboyant propagandists and fund-raisers, members of the Overalls Brigade
were also active delegates seeking to wrest control of the conflict-ridden
IWW from what they derisively termed the"homeguard," a faction that
favored the ballot box as a path to socialism. As migratories without home
or vote, the hobo delegation rejected ward and parliamentary politics, as
well as the binding contracts painstakingly negotiated by traditional
trades unions. Instead, they advocated direct action, embracing strikes,
sabotage, and other forms of on-the-job protest as the only political
weapons capable of destroying capitalism. The hoboes' detractors called
them the "bummery," warning that a floating population of seasonal workers
could hardly be relied upon as a revolutionary vanguard. But the hour
belonged to the bummery. Proclaiming a millennial vision of "One Big
Union," the hobo insurgents won the day, ousting the homeguard and
dedicating the IWW to direct economic action exclusively.
The Overalls Brigade's triumphant return to the West heralded the dawn of
a new era in hobohemia. No longer mere symbols or foot soldiers in the
struggle against the wage system, hoboes now possessed an independent
political movement of their own, one that promised the emancipation of all
labor. Grave concerns remained, however, about the effectiveness of a
revolution headquartered in the hobo's "Rialto." After all, job shirking,
binge drinking, sexual promiscuity, and family desertion were not exactly
qualities that recommended themselves to leading an international movement
aimed at fundamental social change. But instead of burnishing their
reputations as "honest workingmen," J. H. Walsh and his floating
fraternity celebrated their identities as "sons of rest" who preferred the
"simple life in the jungles" to the workaday world of the homeguard. In so
doing, the bummery propagated a folklore of the hobo that would outlive
both the IWW and the subculture from which it emerged.
The Overalls Brigade itself gave birth to this folklore on its hobohemian
tour of the West. Shortly before the trip, Walsh had organized his men
into a red-uniformed Industrial Union Band that parodied popular gospel
hymns and sentimental ballads for street-corner crowds. In route to
Chicago, the floating delegation peddled ten-cent song sheets that
contained four of their most popular numbers, including "Hallelujah, I'm a
Bum," a decade-old hobo song that the activists transformed into a
Whenever I get
All the money I earn,
The boss will go broke,
And to work he must turn.
Hallelujah, I'm a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout-
To revive us again.
Having "sold like hotcakes" on the road, the song sheets inspired Walsh to
issue an entire book of such parodies upon his return from the 1908
convention. Given the provocative title, Songs of the Workers, on the
Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops-Songs to Fan the Flames of
Discontent, the Little Red Songbook, as the volume came to be known, went
through dozens of editions and remains hobohemia's most important cultural
artifact. Along with the stories and commentaries of the road published in
the IWW's numerous newspapers and pamphlets, the Little Red Songbook
provided hobohemia with a powerful set of myths to enhance its group
definition, vindicate its countercultural status, and mobilize its members
for political action. The impact of this propaganda was swift and
far-reaching. "Where a group of hoboes sit around a fire under a railroad
bridge," noted Carleton Parker in 1914, "many of them can sing I.W.W.
songs without a book."
In addition to fostering communal ties, this new folklore also advanced
the contentious proposition that hoboes, by virtue of their footloose
detachment from the bonds of settled community, were by nature the "real
proletarians" and more revolutionary than other groups of stationary
workers. Assigning hobohemia the world-historical task of "labor's
emancipation," IWW propagandists submerged the racial and gender
components of the hobo's identity under the more potent category of class.
While this strategy accorded with the IWW's official policy of
color-blindness and gender inclusion, it also subtly reinforced the
exclusionary biases upon which the subculture was based. By promoting
hobohemia as the most authentic bearer of proletarian consciousness,
Wobblies, as IWW members were nicknamed, relegated not only the homeguard,
but also women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and a whole host of
immigrant groups from Europe and Asia to supporting roles in the hobo
revolution. The IWW's decade-long reign over the main stem delivered a
floating subculture to the very center of American labor activism. One of
the most enduring legacies of this reign, however, was a Wobbly frontier
myth that venerated the hobo as a manly white pioneer of the industrial
Organizing the Main Stem
For all their talk about direct action, western Wobblies did little
on-the-job organizing in the years immediately following the bummery's
coup. Instead, their first order of business was to stake a claim to the
main stem as the headquarters of their revolution. The same anonymity and
freedom from supervision that attracted hoboes to slave market districts
also drew the Wobblies, for only in the city could activists deliver their
radical message to large numbers of migratories without worrying about
The most effective such activist was J. H. Walsh, who arrived in Spokane
after the 1908 convention to breathe new life into the city's IWW local.
Within the space of a few months, Walsh's innovative soapboxing campaign
not only recruited over a thousand new members, but also established an
organizing model for other locals to follow. The songs, jokes, street
theater, and fiery sermons used in Spokane soon became part of the
Wobblies' stock-in-trade on main stems throughout the West. One memorable
routine began with a speaker shouting, "I've been robbed! I've been
robbed!" As a crowd gathered, the orator then delivered his punch line:
"I've been robbed by the capitalist system!"
The IWW's claims to the main stem did not go uncontested. Indeed, Walsh's
high-profile organizing efforts in Spokane sparked a fierce struggle over
urban public space, a struggle that would take place in dozens of
hobohemian districts over the next decade. To counter the growing power of
Walsh's local, which Walsh effectively wielded to boycott Spokane's
employment agencies, city officials pulled the Wobblies' soapbox out from
under them by banning street-corner orations. In response, hundreds of
Wobbly hoboes hitched freights to the city to defy the ban and serve their
time in prison.
By the time Spokane capitulated to the protesters in March 1910, similar
free speech fights were breaking out all over the wageworkers' frontier.
With the notable exceptions of San Diego, where the dynamiting of the Los
Angles Times building sparked the official suppression of street speaking,
and Everett, Washington, where the conflict started over the IWW's support
of striking sawmill workers, these pioneering free speech campaigns were
launched not to protect American civil liberties or the First Amendment.
Rather, Wobbly activists fought to preserve hobohemia's collective
autonomy and to challenge the stranglehold that employers and their
recruiting agents had on the hobo job market. As peace descended on
Spokane, another fight erupted in Fresno when an agent complained to
police that sidewalk agitators were damaging his efforts to recruit
workers for a dam construction project. When the city revoked the IWW's
speaking permit, the Industrial Worker responded with the call of "All
Aboard to Fresno," and hundreds of Wobblies arrived from as far as St.
Louis to join the protests.
In addition to marking their territories through free speech fights,
Wobblies also set about the quieter task of delivering basic services to
their hobo clientele. Strategically located in the heart of the main stem,
IWW halls offered kitchens, beds, reading rooms, employment information,
and large meeting halls, where hoboes congregated on a nightly basis.
Wobbly halls, observed Carleton Parker, "are not so much places for
executive direction of the union as much as gregarious centers where the
lodging house inhabitant or the hobo with his blanket can find a light, a
stove, and companionship. In the prohibition states of the West, the
I.W.W. hall has been the only social substitute for the saloon to these
Chicago organizer Ralph Chaplin kept the distinct needs of hoboes in mind
as he planned to open IWW offices on West Madison Street. "The outlook of
the stiffs on life was different from that of homeguard mass-production
workers," explained Chaplin. "The true migratory had no home. He needed a
place to park his 'bindle' and to brew an occasional pot of 'java' in
addition to flopping on the floor." It was the need to provide lodging, as
well as a social center, that especially prompted Chaplin to organize a
West Madison Street hall. Although Chicago was the site of the IWW's
founding convention, its general headquarters, and both the Russian
propaganda and Jewish recruiting centers, the city had no place expressly
for English-speaking migratory workers until 1914. Russian and Jewish
members, stated Chaplin, were contemptuous of migratories who showed up
with their packs and expected to flop at their halls overnight. So Chaplin
and others raised funds for a hobohemian hall on West Madison that quickly
became a mecca for hoboes throughout the wageworkers' frontier.
In establishing their presence, Wobblies challenged not only city
officials, the chamber of commerce, and employment agencies, but also the
main stem's notoriously popular commercial life. Through their cultural
programs and institutions, the IWW sought to rival the saloons, theaters,
gambling dens, and prostitution resorts for control over the hearts,
minds, and dollars of wintering migratories. Indeed, Wobblies castigated
municipal officials for not enforcing anti-vice codes on the main stem.
Sounding more like Anthony Comstock or Carry Nation than Joe Hill, the
Industrial Worker complained that "little is said by the respectable
citizens about the permanent dens of vice which smell to heaven, and which
line the streets of the tenderloin quarter, and which need a thorough
fumigation like that dealt out to Sodom and Gomorrah." Less strident was a
migratory who testified that he joined the IWW for the cultural
alternative it offered to the "Rialto":
Have you ever thought of how we, the workers in the woods, mines,
construction camps or agricultural fields, are really approached and
"entertained" when we visit our present centers of "civilization" and
"culture"? What is the first thing we meet? The cheap lodging house, the
dark and dirty restaurant, the saloon or the blind pig, the prostitutes
operating in all the hotels, the moving picture and cheap vaudeville
shows with their still cheaper, sensational programs, the freaks of all
descriptions who operate on the street corners, from the ones selling
"corn removers" and shoestrings to various religious fanatics and
freaks. Did you ever see a sign in the working class district pointing
the way to the public library? I have not. Did you ever meet a sign in
any one of the rooming houses where we are forced to live, advertising a
concert or a real play of any of our great writers, such as Ibsen, Shaw,
Suderman, Gorky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare or others? Never.
Responding to this perceived need for cultural uplift, the IWW nurtured a
remarkably far-reaching intellectual life on the main stem. In prominent
hobohemian cities like Chicago and San Francisco, hobo districts gained
reputations as centers of cultural activity, drawing intellectuals and
bohemians from bordering neighborhoods. In addition to the Wobbly halls
themselves-which ran regular programs of films, concerts, plays, lectures,
debates, and discussion groups-radical bookstores also played an important
role in organizing hobohemia's intellectual life. "In every large city
there are hobo book stores which make a specialty of radical periodicals,"
explained one migratory, "for even if the hobo does not generally belong
to a socialistic society, he has been taught to think about class
struggle. He may read the Hobo News, or he may read Jack London, or the
Masses, or the Industrial Standard." Nels Anderson concurred that the hobo
was "an extensive reader" who disapproved of the "Capitalist press,"
adored Jack London, and passed along reading material as soon as he
finished it. Anderson also attributed the popularity of radical bookstores
on the main stem to the hobo's hesitation to use the public library,
"dressed as he usually is."
Possessing the flexibility typical of hobohemian institutions, bookstores
not only served as a substitute for the library, but also for the saloon,
restaurant, and even lodging house. Bookstores on Chicago's main stem, for
example, collected mail, held items for safekeeping, and sometimes hosted
lodgers. Virtually all served as meeting places for radicals. The Radical
Book Shop on Chicago's North Clark Street, for example, was a favorite
haunt of IWW organizers and officers, and also "a hangout for radicals of
all shades of red and black, as well as for the Near North Side
intelligentsia." The Clarion Book Shop, on the other hand, had only loose
ties to Wobblies, although the store's owner was active in hobohemian
politics. Perhaps the most prominent bookstore on Chicago's main stem was
the Hobo Bookstore, also called the Proletariat, located on West Madison
Street one block away from the IWW general headquarters. Daniel Horsley,
the store's proprietor, gave frequent lectures "along Marxian lines" and
entertained activists of all political affiliations.
Excerpted from Citizen Hobo
by Todd DePastino
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Todd DePastino is an independent scholar in Pittsburg.
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