Monthly Archives: July 2009

And I misspelled the name. It’s Livingston.

Sometimes you write for a while and then discover that what you’ve written is irrelevant. Here’s something I worked on for a few hours before tipping it into the trashcan.

The ambivalent fascination with the tramp as an embodiment of hyper-mobility persisted into the twentieth century fed by tramp autobiographies such as Ray Livingstone’s, Life and Adventures of A-no. 1: America’s Most Celebrated Tramp Written by Himself, “the true story of a blasted life.” Livingstone was known nationally by his moniker, A-no.1 even before publishing his memoir at age 37. The New York Times reported Livingstone had “traveled more than 500,000 miles, at a total cost of $7.55, riding on top of cars and underneath freight and passenger cars” (April 5, 1908) though his own account was slightly more modest: “I ‘hit’ the road on the 24th of August, 1883, and the total mileage on the 1st of May, 1910, was 471,215 miles, and my cash expenditures for transportation, exclusive of unavoidable street car and ferry boat charges were $7.61” (137). Livingstone’s narrative relates his travels through South America, Germany, the continental United States and the Klondike, episodes replete with strange figures and remarkable events which illustrate his initiation into life on the road.

The journey begins when, after getting in trouble at school, he leaves home and books passage aboard a river steamboat to Sacramento, where he spends several days until learning “there were bears to hunt in the Sierra Nevada, eighty miles east” (6). Carrying his .22 rifle, he buys a train ticket to Colfax. His funds depleted, he trades the gun to a brakeman for a ride to Truckee. He sleeps all night under a berth in a sleeper car, and by the time he wakes up in Winnemucca he is hungry, dead broke, and homesick. Struck by his youthfulness, the station agent’s wife feeds him. Already Livingstone is adapting to the road. He tells her that his parents are dead and he is bound for Chicago to find a lost uncle. The station agent, his wife and some of their friends take up a collection and he departs, arriving days later in Omaha where he is unsuccessful in finding work. “I resolved there and then to hustle,” Livingstone remarks, “as I had an idea that this world owed me a living, work or no work” (11). Hopping a stock train to Chicago. his money once again spent, he sneaks into saloons for free lunches and sleeps in the bushes of public parks. “I was forced to associate with the off-spring of the slums,” he notes, “and quickly forgot the refined English used in conversation at home, and in its stead acquired the argot of the toughs.” The weather grows colder. Livingstone resolves to head south.

Arriving in New Orleans on Christmas Day, 1883, he survives by stealing bread and milk from the front steps of houses and sleeps on the wharves “under the tarpaulins covering the cotton bales” (12). A chance encounter with the master of the Laura Jane, a schooner bound for Central America, who is in need of a cabin boy leads to employment. For two weeks they sail, Livingstone beaten repeatedly in order to push him to work harder, until the ship reaches Belize. Once in port Livingstone promptly deserts. He writes his parents a pathetic letter explaining his plight. He meets a woman who, struck by his resemblance to her recently deceased son, takes care of him. Casting about for some means of subsistence, he convinces her husband to employ him as a clerk in the commissary of a mahogany camp. With a crew of laborers, they paddle up the Rio Hondo in dugouts, camping in the jungle along the way. Livingstone boards with Captain Jones, the head of the mahogany camp and discovers such fare as “roasted baboons, fried parrots, turtle and armadillo stews, tapir steak, iguana, monkey soup, etc.” yet he refuses to eat fried snakes (22). Stricken with “Black Swamp Fever,” he returns to Belize for medical care and learns his parents have sent him a draft for 100 pesos. At the suggestion of Sr. Gonzales he travels to Champerico in Guatemala to depart homeward from the Pacific Coast.

A series of reversals– the outbreak of a Yellow Fever epidemic, a hurricane– eventually compel Livingstone to travel to Mexico City, 1200 miles distant, on foot and, occasionally, muleback. In el DF he learns an election has stoked antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants and he exploits this social tension to his own advantage, alternately claiming to those whose charity he seeks that his father is a bishop or a mason. The narrative takes on a much harder tone at this point. Livingstone, roughly twelve years of age, appears to be a competent operator. He begs secondhand clothes which an acquaintance sells so that they can split the profits. In this way he purchases his own suit in expectation of a return to the United States. “I didn’t dare show myself with my Mexican outfit before white people,” he explains (29). Over the next several weeks Livingston lives in a “nice boarding house, and [has] a fine time in general” until, having “‘done’ the city,” he writes, “I left on a ‘hobo-ticket’ via the Mexican Central for El Paso, Texas” (30).

He gambles away all of his money at roulette in a Socorro, New Mexico gaming house, going so far as to beg money and sell his suit– an experience that puts him off gambling altogether. In Albuquerque he is arrested for vagrancy and again, he is rescued by strangers. The owner of a carpet store rescues Livingstone from prison, outfits him in a good suit and extracts from him a promise to work for at least a year., a pledge he is unable to keep:

Faithfully I kept this promise for three long days, then the strange, irresistible something called the ‘Wanderlust’ seized me, and after supper I pulled off the fine clothes he bought for me and donned my old ragged overalls in their stead, and after leaving a note telling Mr. Hellwig how steady life and sudden ‘Prosperity’ were killing me, I slipped away into the darkness– an irredeemable wanderer. (32).

Days later he arrives in Salt Lake City whence he crosses the desert and comes to Lathrop, California, 97 miles from San Francisco. Yet Livingstone is not going home. He meets a tramp named Frenchy, a recent parolee from San Quentin, headed South who convinces him to come along. Frenchy becomes Livingstone’s tutor, teaching him, for example, that “‘a Gay Cat… is a loafing laborer, who works maybe a week, gets his wages and vagabonds about, hunting for another ‘pick and shovel’ job. Do you want to know where they got their monica (nickname) ‘Gay Cat’? See, Kid, cats sneak about and scratch immediately after chumming with you and then get gay (fresh). That’s why we call them “Gay Cats”’” (34). Frenchy gives instruction on the best methods to ride a brakebeam and has Livingstone say a prayer every night: “‘I solemnly promise never to associate with anyone in whose company I would be ashamed to pass my mother’s home in broad daylight,’” a moral code he is convinced spares him from “joining that army of tramps whose inevitable destination is the ‘Abyss’” (38). They arrive in Pensacola and before parting Frenchy gives Livingstone his nickname, A-no.1. Newly christened, he goes to Jacksonville, Savannah, and Atlanta, where he sells newspapers. In Charleston he signs on with a German steamer transporting phosphate as a waiter, though it turns out the captain is actually seeking a coal passer. After four and half weeks at this dirty and difficult job he arrives in Hamburg where he is cheated of his pay and threatened with arrest as a stowaway. “I never forgot this lesson,” Livingstone recalls, “and made good use of my new hard earned knowledge later on” (51).

Pittsburgh ca. 1907

Fourteen thousand tall chimneys are silhouetted against the sky, along the valley extending from McKeesport to Pittsburg; and these fourteen thousand chimneys discharge their burning sparks and smoke incessantly. The realms of Vulcan could not be more somber or filthy than this valley of the Monongahela.

The foundries and smelting-works are up-reared in serried ranks farther than eye can reach over the surrounding countryside. On every hand are seen burning fires and spurting flames. Look where one will, nothing is visible save the forging of iron and the smelting of metal. From thousands upon thousands of these plants the thud of steam-hammers and the hissing of escaping steam smite aggressively on our ears. One can hardly imagine it to be the conscious labor of human beings; the thundering tumult, blinding flame, and choking steam which surround us, rather suggest a horrible calamity fallen upon the land. From above, soot, ashes, and glowing embers rain in a steady shower, as though from some volcanic crater; indeed it is difficult to believe all this chaos to be wrought by human hands. It is like the nether world of Pluto, the valley of Hades– of eternal night. Only the imagination of a Dante could depict the horrors of a hell so dreadful as that to be found on the Monongahela, and well might every newcomer be addressed in the words of the Divine Comedy: “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate!” (“All hope abandon ye who enter here!”)

In this mephitic atmosphere, mist-laden, the tolling bell performs its solemn function in a manner suggestive of some tired and struggling creature, while the funeral cortege wends its sorrowful way slowly towards the distant churchyard.

Along the valley below, the workmen’s colony and the mighty conglomeration of forges and factories unfold themselves to our view. Pittsburg, Homestead, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, follow on each other like links in an interminable chain. The impression given by the sight of this series of gigantic industrial hives is indescribable and horrible in the extreme. It may best, perhaps, be characterised in the language of the Americans themselves: “Pittsburg is Hell with the lid off.”

The Inner Life of the United States (1907) by Monsignor Count Vay de Vaya and Luskod, Apostolic Proto-notary, P.D.HH., KC.I.C.


Free Write

Freewrite July 3, 2009


Youth and mobility in the Machine Age.

In terms of American literature easily the most iconic figure of youth-in-flight is Huckleberry Finn, whose plans “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” have been taken up by generations of scholars as a national-archetypal urge for autonomy and adventure, a desire to flee the confinements of embalmed Sunday afternoons and starched collars in quest of the rough sprawl of the unincorporated zone of the frontier (Twain 296). That it is the territory he seeks to explore– a space constructed by at least a preliminary mapping– rather than Africa’s interior or the Arctic pole tells us that the trajectory of his prospective journey will remain within limits. If each last hectare there has not been completely surveyed, if the country still contains surprises, then Huck remains within the pale of the domestic boundaries of a nation already well advanced in the process of racially-cleansing and repopulating the last gaps between the post-colonial seaboard of the east and the boomtowns of the west.

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, thirty or more years before its publication, Twain’s novel evinces a nostalgia that would subsequently grow more acute. And though its open ending can be seen as simply an enterprising writer’s creation of an opportunity for the further exploitation of proven literary materials, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes a tacit admission that the character of continental exploration has long since shifted from an age of outright discovery to an era of navigating the terrain between small towns and settlements. The reading public who first cut the book’s pages would likely be familiar with a sense of heterogeneity and heteronomy– the increasing complexity of social life and the rise of forces beyond any immediate or local control— against which so many writers and thinkers of the period contended. Huck’s escape from widow Douglas and St. Petersburg, then, can be only temporary and provisional, and if according to the manner of the dime novels after which Adventures is fashioned Huck was succeeded by a Huck, Jr. then his son– certainly his grandson– would be beating it from harvest to jungle by riding blind baggage.

This consonance between rugged frontiersman, rambling truant, and floater might account for the contradictory responses to the tramp. Cresswell notes the changing perceptions of the itinerant homeless, the gradual shift from their identification with outcast barn-burners to pie-filching bindlestiffs. The cinematization of the type with the advent of Chaplin’s comic Little Tramp, however, never entirely stripped him of a subversive charge: comedy is a genre of social disruption even if there is an expectation that events will be recuperated so that in the end the joke’s not on us. We might therefore with profit consider what Huck Finn would look like were his story told in a different vein. Part of the power of Twain’s narrative is the extent to which he is willing to show us the depravity of Huck’s life with Pap. At certain points in the plot– the beatings, the drunkenness, the invective– Twain seems intent on forcing his readers to hurt– on making them feel it when Huck sits all night with a loaded rifle next to the unconscious body of his father, who has collapsed in a stupor after attempting to kill him: “I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, and then I laid it across the turnip barrel, pointing towards pap, and set down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along” (42).

A hard-boiled Huck would be deprived of such controlled gestures at sentiment or even humane burlesque. Already in Twain’s novel the violence of the lynch mob and the cavalier cult are depicted with flashes of dramatic intensity which highlight their intolerability– cruelties far from incidental yet neither truly systemic. The mise-en-scene’s moment in history– the pre-anomic phases of industrialization– permits a commensurability of subjective experience with the objective social world and in this regard guarantees an affective logic: Huck may be so sickened at the death of Buck Grangerford that he is incapable of describing how it went, but that inability to tell the details cannot be confused for numbness. Huck, were he narrated into the realm of the road-kid, subjected to anthropometric methods, and interpreted according to the totalizing vision of Spencerian social science, would become purely particular to himself only after a process of abstraction. The Youth Concept– the outcome of a discursive convergence of statistical research, synthetic sociology, and the post-naturalist text– pulls its subjects– Machine Age Huckleberrys– in both directions by means of an inversion: Youth’s primacy is as a category particularized down to a singularity.