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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography

Author: Jim Tully

Publisher: AK Press; 1st Nabat Ed edition (November 1, 2003) (original printing 1924)

Paperback 256 pages.

Finished Reading: 1/17/2017


Amazon Listing


          “The imaginative young vagabond quickly loses the social instincts that help to make life bearable for other men. Always he hears voices calling in the night from far-away places where blue waters lap strange shores. He hears birds singing and crickets chirping a luring roundelay. He sees the moon, yellow ghost of a dead planet, haunting the earth.” – Jim Tully
          An autobiographical romp of the nearly forgotten writer Jim Tully who started his formative years as a tramp riding the rails, dodging railroad detectives, and begging for food on every stop. Tully is considered the co-father, along with Dashiell Hammet, of hard boiled literature. He writes with a blunt, brutal style, occasionally mixing in similes to offset the amoral attitude of the author and his companions. This is the first in the author’s five volume autobiographical underworld collection.
Jim Tully
          It is in itself a slice of life of a long dead slice of Americana. An underground society that no longer really exists. Showing the inner workings of the transient hobo society pre-WWI. Its vagaries, brief friendships, and the often violent encounters between hobos and regular society and amongst themselves.
           He describes the three different strata of the drifter class in those days. The hobos who were poorly paid workers, field hands, who drifted from one poorly paid harvesting season to the next, and who rode the rails clandestinely to save money. The bums who were pure beggars, inclined to do as little work as possible (which describes the author). And the yeggs, the criminals, who went about breaking safes and robbing at every stop. The yegg were at the top of the pecking order, as they usually had the most money and were the most willing to beat down anyone who opposed them.
Cover of the 1928 edition
          It has no true plot and is strung together as a series of vignettes of the author’s remembrances from the road. This is presumably because he did very little but beg, hop trains, and read books stolen from public libraries. There are several other characters whose background he describes in detail, but only a few. The author didn’t seem particularly friendly to others.
          The book, a smash hit in 1924, was made into the film Beggars of Life in 1928 starring Louise Brooks and Wallace Berry. It is a very loose adaptation of the book, stringing together several of the vignettes into a tale of a girl who, after killing her abusive step-father, tries to escape the country with a young vagabond. She dresses as a boy, they hop freight trains, quarrel with a group of hobos, and steal a car in their attempt to escape the police, and reach Canada.  It is notable mainly for being Paramount’s first feature film with spoken words.
Film Poster for 1928's Beggars of Life
          This may not be for everyone’s taste. It has very little detail and a short abrasive style. Not at all nostalgic and extremely open about the criminality and evilness lurking beneath the surface of society, the book is well presented and rightly considered to be a classic.

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