Sunday, November 20, 2016

Jack Kerouac and The Hobo Ethical Code of 1889

Lee Marvin as hobo "A-No. 1" in Emperor of the North, a classic that may have been loosely based
in part on Jack London's The Road

Regular readers of The Daily Beat need no edification on the connection between Jack Kerouac and hobos (or hoboes, if you like -- both terms are acceptable). Back in 2010 we published a post containing a link to The Hobo Code, the hobo visual language used to communicate important information to each other (click here). That blog post also contains a list of hobo lingo. The former is from the National Hobo Museum and the latter is from Wikipedia. I have investigated the veracity of neither. Nevertheless, both may provide interesting glimpses into hobo culture.

I recently ran across this piece on Open Culture: The Hobo Ethical Code of 1889. It sets forth 15 rules for hobo living that were supposedly adopted by the Hobo National Convention (they still have one in Britt, Iowa -- click here). Jack, in his travels, certainly lived some of these rules. I'm thinking in particular about #1, "Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you." Jack certainly marched to the beat of his own drummer. And #15 -- "Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday." -- reminds me of the time he gave a shirt to a fellow hitchhiker (in On The Road) or selflessly shared his cigarettes, grub, booze, etc. with fellow travelers.* Jack lived other items in The Hobo Code as well. Can you identify them? For sure, Jack ignored #6: "Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos."

On a related note, if reading about life on the road -- particularly hobo life -- appeals to you, I recommend you read Jack London's The Road and Jack Black's You Can't Win. We've mentioned these books in previous posts. They are fascinating firsthand accounts of the hobo life, and were influential on Kerouac and other Beat writers. You can get London's book here. I didn't find a free version of Black's book on-line, but it's pretty cheap on Amazon and I'm sure other sites. I've read that the Robert Aldrich film, Emperor of the North, was loosely based on London's book and one about London by hobo author, Leon Ray Livingston, who went by the name A-No. 1. I haven't verified the latter beyond Wikipedia. We now live in a post-truth world anyway, so I'll be forgiven if I am perpetuating misinformation. Anyway, here's the trailer: It's probably not an accurate representation of real hobo life, but I remember seeing it when it first came out and it made an impression on me, mostly because of the testosterone-fueled acting by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine.

Note that some distinguish the term "hobo" from "tramp" and "bum" in that they see hobos as impoverished migrant workers, tramps as those who work only when they have to, and bums as those who don't work at all. From my readings, I'm not sure those distinctions hold water in reality. I try to explain that to my students all the time: we're a species that lives to categorize and yet those categorizations and resulting labels are not as precise in the real world as they seem in theory.

In any event, Jack Kerouac -- if not a hobo himself - lived a hobo-esque lifestyle at times and was not averse to hanging out with these itinerant masters of living on the cheap, beholden to no one and nothing except The Hobo Code.

*I know, I know. One should not assume that because Sal Paradise does something in On The Road that it actually happened in real life. However, in this case I think we an be confident that this or something like it was a Kerouaction (see The Beat Handbook).

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