- Hurdling the Social PitContextualizing London's Tramp Diary
If Jack London were here today, he would likely scoff at an in-depth historical examination of the journey detailed in his 1894 Tramp Diary. There is nothing to examine, no great revelations to discover, the motivations were simple, he might say. As London insists in The Road, a collection of vignettes about his tramping experiences, "I went on 'The Road' … because—well, just because it was easier to than not to" (120). But a curse of being one of the world's great literary talents is that there are researchers willing to dissect every detail of your life, even when you insist that no dissection is needed. In this spirit of scholarly denial, this essay argues that London's tramping was a product of broader social and economic undercurrents that are evidenced by the very words London used to suggest otherwise. Additionally, it will explore how the Tramp Diary, hastily scratched in a tattered address book now housed at Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library's Special Collections and Archives, can be used as a tool for teaching students broad historical themes. Not only is it a window to the life and times of London, but it can also be used to connect national trends with local events of the day, even in the Tramp Diary's adopted Utah home.1
London's journey began in Oakland, California, on April 6, 1894. That is when the 18-year-old decided to join Kelly's Army, a group of unemployed men organized by Charles T. Kelly to travel to Washington, DC, and to ask Congress for jobs generated through road building and other public works projects. They planned to meet up with similar "armies" from across the country. When London missed Kelly's departure from Sacramento, he instead ventured out on his own, riding the rails and living life as a hobo until finally meeting up with Kelly in Omaha, Nebraska. Although the young adventurer eventually deserted the army in Hannibal, Missouri, he [End Page 1] continued to travel by train and boat across the country for another few months until arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he boarded a ship back to San Francisco. London's Tramp Diary provides a firsthand account of his adventures and travels through May 31, when he arrived at his aunt's house in St. Joseph, Michigan.
Kelly's Army was one of many nationwide unemployment demonstrations instigated by Jacob Coxey, a self-made businessman from Ohio whose penchant for social reform and political ambitions attracted him to the plight of the American jobless (see Figure 1). A Populist, like fourtime presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, he believed that the government could print its own currency to alleviate economic woes, in defiance of the Gold Standard. In line with these beliefs and concerns, Coxey concocted two pieces of legislation—the Good Roads Bill and the Non-Interest-Bearing Bond Bill—through which the Federal Government could hire idle men to work on infrastructure improvements and issue money to pay for it. Laborers would be paid $1.50 for an eight-hour day, which would help alleviate both unemployment and the poor treatment of the employed through a shortened workday (McMurry 21–33).
Together with larger-than-life activist Carl Browne, Coxey devised an ambitious way to promote his ideas in the winter of 1893–1894. They would organize an army of unemployed men to march to Washington and demand infrastructure jobs—a "petition in boots" as one journalist called it. Known variously as "Coxey's Army," "The Industrial Army," and "The Army of the Commonweal of Christ," the group departed Coxey's hometown of Massillon, Ohio, on Easter Sunday 1894. This first push numbered just 100 or so among its ranks, far from the 100,000 that Coxey hoped to attract by the time they arrived in Washington. Despite the low participation, Coxey succeeded in gaining the attention he wanted from the press. Soon similar companies were forming across the country: Fry and Galvin's Army from Los Angeles; Sander's Army from Pueblo; Scheffler's Army from...