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  • Human DocumentCharmian London's Role in the Composition of The Road
  • Iris Jamahl Dunkle (bio)

In 1907, Jack London published The Road, his first-hand account of life on the road as a tramp.1 The essays first appeared serially in Cosmopolitan Magazine and then were collected and released as a book by Macmillan later that same year. But this upbeat collection of interconnected essays wasn't the first time London had written about the subject. In fact, the book was a significant revision of his earlier, less successful essay also titled "The Road" which he'd written in 1896 when he was only twenty years old. Between his early essay and the final book of connected essays, huge shifts occurred in his point of view. London's early essay was one of observation, wherein he viewed the tramp as an outsider, people who existed on "the ragged edge of nonentity" ("The Road" 65). His scholarly tone is enhanced by allusions to Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his adoption of the pronoun "we" as if he were a member of his middle-class audience instead of someone who had actually lived as a tramp himself. Indeed, he "only hints at his own personal experience" (Raskin 64). When London describes the different classes of tramps like the "Stew Bum" and "The Profesh" he renders them as two-dimensional, omitting the "character studies" he'd noted in his journal of the men he'd observed during his travels (Raskin 64). He even goes so far as to compare the life and ways of the tramp to those of an exotic unknown, "the inhabitants of the Cannibal Islands" ("The Road" 66).

This approach was one his audience would have been quite familiar with. During the late 1890s, the image of the tramp occurred frequently in newspaper stories, magazine articles, satirical cartoons, dime novels, and vaudeville melodramas (Durica 471). According to Frederick Feied, London's early "superficial" depiction of the tramp was in line with other fictional treatments of the late 1890s "which made little or no attempt [End Page 19] to develop either the character or the philosophy of the hobo or to understand his position" (15). Most depictions were written by authors who had little knowledge about this subject. Ironically, London did have first-hand experience but chose not to incorporate all of it into his account.

London's symbolic, two-dimensional tramp would again appear in several lesser-known short stories and his essays, "How I Became a Socialist" (March 1903), "The Tramp," (February through April of 1904), and "What Life Means to Me" (March 1906). However, one begins to see a transition in his point of view about how he represents the tramp in his short story "The Apostate," which he completed writing on March 29, 1906. The story was published as part of a special issue of Cosmopolitan devoted to the negative impact of child labor. In London's story, the protagonist, Johnny, leaves his grueling life as a jute mill worker after he becomes ill to catch a train and become a tramp. In the final moments of the story one sees Johnny leave behind his nearly religious devotion to work and the family that depends on him for the freedom and risk offered by the life of the tramp: "[h]e passed out of the house and down the street. A wan delight came into his face at the sight of the lone tree. 'Jes' ain't gonna do nothin',' he said to himself, half aloud in a crooning tone. He glanced wistfully up at the sky, but the bright sun blinded and dazzled him" (134). Johnny feels delight when he sees a natural object like the lone tree because he has spent his life as more machine than boy. He is thrilled to experience the natural world and to finally have freedom to anticipate but he is blinded by the sun because he has never really lived under it. Johnny is a complex character who has embraced the tramp's philosophy to "dream and wander" and whose epiphany invites the reader to understand that sometimes there can always be a sad...


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pp. 19-31
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