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  • Punks, Prushuns, and Gay-CatsVulnerable Youth in the Work of Jack London and A-No.1
  • Owen Clayton (bio)

In 1911, Jack London received an invitation for a hobo ball (see Figure 1). Hosted by the "Social Science League," the event was to take place on 25 November at San Francisco's prestigious Jefferson Square Hall. It was clearly not for genuine transients and, unsurprisingly, London did not attend.1 He would have seen this invitation, couched as it is in mock hobo dialect, as deriding those who had really been on the road. A former transient who prided himself on being a "blowed-in-the-glass profesh" (The Road 285), in his tramp writings London makes frequent distinctions between experienced hobos, such as himself, and those who were known as gay-cats: "gay-cats are short-horns, chechaquos, new chums, or tenderfeet." The "profesh," he writes, "are the aristocracy of The Road. They are the lords and masters, the aggressive men, the primordial noblemen, the blond beasts so beloved of Nietzsche" (285). In The Road (1907), his book of tramp experiences, London goes to inordinate lengths to prove his status as a member of this transient aristocracy, claiming that he went straight from road kid to profesh: "I practically skipped my gay-cat apprenticeship" (285). Scholars have tended to take him at his word, and to represent his tramping in heroic, hypermasculine terms (see, for example, Feied 23–40; Kingman 50–60; and Labor 64–78). Yet The Road demonstrates insecurity over the historical reality that London was a young and potentially vulnerable eighteen-year-old boy during his days as a hobo. This article is about how he negotiates that vulnerability. The Road is haunted by the spectre of submission to the will of other men, including, but not limited to, sexual submission. London attempts to exorcise this spectre in two ways: first, by portraying himself, borrowing from Rudyard Kipling, as a "tramp-royal" (206); and second, by underplaying the potential dangers to which young, homeless boys were subject. [End Page 76]

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Fig 1.

Invitation for a "hobo ball" received by Jack London in 1911. Courtesy of the Jack London Papers, JL 315, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

[End Page 77]

In 1907, following The Road's publication, London struck up an acquaintance with an older hobo, Leon Ray Livingston, who was better known by his moniker "A-No.1." Livingston would later write several tramp autobiographies, including a fictional account of being on the road with London. This account, From Coast to Coast with Jack London, became the basis for the 1973 film Emperor of the North Pole (1973), starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. This (extremely poor) film adaptation having done little for his reputation, A-No.1 is largely unknown today. Critics have barely mentioned the Livingston-London relationship (see brief discussions in Walker 1–7; Reesman 104n3; and Phillips et al. 19). However, as this article will demonstrate, it is productive to analyse them together because Livingston's work makes explicit what is implicit in London's narratives, specifically the sexual threats faced by transient boys.

Dominance and Sexuality

In a letter to Upton Sinclair, who had written a posthumous account of her late husband, Charmian London claimed that few people had understood his sexuality: "And whatever you [Sinclair] did leave out, was only what you could not, do not, know of Jack. Particularly about sex. But how could you know? You never saw Jack in a multitude of his phases: and you could not know what love, real love in its last, terrific analysis, meant to him in life and in death." Emphasising that this reference to sexuality related to femininity, she wrote a postscript at the top of the letter: "So few knew even the least bit about his many-sidedness. And it is not fair to him or to readers to leave out ANY SIDE OF HIM. His child-side, his womanside (I mean feminine side), his tender side, his love-side" (C. London to Sinclair, n.d.). Despite this admonition, biographers have generally portrayed London as hypermasculine and have shied away from...


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