Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Road – Jack London

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 19, 2012





A journey can be a fragment of hell – Bruce Chatwin

I have always admired the writing of Jack London for its vigorous and virile prose, brilliant narration of life and struggles in the wild where men, women and animals armed with tenacity and courage pit themselves against hostile natural conditions with unpredictable outcomes. I also think that London has written some of the greatest novels and short stories that have ever been penned. So much so, that I think London’s “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” should be mandatory reading for every child and adult. His short story “A Piece of Steak” covering the travails of an ageing boxer and the brutal dynamics in the boxing ring stretching to an eternal ten rounds remains my all-time favourite. I like the story for its starkness, sadness and allusion to a universal human condition and its derivative wisdom. Therefore, it came as a pleasant surprise when I came across his novel “The Road” which is first class travel writing dealing with his life as a hobo, which from the perspectives of a genre, is far removed from his usual writing. Besides being an absorbing read, it is also probably one of the most authentic records of the lives of hobos in America and Canada in early 19th century

Brushing aside suggestions that he was driven by a need to study human beings, London attributes his hobo-life to a primal wanderlust and his inability to handle the monotony of routine in quotidian life:

I became a tramp — well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a Ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because — well, just because it was easier to than not to

Jack London is taken in by the charms of a hobo life from the word go. The constant uncertainty and the life on edge for hobos appeared to have had a great appeal which drove him to make this lucid observation:

Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is protean — an ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment.  He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance

A rich hobo is a contradiction in terms. The need for compulsive travel and constant indigence forced hobos to the fringes of society. Begging, trespassing and sometimes stealing made them a vulnerable lot. It is this vulnerability that was exploited by the machinery of law and order. London details this sordid state of affairs of hobos in the chapters “Pinched” and “The Pen” with a vividness that is graphic, horrifying yet impressive.

 Interestingly London attributes his growth as a writer and the sharpening of his writerly skills to this phase of life as a hobo:    

The successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and instantaneously — and not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the person who opens the door, be it man, woman, or child, sweet or crabbed, generous or miserly, good natured or cantankerous, Jew or Gentile, black or white, race-prejudiced or brotherly, provincial or universal, or whatever else it may be. I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub…..After all, art is only consummate artfulness, and artfulness saves many a story

London’s appetite for distance transcends the ordinary. Starting from the east coast in the US all the way to Vancouver on the west coast of Canada through the harsh climes of Canada and then by sea to Sanfrancisco on the west coast of the US and back to east coast is a travel from one end of the continent to the other through two countries. This inordinately long sojourn and the associated exposure to thousands of fellow hobos has given London an opportunity to observe and absorb the mores, travails, behaviours, idiosyncrasies, lingua-franca and the vulnerabilities of hobos in detail. The telling detail in which London documents all of these makes ‘The Road” an authentic record of the hobo world

There are times in our lives when we too are overcome by wanderlust, a need for a wild romp and a desire to travel with a sense of abandon. For lack of courage and a bunch of genuine constraints, we are not able to cater to these impulses. In situations like these it is advisable to settle for next better alternatives which take the form of knowing and reading other fortunate people’s experiences who managed to satisfy these impulses of wanderlust. It is in providing these vicarious experiences that Jack London’s “The Road” is not only a great read but also a loyal servant in carrying out the duty of all good literature.

 A genuine classic in the genre of travel writing


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