BOXCAR POLITICS: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869–1956. By John Lennon. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2014.
John Lennon’s insightful new work, Boxcar Politics, claims that “hoboing was not just a mode of travel” for U.S. transient workers in the years between the completion of the intercontinental railroad and the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act, but a “distinct form of resistive politics” (2). By investigating the “relationships between hobos, their subculture and the train,” Lennon’s volume “illuminate[s] the ways marginalized transient workers exerted a political voice both singularly and collectively” (5). Focusing on literary works by Jack London, Jim Tully, John Dos Passos, and Jack Kerouac, as well as cultural events such as the 1931 Scottsboro trials, Boxcar Politics convincingly argues that hobos employed the physical and ideological space of the boxcar to collectively fight for human and labor rights over a period of eighty years in U.S. history.
Boxcar Politics is a well-researched and integrative study. The book is equally adept at engaging both contemporaneous studies of the hobo, such as Nels Anderson’s The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923), and more recent work in the field, such as Tim Creswell’s The Tramp in America (2001), Frank Tobias Higbie’s Indispensable Outcasts (2003), and Mark Wyman’s Hoboes (2011). At the same time, the work is equally engaged with compelling contemporary theory, such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s studies on hegemony and the working class and Michel de Certeau’s arguments on the strategy and tactics of space. At every turn, the reader finds Lennon’s assertions grounded and thoroughly contextualized.
Boxcar Politics works best when it clearly pairs a cultural moment with a work of art. Chapter Two, for example, argues that the individualistic image of the hobo in popular culture and politics was at odds with the communal and political goals that hobos often tried to attain. This chapter’s investigation of Jack London’s The Road (1907) and its depiction of Charles T. Kelley’s Industrial Army’s march across America highlights this divide well. This method is also particularly useful in Chapter Five’s examination of the Scottsboro case and the hobo films of William A. Wellman. By exploring Wellman’s popular representations of the hobo in the Hollywood films The Vagabond Trail (1924), Beggars of Life (1928), and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) in contrast to the news reports and court documents of the Scottsboro trials, Boxcar Politics exposes how “worker solidarity within the boxcar [could] be eviscerated along racial and gendered lines,” for both the young black men and their white accusers were “all workers victimized by a capitalist system that used racial instigations to keep the working class in a perpetual fractured state” (132). This chapter shines with its thoughtful connections and provocative conclusions.
Conversely, the strength of Chapter Five leaves the book’s last chapter on unsteady ground. Chapter Six’s pairing of Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and composer Harry Partch’s experimental music suite U.S. Highball (1943/1955) is less successful because the discussion of Partch’s work seems less integral, and more cursory, to Boxcar Politics’s reading of On the Road than the previous chapter’s reading of Wellman’s work in the context of the Scottsboro trials. Additionally, since the previous five chapters have persuasively argued that the hobo was a complex political figure, Chapter Six’s argument that On the Road makes hobos “apolitical” figures who are “spiritual guides” “disconnected from the working class” (177) makes for a jarring, and not wholly persuasive, shift in perspective.
Regardless of the book’s close, this is a well-researched and well-written study. It is of use to anyone interested in American labor history, the history of U.S. transportation, and the Great Depression. It also contains nuanced insights into a wide array of fiction, music, and film concerned with the depiction of the American hobo. Boxcar Politics is a valuable and recommended study.
Timothy L. Glenn (California State University, Dominguez Hills)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.4(2015) and is available via Project Muse.