Jack Kerouac: "The Vanishing American Hobo"

Eremitism in the United States evolved from a combination of thought and wilderness experience. Representative in this movement are American writers Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and the wilderness figures from the legendary Johnny Appleseed to the naturalist John Muir. The historical individualism hued from the Western frontier movement capped this process. In the post-World War II era, the nonconformist Beat Generation writers suffused a subjective identification with Buddhism into this tradition, extending eremitism from Chinese wanderer models like Han-Shan into the American archetypal counterpart: the hobo. No one exemplified this movement better than Jack Kerouac, as in a representative essay such as "The Vanishing American Hobo."

"The Vanishing American Hobo" was published in the magazine Holiday in 1960 and reprinted in Kerouac's  book Lonesome Traveler, published by McGraw-Hill in 1960. Reprinted in Jack Kerouac, Road Novels, 1957-1960; New York: Library of America, 2007. Punctuation left as in original.

The Vanishing American Hobo (1960)

The American Hobo has a hard time hoboing nowadays due to the increase in police surveillance of highways, railroad yards, sea shores, river bottoms, embankments and the thousand-and-one hiding holes of the industrial night. -- In California, the pack rat, the original old type who goes walking from town to town with supplies and bedding on his back, the "Homeless Brother", has practically vanished, along with the ancient gold-panning desert rat who used to walk with hope in his heart through struggling Western towns that are now so prosperous they don't want old bums any more. -- "Man dont want no pack rats here even though they founded California" said an old man hiding with a can of beans and an Indian fire in a river bottom outside Riverside California in 1955. -- Great sinister tax-paid police cars (1960 models with humorless searchlights) are likely to bear down at any moment on the hobo in his idealistic lope to freedom and the hills of holy silence and holy privacy. -- There's nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom.

I myself was a hobo but only of sorts, as you see, because I knew some day my literary efforts would be rewarded by social protection -- I was not a real hobo with no hope ever except that secret eternal hope you get sleeping in empty boxcars flying up the Salinas Valley in hot January sunshine full of Golden Eternity towards San Jose where mean-looking old bo's 'll look at you from surly lips and offer you something to eat and a drink too -- down by the tracks or in the Guadaloupe Creek bottom.

The original hobo dream was best expressed in a lovely little poem mentioned by Dwight Goddard in his Buddhist Bible:

Oh for this one rare occurrence
Gladly would I give ten thousand pieces of gold!
A hat is on my head, a bundle on my back,
And my staff, the refreshing breeze and the full moon.

In America there has always been (you will notice the peculiarly Whitmanesque tone of this poem, probably written by old Goddard) a definite special idea of footwalking freedom going back to the days of Jim Bridger and Johnny Appleseed and carried on today by a vanishing group of hardy old timers still seen sometimes waiting in a desert highway for a short bus ride into town for panhandling (or work) and grub, or wandering the Eastern part of the country hitting Salvation Armies and moving on from town to town and state to state toward the eventual doom of big-city skid rows when their feet give out. -- Nevertheless not long ago in California I did see (deep in the gorge by a railroad track outside San Jose buried in eucalyptus leaves and the blessed oblivion of vines) a bunch of cardboard and jerrybuilt huts at evening in front of one of which sat an aged man puffing his 15¢ Granger tobacco in his corncob pipe (Japan's mountains are full of free huts and old men who cackle over root brews waiting for Supreme Enlightenment which is only obtainable through occasional complete solitude.)

In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation. -- Poverty is considered a virtue among monks of civilized nations -- in America you spend a night in the calaboose if you're caught short without your vagrancy change (it was fifty cents last I heard of, Pard----what now?)

In Brueghel's time children danced around the hobo, he wore huge and raggy clothes and always looked straight ahead indifferent to the children, and the families didnt mind the children playing with the hobo, it was a natural thing. But today mothers hold tight to their children when the hobo passes through town because of what newspapers made the hobo to be -- the rapist, the strangler, child-eater. -- Stay away from strangers, they'll give you poison candy. Though the Brueghel hobo and the hobo today are the same, the children are different. -- Where is even the Chaplinesque hobo? The old Divine Comedy hobo? The hobo is Virgil, he leadeth. -- The hobo enters the child's world (like in the famous painting by Brueghel of a huge hobo solemnly passing through the washtub village being barked at and laughed at by children, St. Pied Piper) but today it's an adult world, it's not a child's world. -- Today the hobo's made to slink -- everybody's watching the cop heroes on TV.

Benjamin Franklin was like a hobo in Pennsylvania; he walked through Philly with three big rolls under his arms and a Massachusetts halfpenny on his hat. -- John Muir was a hobo who went off into the mountains with a pocketful of dried bread, which he soaked in creeks.

Did Whitman terrify the children of Louisiana when he walked the open road?

What about the Black Hobo? Moonshiner? Chicken snatcher? Remus? The black hobo in the South is the last of the Brueghel bums, children pay tribute and stand in awe making no comment. You see him coming out of the piney barren with an old unspeakable sack. Is he carrying coons? Is he carrying Br'er Rabbit? Nobody knows what he's carrying.

The Forty Niner, the ghost of the plains, Old Zacatecan Jack the Walking Saint, the prospector, the spirits and the ghosts of hoboism are gone -- but they (the prospectors) wanted to fill their unspeakable sacks with gold. -- Teddy Roosevelt, political hobo----Vachel Lindsay, troubadour hobo, seedy hobo -- how many pies for one of his poems? The hobo lives in a Disneyland, Pete-the-Tramp land, where everything is human lions, tin men, moondogs with rubber teeth, orange-and-purple paths, emerald castles in the distance looming, kind philosophers of witches. -- No witch ever cooked a hobo. -- The hobo has two watches you can't buy in Tiffany's, on one wrist the sun, on the other wrist the moon, both bands are made of sky.

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town;
Some in rags, some in tags,
And some in velvet gowns.

The Jet Age is crucifying the hobo because how can he hop a freight jet? Does Louella Parsons look kindly upon hobos, I wonder? Henry Miller would allow the hobos to swim in his swimming pool. -- What about Shirley Temple, to whom the hobo gave the Bluebird? Are the young Temples bluebirdless?

Today the hobo has to hide, he has fewer places to hide, the cops are all looking for him, calling all cars, calling all cars, hobos seen in the vicinity of Bird-in-Hand -- Jean Valjean weighed with his sack of candelabra, screaming to youth, "There's your sou, your sou!" Beethoven was a hobo who knelt and listened to the light, a deaf hobo who could not hear other hobo complaints. -- Einstein the hobo with his ratty turtleneck sweater made of lamb, Bernard Baruch the disillusioned hobo sitting on a park bench with voice-catcher plastic in his ear waiting for John Henry, waiting for somebody very mad, waiting for the Persian epic. --

Sergei Esenin was a great hobo who took advantage of the Russian Revolution to rush around drinking potato juice in the backward villages of Russia (his most famous poem is called Confessions of a Bum) who said at the moment they were storming the Czar "Right now I feel like pissing through a window at the moon." It is the egoless hobo that will give birth to a child someday -- Li Po was a mighty hobo. -- ego is the greatest hobo -- Hail Hobo Ego! Whose monument someday will be a golden tin coffee can.

Jesus was a strange hobo who walked on water. --

Buddha was also a hobo who paid no attention to the other hobo. --

Chief Rain-In-The-Face, weirder even. --

W. C. Fields -- his red nose explained the meaning of the triple world, Great Vehicle, Lesser Vehicle, Diamond Vehicle.


The hobo is born of pride, having nothing to do with a community but with himself and other hobos and maybe a dog. -- Hobos by the railroad embankments cook at night huge tin cans of coffee. -- Proud was the way a hobo walked through a town by the back doors where pies were cooling on window sills, the hobo was a mental leper, he didnt need to beg to eat, strong Western bony mothers knew his tinkling beard and tattered toga, come and get it! But proud be proud, still there was some annoyance because sometimes when she called come and get it, hordes of hobos came, ten or twenty at a time, and it was kind of hard to feed that many, sometimes hobos were inconsiderate, but not always, but when they were, they no longer held their pride, they became bums -- they migrated to the Bowery in New York, to Scollay Square in Boston, to Pratt Street in Baltimore, to Madison Street in Chicago, to 12th Street in Kansas City, to Larimer Street in Denver, to South Main Street in Los Angeles, to downtown Third Street in San Francisco, to Skid Road in Seattle ("blighted areas" all) --

The Bowery is the haven for hobos who came to the big city to make the big time by getting pushcarts and collecting cardboard. -- Lots of Bowery bums are Scandinavian, lots of them bleed easily because they drink too much. -- When winter comes bums drink a drink called smoke, it consists of wood alcohol and a drop of iodine and a scab of lemon, this they gulp down and wham! they hibernate all winter so as not to catch cold, because they dont live anywhere, and it gets very cold outside in the city in winter. -- Sometimes hobos sleep arm-in-arm to keep warm, right on the sidewalk. Bowery Mission veterans say that the beer-drinking bums are the most belligerent of the lot.

Fred Bunz is the great Howard Johnson's of the bums -- it is located on 277 Bowery in New York. They write the menu in soap on the windows. -- You see the bums reluctantly paying fifteen cents for pig brains, twenty-five cents for goulash, and shuffling out in thin cotton shirts in the cold November night to go and make the lunar Bowery with a smash of broken bottle in an alley where they stand against a wall like naughty boys. -- Some of them wear adventurous rainy hats picked up by the track in Hugo Colorado or blasted shoes kicked off by Indians in the dumps of Juarez, or coats from the lugubrious salon of the seal and fish. --Bum hotels are white and tiled and seem as though they were upright johns. -- Used to be bums told tourists that they once were successful doctors, now they tell tourists they were once guides for movie stars or directors in Africa and that when TV came into being they lost their safari rights.

In Holland they dont allow bums, the same maybe in Copenhagen. But in Paris you can be a bum -- in Paris bums are treated with great respect and are rarely refused a few francs. -- There are various kinds of classes of bums in Paris, the high-class bum has a dog and a baby carriage in which he keeps all his belongings, and that usually consists of old France Soirs, rags, tin cans, empty bottles, broken dolls. -- This bum sometimes has a mistress who follows him and his dog and carriage around. -- The lower bums dont own a thing, they just sit on the banks of the Seine picking their nose at the Eiffel Tower. --

The bums in England have English accents, and it makes them seem strange -- they don't understand bums in Germany. -- America is the motherland of bumdom. --

American hobo Lou Jenkins from Allentown Pennsylvania was interviewed at Fred Bunz's on the Bowery. -- "What you wanta know all this info for, what you want?"

"I understand that you've been a hobo travelin' around the country."

"How about givin' a fella a few bits for some wine before we talk."

"Al, go get the wine."

"Where's this gonna be in, the Daily News?"

"No, in a book."

"What are you young kids doing here, I mean where's the drink?"

"Al's gone to the liquor store -- You wanted Thunderbird, wasn't it?"


Lou Jenkins then grew worse----"How about a few bits for a flop tonight?"

"Okay, we just wanta ask you a few questions like why did you leave Allentown?"

"My wife. -- My wife, -- Never get married. You'll never live it down. You mean to say it's gonna be in a book hey what I'm sayin'?"

"Come on say something about bums or something."

"Well, whattya wanta know about bums? Lot of 'em around, kinda tough these days, no money -- lissen, how about a good meal?"

"See you in the Sagamore." (Respectable bums' cafeteria at Third and Cooper Union.)

"Okay kid, thanks a lot." -- He opens the Thunderbird bottle with one expert flip of the plastic seal. -- Glub, as the moon rises resplendent as a rose he swallows with big ugly lips thirsty to gulp the throat down, Sclup! and down goes the drink and his eyes be-pop themselves and he licks tongue on top lip and says "H-a-h!" And he shouts "Don't forget my name is spelled Jenkins, J-e-n-k-y-n-s. --"

Another character -- "You say that your name is Ephram Freece of Pawling New York?"

"Well, no, my name is James Russell Hubbard."

"You look pretty respectable for a bum."

"My grandfather was a Kentucky colonel."



"Whatever made you come here to Third Avenue?"

"I really cant do it, I don't care, I cant be bothered, I feel nothing, I dont care anymore. I'm sorry but --somebody stole my razor blade last night, if you can lay some money on me I'll buy myself a Schick razor."

"Where will you plug it in? Do you have such facilities?"

"A Schick injector."


"And I always carry this book with me -- The Rules of St. Benedict. A dreary book, but well I got another book in my pack. A dreary book too I guess."

"Why do you read it then?"

"Because I found it -- I found it in Bristol last year."

"What are you interested in? You like interested in something?"

"Well, this other book I got there is er, yee, er, a big strange book -- you shouldn't be interviewing me. Talk to that old nigra fella over there with the harmonica -- I'm no good for nothing, all I want is to be left alone  -- "

"I see you smoke a pipe."

"Yeah -- Granger tobacco. Want some?"

"Will you show me the book?"

"No, I aint got it with me, I only got this with me." -- He points to his pipe and tobacco.

"Can you say something?"

"Lightin flash."

The American Hobo is on the way out as long as sheriffs operate with as Louis-Ferdinand Céline said, "One line of crime and nine of boredom," because having nothing to do in the middle of the night with everybody gone to sleep they pick on the first human being they see walking. -- They pick on lovers on the beach even. They just dont know what to do with themselves in those five-thousand-dollar police cars with the two-way Dick Tracy radios except pick on anything that moves in the night and in the daytime on anything that seems to be moving independently of gasoline, power, Army or police. -- I myself was a hobo but I had to give it up around 1956 because of increasing television stories about the abominableness of strangers with packs passing through by themselves independently -- I was surrounded by three squad cars in Tucson Arizona at 2 A.M. as I was walking pack-on-back for a night's sweet sleep in the red moon desert:

"Where you goin'?"


"Sleep where?"

"On the sand."


"Got my sleeping bag."


"Studyin' the great outdoors."

"Who are you? Let's see your identification."

"I just spent a summer with the Forest Service."

"Did you get paid?"


"Then why dont you go to a hotel?"

"I like it better outdoors and it's free."


"Because I'm studying hobo."

"What's so good about that?"

They wanted an explanation for my hoboing and came close to hauling me in but I was sincere with them and they ended up scratching their heads and saying "Go ahead if that's what you want." -- They didnt offer me a ride four miles out to the desert.

And the sheriff of Cochise allowed me to sleep on the cold clay outside Bowie Arizona only because he didnt know about it. --

There's something strange going on, you cant even be alone any more in the primitive wilderness ("primitive areas" so-called), there's always a helicopter comes and snoops around, you need camouflage. -- Then they begin to demand that you observe strange aircraft for Civil Defense as though you knew the difference between regular strange aircraft and any kind of strange aircraft. -- As far as I'm concerned the only thing to do is sit in a room and get drunk and give up your hoboing and your camping ambitions because there aint a sheriff or fire warden in any of the new fifty states who will let you cook a little meal over some burning sticks in the tule brake or the hidden valley or anyplace any more because he has nothing to do but pick on what he sees out there on the landscape moving independently of the gasoline power army police station. -- I have no ax to grind: I'm simply going to another world.

Ray Rademacher, a fellow staying at the Mission in the Bowery, said recently, "I wish things was like they was when my father was known as Johnny the Walker of the White Mountains. -- He once straightened out a young boy's bones after an accident, for a meal, and left. The French people around there called him 'Le Passant' (He who passes through.)

The hobos of America who can still travel in a healthy way are still in good shape, they can go hide in cemeteries and drink wine under cemetery groves of trees and micturate and sleep on cardboards and smash bottles on the tombstones and not care and not be scared of the dead but serious and humorous in the cop-avoiding night and even amused and leave litters of their picnic between the grizzled slabs of Imagined Death, cussing what they think are real days, but Oh the poor bum of the skid row! There he sleeps in the doorway, back to wall, head down, with his right hand palm-up as if to receive from the night, the other hand hanging, strong, firm, like Joe Louis hands, pathetic, made tragic by unavoidable circumstance -- the hand like a beggar's upheld with the fingers forming a suggestion of what he deserves and desires to receive, shaping the alms, thumb almost touching finger tips, as though on the tip of the tongue he's about to say in sleep and with that gesture what he couldnt say awake: "Why have you taken this away from me, that I cant draw my breath in the peace and sweetness of my own bed but here in these dull and nameless rags on this humbling stoop I have to sit waiting for the wheels of the city to roll," and further, "I dont want to show my hand but in sleep I'm helpless to straighten it, yet take this opportunity to see my plea, I'm alone, I'm sick, I'm dying -- see my hand up-tipped, learn the secret of my human heart, give me the thing, give me your hand, take me to the emerald mountains beyond the city, take me to the safe place, be kind, be nice, smile -- I'm too tired now of everything else, I've had enough, I give up, I quit, I want to go home, take me home O brother in the night -- take me home, lock me in safe, take me to where all is peace and amity, to the family of life, my mother, my father, my sister, my wife and you my brother and you my friend -- but no hope, no hope, no hope, I wake up and I'd give a million dollars to be in my own bed -- O Lord save me  --" In evil roads behind gas tanks where murderous dogs snarl from behind wire fences cruisers suddenly leap out like getaway cars but from a crime more secret, more baneful than words can tell.

The woods are full of wardens.