Dissertation Project

Rags, Riches and Rye:

Hobohemian Practice in 20th Century American Literature (2016)

This dissertation examines hobo symbolism in the literary works of the American writers Jack London, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. I argue that these authors utilize the social status of working-class identity in the tramp, hobo, migrant, or bum as a narrative technique and aesthetic model. These twentieth-century white, male writers construct an ideological and intellectual fantasy of the cultural frontier by enacting empowered mythological orders of the working class, despite its relegation to economic dispossession and social marginalization. I call attention to character types such as the tramp, hobo, migrant, and bum to investigate the circulation of mythologies about self-making, industriousness, and American progress into the twenty-first century. The inclusion of the hobo or other working-class figures in the hobo narrative incorporates, appropriates and often co-opts these American mythologies to exhibit generational and countercultural gain for white masculinity.

In composing hobo narratives, London, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Thompson and Bukowski create strategic class associations that render the social and material pressures of contemporary American identity abstract and stylized in art. The hobo narrative becomes a symbolic site for popular culture and politics to re-value working-class identity as a productive cultural appeal, including but not limited to literature and television, such as in Mad Men. The hobo symbolic institutes a tension between social status and creative enterprise in what I call hobohemian practice, a writing technique that stages working-class associations for the possession of an American masculinity. This masculinity not only aims for hegemonic status, but values individuality and socio-economic latitude that consolidates the material conditions of an earlier generation. The concept of the hobohemian has resounding effects on the way that men construct authority as writers in the literary marketplace and as salesmen of American culture. Hobohemian practice guides my examination of the hobo narrative as it renders poverty a valuable creative association rather than a socio-economic condition.

Since the hobo is both a marginal member of the working class and a constructed cultural fantasy of dominance, the hobo narrative becomes a site for examining the pressures of gender, race and class. I construct an interdisciplinary framework at the intersections of Working-Class Studies, American Studies and Masculinity Studies to highlight these social pressures as they inform the foundation of the hobo symbol in realist and naturalist literature at the turn of the century. From this foundation, I sketch a larger narrative of cultural circulation where the above authors draw on the mythos of the hobo and the politics of homelessness to market the cultural capital of white masculinity to the mid-to-late twentieth century intellectual marketplace.