On the Bum

You Can’t Win: The Autobiography of Jack Black

foreword by William S. Burroughs
Amok Press, 394 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Boxcar Bertha: An Autobiography

as told to Dr. Ben L. Reitman, introduction by Kathy Acker, afterword by Roger A. Bruns
Amok Press, 285 pp., $7.95 (paper)

When the great westward push of settlement in the United States was finally completed, a process that occurred roughly between 1890 and 1920, it left in its wake a large number of people who couldn’t stop moving. They were cow-boys, miners, loggers, scouts—itinerant workers who had spent their lives migrating toward the next frontier. When there were no frontiers left to breach, they found themselves constitutionally incapable of settling into town or farm life, and so they became hoboes, ceaselessly crisscrossing the country by freight train, taking work along the way. They were joined by a host of others who had any number of reasons for avoiding the constraints of a fixed residence, and these mostly became tramps: adventurers, thrill-seekers, petty criminals, drug addicts, confidence men, itinerant gamblers, anarchists, Wobblies, remnants of various communal experiments, victims of different sorts of discrimination (blacks, homosexuals, Germans during World War I, Russians after 1917), victims of primogeniture, sons cast out by fathers, runaway husbands, runaway wives, debtors, pariahs. In hard times the ranks would be swelled by the unemployed, for whom vagrancy was a temporary condition.

All these groups and types intersected and overlapped. In the popular mind they dissolved into the image of the alcoholic chicken thief; in their own world the distinctions were finer. According to Ben L. Reitman, the Chicago physician, anarchist fellow-traveler, and sometime tramp who for nearly a decade was Emma Goldman’s lover and road manager: “There are three types of the genus vagrant: the hobo, the tramp, and the bum. The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” An author who called himself “A No. 1, The Famous Tramp” further identified forty-seven subclasses, from the Mush Faker (“Umbrella mender who learned trade in penal institution”) to the Wangy (“Disguised begging by selling shoestrings”) and from the Wires (“Peddling articles made of stolen telegraph wires”) to the Jungle Buzzard (“The dregs of vagrantdom”), which still represent only a fraction of the wandering population. Jack Black, whose autobiography was originally published in 1926, was a singularly articulate representative of subtype number 41, the Yegg, a “roving desperado.”

His book, written from the vantage of his reform in later life, is rare for its time in being, while rueful enough, almost completely devoid of real contrition. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most criminals’ memoirs were of the kind published by tract houses in cheap editions, serving up a small amount of titillation buffered by a great deal of testifying unto Jesus Christ, thus swindling the young readers they lured with titles like My Thirty Years on the Bowery and Confessions of a Bunco Artist. The youthful Black was just the sort of kid who would have raced through such documents looking for the good parts.

Growing up motherless in St. Louis, the only child of a remote and forbidding father, he was nursed on dime novels, the Police Gazette, newspaper accounts of the exploits of Frank and …

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