What the Hobo Reads, c. 1922

Daniel Horsley, “What the Hobo Reads”

When I write of the “hobo” I wish to define what I mean by the term.  I don’t consider a man a hobo who is down in the rut because of his own licentiousness, but rather the man who has been thrown on the mercies of society by the introduction of machine power that has made him a wanderer against his better wishes.

The hobo’s desire to read is varied in the main.  There is a tendency to seek a more educational class of literature dealing with the nature of things.  In fiction they read most of the type created by Jack London and other writers who have written their psychology with the reality of the life of the adventurer and student embodied in them.  That this kind of fiction satisfies their minds, may be due to the life they live.  I am rather inclined to think that it is because of their desire to understand life better, that they seek these books.

When they enter the store it is not uncommon to see these men looking for scientific works.  Many of them read Nick Carter and other stories, but if you discuss with them a few of the main topics of hobo life you will find that they have not absorbed the spirit of the progressive, and they read these, as they say, to kill time.  In periodicals it is a matter of guessing.  Some periodicals are written from a literary standpoint and appeal mostly to the men who by the process of life have been slung, as it were, from their aesthetic standing, and they long to satisfy those tastes cultivated by their early training.

Many people assume that all hobos are of the type whose condition is due to their slothfulness and ignorance, but I believe that if they would converse with many of these men they would find that there are many exceptions.  They would hear them discussing Wagner as a musical revolutionists, Bernard Shaw as a satirist, Frank Harris and Mencken, and many others.  They buy the books, and because of their uncertain livelihood, in replenishing their treasury, devour them with keen interest.  Hunger seems to quicken the senses, and that may account for their perception in discussing things.

The magazines devoured by the hobos are liberal, free-thought and radical.  They don’t seem to have a liking, as a class, for spiritual doctrines.  The idea that Nature is next to God, and that you are with God, does not seem to interest them enough to read about it.  Although they are living as close to nature as possible, only being destitute of the guarantee of the future existence.  Perhaps some of their experiences where they have come in contact with “Gospel Uplift” societies has had an effect upon them because they do not speak very well of the “mission stiff.”

They like to red their own monthly, and not only they, but a large number of other working people, are beginning to realize that “nothing is–everything is becoming,” and they are reading it also.  Perhaps they want a knowledge of life, so that they will be prepared when their turn of adversity comes, due to the displacement of labor by machines.  Their paper is known as “The Hobo News.”

I don’t think they absorb what they read in the so-called daily papers as truth.  They have seen conditions in reality, and when they see them printed in the papers, are often met with a version that is diametrically opposed.  They buy the current labor papers, and sometimes the papers that carry pages of the corruption and slander occurring in the upper strata of society, to see, as they say, “what the example of the apes is doing to set the world an example of morals.”  Most of them are very well informed on conditions confronting the workers.  They do not rest with labor papers that tell them of the national labor conditions, but seem to realize that oppression is rampant in every country, and to know the world they must study international problems pertaining to them.  They do not set the stamp of approval upon any special labor paper, but those that appeal to their condition get their patronage.

The hobo’s desire to read literature may be said to be medium.  Those who have had an education, when not absorbed in the process of eking out an existence, have a great desire to read.  In summertime they are outdoors, and when not on the move, they occupy most of their time in reading.  The approximate number of hobo readers can be placed at about fifty per cent, and their reading is limited by their opportunities.

Just as a hobo would feel out of place in a Fifth Avenue Baptist church, so he would feel in the average library.  They do not make general use of the libraries, because of the menacing fear of the law.  They are always watching lest they be caught as vagrants, and this prevents their seeking recreative study, so they get their own literature to read, and seek some quiet place.  I believe it will be to the advantage of society when a place is provided where these men can have access to knowledge of the sciences that affect the human race.  In winter there is no provision made for them.  I would not call it charity.  I deem it a duty for good citizenship that these places be provided.  These men have aspirations to exhibit their talents, the same as any other class.  They try to write articles and poetry.

If some of you understand history, you will find that most ancient history has been written from legends and poetry or songs by the most obscure peasants in those countries, and handed down in history from one generation to another.  There are poems that are very old which may be locked away in some of these minds, and if thrown upon the public screen, may shine as gems in our literature.  It is not always the seal of a university training that stamps men as great.  The hand of time weaves new patterns on the spread of life, and as everything progresses that is cared for, so will their writings and mental condition become more advanced.

The articles written are generally written in a way of their own.  It is refreshing to read the ideas embodied but written in a crude, blunt way.  There have been some articles that bore the technique of a trained mind, and they are worthy of anyone’s attention.  There is no doubt that if success depends upon ambition, sixty-five per cent would be successful.  Articles and poetry are not the only means of conveying their ideas; there is also the art of writing letters.  The bond of adversity makes men meet upon one common ground.  Hunger knows no enemies or friends.  The hand of want has smitten the outcasts the same in every land.  Perhaps that word “outcasts” does not appeal to you, but I use the term with the thought that these men are not responsible for their condition–that society has made them outcasts by producing with the machine.

Their letters are stamped with a common seal; a tie that must weld mankind together; a pathos from the depths of realism that unites the fragments cast from industrial society into a working mechanism.  They write letters to each other that are sometimes filled with cheer, but oftener they are full of sorrow.  The hobo is realizing that to make his position more secure, he must be educated to make his livelihood secure.

From my observation I have tried to show you what the hobo reads.  I am dealing only with the literary section.  You will find antagonisms in all classes, of course, but in the hobo class this is largely done away with because they have everything in common.  I have tried to point out what he reads in the line of fiction, periodicals, papers, etc.; his desire to read; opportunities to read, and so on.  I have pointed out what his writings consist of–articles, songs, poems, and letters; also what his mental status is as it has come within the range of my observation as a book agent.


“Document 150: Manuscript on ‘What the Hobo Reads, Daniel Horsley,” collected by Nels Anderson.  Box 127, Folder 4, Ernest W. Burgess Papers–Other’s Work, Individual Students and Collaborators, Nels Anderson.  Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago, Library.

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2 Responses to What the Hobo Reads, c. 1922

  1. hoboduke says:

    Hoboes are part of our country’s pilgrimage toward civilization. Robert Mitchum served some time as did Carl Sandburg. Our best hope is to harness hobo power!

  2. Toby Higbie says:

    Hoboduke: indeed many famous and infamous people spent time as hoboes. Sandburg has a great account of his time on the road in “Always the Young Stranger.”

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