In the novel Beggars of Life Jim Tully gives an account of the seven years he spent as a road kid. Tully’s “road name” was Cincinnati Red. The Red was on account of his hair. He started out in St. Marys, Ohio, went literally all over the country hopping on and off freight trains and finally ended up in Los Angeles.
Many autobiographical details are reflected in the book, not only of his road years but also of the years he spent in the orphanage, as well as details of his family background. But it is not merely a novel about himself and his journeys, but it is a novel about a great number of people — people he met on trains, in “hobo jungles” (camps where hoboes meet), on the street, in whore houses and in bars.
Throughout the book, the same pattern repeats over and over again: hopping on and off freight trains, making friends on the road, escaping railroad detectives (called “dicks” or “bulls”), fighting against hostile train crews, begging for food at back doors and once in a while taking on jobs on farms or in factories.
Jim was lured into life as a road kid by hoboes he had met near the railroad yards of St. Marys. They told him strange tales of far places. He made his final decision to leave the town after talking to a youthful vagrant named Billy who had tramped all the way from California. Looking toward the town Billy says:
“Hell, I wouldn’t be found dead in a joint like this. It ain’t a town; it’s a disease. A guy’s only in the world once. He may as well lamp it over while he’s at it, even if he has only got one lamp.“ (12)
And after Jim has told him about his work in a factory where he earns three dollars a week, Billy says:
“Chuck it, Kid, chuck it. Gosh, you can’t do no worse. All you’re doin’ here’s eatin’. You kin git that anywhere. A stray cat gits that. Besides,” and the boy’s voice rose higher, “you’re learnin’ somethin’ on the road. What the devil kin you learn here?” (13)
On his first trip, Jim paid his fare to the train crew by helping unload freight at each station. It was a marvelous feeling to leave his dreary life behind:
What did it matter though I lifted heavy boxes at every station — I was going somewhere. Over in the next valley were life and dreams and hopes. Monotony and the wretched routine of a drab Ohio town would be unknown. I, a throwback to the ancient Irish tellers of fairy tales, was at last on the way to high adventure. Sad and miserable men, broken on the wheel of labor, tired nerve-torn women too weary to look at the stars – these would not be inhabitants of the dream country to which I was going. (20)
So, in the book the road is not only presented as a place of endless struggles, but it is the place where one can find adventure. Life on the road seems to be the best and for many people the only possible way to escape the monotony of life. As the story moves on the road becomes a symbol for freedom. Tully writes:
At times, I cursed the wanderlust that held me in its grip. While cursing, I loved it. For it gave me freedom undreamed of in factories, where I would have been forced to labor. (235)
Many of the hoboes, road kids and tramps described in the book have chosen the road as a way of life (though it is a hard way to live) and they are proud of their rejection of society and of society’s rejection of them. They reject middle-class values and are unwilling to hold a regular job. Begging for food at back doors, they are often met with great hostility and unkindness:
There was a systematic unkindness about seven housewives in one dingy block. They treated me with no more courtesy than if I had been a book agent, or a minister begging funds for a new church. One irate woman slammed the door in my face, and as I hurried away, a dog nipped the calf of my leg. The woman opened the door again and laughed. It was the hard laugh of a heartless woman. It echoed down the smudgy street, and could be heard above the barking of the class-conscious dog. (306)
Tully also gives very realistic descriptions of a great number of fellow-hoboes, road kids and tramps, most of whom have been in jail at least once in their lives. Entering a shed crowded with hoboes he describes two of them in the following way:
The speaker’s mouth sagged at one corner, where a red scar led downward from his lower lip, as though a knife had cut it. He wore a black satine shirt, and a greasy red necktie. His coat was too small for him, and his muscular shoulders had ripped it in the arm-pits.
Tully notes that the usual shirt worn by tramps is one made of black satin, and that it is called a “thousand-mile shirt”, for the reason that it can be worn on a trip lasting hundreds of miles, if necessity arises (Beggars of Life, 128). When describing hoboes, tramps and criminals in his novel, Tully doesn’t make value judgements. Quite on the contrary, Tully has the ability to make the reader feel and live with the characters we find in his novel.
The poem which opens Tully’s Beggars of Life offers a perfect conclusion because the major aspects of the novel seem to be reflected in this poem: the omnipresence of the railroad, making friends on the road and taking one’s leave again.
railroad track is miles away,
night there isn’t a train goes by,
heart is warm with the friends I make,
Edna St. Vincent Millay