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Book Review

The Tramp in British Literature, 1850–1950

The Tramp in British Literature, 1850–1950, by Luke Lewin Davies, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. 344 pp., €119.89 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-030-73431-2

Luke Lewin Davies’s The Tramp in British Literature, 1850–1950 is a hugely detailed account of the cultural construct of vagrancy that is well researched, impressively wide-ranging, and clearly structured.

The bulk of the study focuses on Victorian and Edwardian writings, and Davies regards much of the literature on tramping as engaging with a post-industrialisation paradigm shift. However, his survey of what is framed as a resistant subculture of the nineteenth century and after begins in pre-industrial Britain, reaching right back to the sixteenth century. The centuries prior to industrialisation were a period in which the roving “masterless” man was something of a counter-cultural figure who emblematised independence and an alternative to established social norms in popular artistic expression. Davies demonstrates how this positive stereotype of the tramp figure grew more (though not universally) contested with the rising emphasis on measurable productivity, contribution, and utility in the Industrial Age. As a result, in mainstream society “masterlessness” transitioned to “uselessness” (p. 4). The author suggests that the “fetishisation of work” (p. 3) in nineteenth-century Britain entwined with a growing disciplinary discourse of the “deserving” versus the “underserving” poor (pp. 26; 250).

The Tramp in British Literature intimates that the vagrant construct was malleable and diverse enough to emerge in a variety of literary texts across centuries that countered the mainstream and the sedentary. Davies’s wealth of historical contextualisation kicks off with Thomas Harman, a sixteenth-century pioneer in England of rogue literature, a genre that cemented the image of an organised “vagabone” class as a kind of inverted guild (pp. 21–24). Davies then goes on to consider eighteenth-century picaresque narratives that centre lovable itinerant rogues before turning to the tramp figure in a wide variety of subsequent writers and genres: from Wordsworth’s Romantic writing to Dickens’s social problem novels and the investigative work of Mayhew, and on to Orwell’s socialist non-fiction. Many of the literary writers whom Davies considers themselves experienced homelessness at one time or another, and of greatest worth is the inclusion of a surprisingly large number of tramp voices: Davies draws from a remarkable subgenre of writings on vagrants, which is the no less than thirty-three memoirs by tramps that he identifies in the record. Altogether, and although Davies considers a fascinating variety of texts and writers, the through-line of the use of the tramp figure to embody opposition to normative values appears to be quite stable across time periods and literary genres. Although they often critique the social conditions that led to their lives on the road, both real and fictional tramps appear to have mostly embraced their liminal social status outside of what is generally presented as the oppressive constriction of settled culture and conventional mores.

This leads to a crucial distinction that threads the textual worlds audited in The Tramp in British Literature, which is between those who chose the tramping life (such as the well-educated and middle-class Orwell) and those forced to embrace homelessness due to circumstances. Nonetheless, Davies traces a somewhat common code across literature and memoir about and by those who identified (either some or all of the time) as tramps, whether by choice or by circumstance: a taste for adventure, new places, novel experiences, and the outdoors; the perceived freedom from the burdens of prescriptive ideology, legal codes, planning for the future, man-made borders, conventional family life, repressive sexual mores, and home and possessions alike; the ability to endure and survive whatever suffering mainstream society threw at them, whether imprisonment, pain, prejudice, violence, or starvation. Davies concludes that Britain’s post-war Welfare State was the end of the tramp figure (p. 328), both as reality and as once-ubiquitous literary character. (I will note that Davies’s study, though incredibly comprehensive, does not include a groundbreaking British drama that makes that very argument soon after the founding of the Welfare State itself, which was John Arden’s Live Like Pigs of 1958.)

In addition to his impressive coverage of both canonical and non-canonical British literary writers and texts, Davies draws from a wide array of secondary material and theoretical schools that consider the vagrant in mainland European, Irish, and American as well as British contexts. Secondary works in The Tramp in British Literature encompass topics and approaches such as the American vagabond, bohemianism, wanderlust, and a vast number of political, sociological, philosophical, and economic takes on unemployment, homelessness, imprisonment, and inequality.

Luke Lewin Davies’s The Tramp in British Literature, 1850–1950 is an impressively detailed, critical, historically informed, and accessibly written engagement with the evolving representation and self-representation of vagrants and vagrancy in Britain across centuries. For the most part, Davies’s singling out of the tramp figure in the work of some well-known writers draws attention to some lesser-explored aspects of the texts concerned, which will make the study of interest to scholars of those writers. It is the first full-length work to cover the topic of the tramp in such a comprehensive fashion and offers a startlingly broad survey of the subject. However, its title does not do justice to its depth and breadth since it is a near-encyclopaedic cultural history of a ubiquitous but often overlooked British counterculture that situates that community, its writings, and its representation in extensive contexts. As such, it is of wide interest, and deserves to be widely read.

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