A Brief Summation of Chapters 1-7 – From ‘Childhood’ to ‘Law in America’
“…I was reading deep into the night and, having to be up early for work, was encroaching on nature’s allowance of sleep.”
As week one of the inaugural Wales Readathon draws to a close, I know several Dewithoners will be keen to discuss the first seven chapters of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by the Welsh poet and writer W.H. Davies – the official Dewithon 19 book.
Published in 1908, his memoir of living as a tramp in the UK, Canada and the USA in the final years of the 19th century is considered by many to be a classic, written a quarter of a century before Orwell was Down and Out in Paris and London, and almost 50 years before Kerouac went On the Road.
Davies had a distinctive writing style: simple, humorous and playful, but always authentic and perceptive. He was an empathetic man with a conscience, but never recoiled from exposing his flaws. His book was praised by Osbert Sitwell for its “primitive splendour and directness” – though some of the events he described (and certain opinions he held) are undoubtedly shocking to modern readers. The more problematic episodes, which appear later in the book, should ideally be judged in the context of the era.
In my 1980 Oxford University Press copy there is an excellent Preface written in 1907 by the Irish playwright, critic and political activist, George Bernard Shaw. Following this is a short Author’s Note to the 1920 Edition, in which Davies says his autobiography “was written on the advice of a number of friends who claimed that [his] life of adventure would have an interest for the public, distinct from any merit [he] might have as a poet.”
In the Foreword to 1923 Edition (also included) he mulls over the many letters sent to him by readers of the book and concludes that a mere quarter of them buy it while the rest procure a borrowed copy. He includes the following epigram:
The man has talent, the man has genius,
And here’s the strange and cruel difference:
Talent gives pence and his reward in gold,
Genius gives gold and gets no more than pence.
William Henry Davies was born in the south east Wales town of Newport, on 3rd July 1871. We learn immediately from the book blurb that he was “born in a pub and learnt early in life to rely on his wits and his fists – and to drink.”
Davies hailed from a proud seafaring background. In Chapter I (‘Childhood’) we meet his grandparents, who adopted Davies and his siblings following the death of their father and the remarriage of their mother. His grandfather was a retired sea captain and owner of a public house, whose “pride it was, drunk or sober, to inform all strangers that he had been master of his own ship”. His grandmother was a respectable, chapel-going lady, with “strong opinions”.
Living in a pub, he became “acquainted with the taste of drink at a very early age, receiving sups of mulled wine at bed time, in lieu of cocoa or tea”. He attended school (when he wasn’t playing truant), excelled as an athlete and formed a boy “band of robbers” – but was “cured of thieving” by a combination his grandmother’s disapproval and a sentence of “twelve strokes with the birch rod” by the local magistrate.
He had several jobs after leaving school, including working for an ironmonger, but his first love was for books and he devoured the works of Shelley, Marlowe and Shakespeare. He had literary ambitions but put them aside for adventure, and by the end of Chapter II (‘Youth), following the death of his grandparents, he is setting off for America.
Sailing from Liverpool to New York in Chapter III (‘Manhood’), he arrives in a depression-hit USA, and heads almost immediately to Connecticut where he meets Brum, “a notorious beggar, who made himself at home in all parts of the country”. The two join forces and beat their way to Chicago, taking full advantage of a land where “food was to be had for the asking”. To Brum, begging was “a fine art” if not “a delight of which he never seemed to tire.” Such an impression did he make on Davies, with his “original turn of mind” and ideas “often at variance with others”, that he was given a whole chapter to himself (Chapter IV, ‘Brum’).
Along the way, the two men meet other vagrants, including New Haven Baldy, and they are thrown into jail for 30 days when caught in the act of begging (Chapter V, ‘A Tramp’s Summer Vacation’) . Upon release, Davies accepts employment as a wood-chopper before they move on again by means of riding the railroads, which is described in detail in Chapter VI (‘A Night’s Ride’), to find work in the hop fields. On their journey they meet Australian Red, a character of significance in Davies’s travels across the United States, and in Chapter VII (‘Law in America’) they head towards Michigan – a location famous among the tramping fraternity for its “exceedingly pleasant jail.”
I found the first seven chapters of Davies’s autobiography both entertaining and enlightening. There are darker times to come but he’s a skilled raconteur and, as Bernard Shaw freely admits, his stories of life on the road make one feel a “slave of convention” for working “tamely for [a] living”.
“I shall never forget the happy summer months I spent with Brum at the seaside. […] thanks be to Providence, the whole summer was at our disposal.”
Please share your thoughts on chapters 1-7 of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.
This is my eighth choice for The Classics Club.
Categories: Reading Wales
I need to get busy reading my copy, Paula, so I can read your lovely analysis. ♥️ Hope you’ve been having a lovely week! Xo 🐶 🐱
Not that you aren’t busy enough already, of course! 🤣 Thank you, Jennifer. Hope you’re having a fun and productive week, too. 💕🐈
What a wonderful, comprehensive post, Paula! I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book but I have been completely hooked. I agree about Davies’ style: simple, direct, humorous but revealing a life on the road well out of my experience and painting the people he meets with wit, clarity and charm. Supertramp is proving the perfect foil to the more lyrical books I’m reading alongside it.
What most stands out for me at this point in the book is the insight into the moral code and the personal world view held by experienced tramps such as Brum. That, and the sharp contrast as we come to the end of Chapter 7 – when winter is close. To that point Davies has been enjoying a halcyon summer really. As the weather closes, his eyes are opened to the harsher realities.
I’m looking forward to reading more!
Excellent analysis, Sandra. I’m so glad you’re enjoying this book.
I agree, the early chapters are quite light-hearted as he begins his new life of tramping. I was amazed they were able to eat so well (cake etc.) – the Americans were so generous towards beggars. As Davies implies, it wasn’t so easy being a vagrant in the UK!
Reading this was a revelation. I found the honesty disarming and the succinct way in which he organised his memories something to admire.
I’m so glad you’re finding this book of interest, Maria. I too found it eminently readable. 😊
So far, this is an easy read, with the chapters whizzing by as quickly as those rail cars, so thanks for the choice, Paula. The book is certainly one I would never otherwise have chosen to read, or even known about.
However, I’m not sure I’m ready to believe all Davies writes about the generosity of Americans, especially during the serious depression of the mid-1890s (Wikipedia says there was 43% unemployment in Michigan at the time). Davies must have been very lucky in finding families unaffected by the extreme downturn. I’m surprised he doesn’t say more about the situation — but perhaps that’s to come. I’m also eager to learn more about the luxurious jails in Michigan — how are the costs of these prisons covered during this depression?
I do like his portraits of the other hoboes, and of his life on the road. It’s worth reading through the Hobo Code and the Hobo Signs [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobo#Hobo_signs_(symbols)%5D to put Davies’ and Brum’s behavior into a context. Evidently, they weren’t strict adherents to the code, which requires hoboes to “always try to find work”. (I also like the idea that the hoboes have a sort of union, and that they held a convention.)
Just as an aside, in my reckless college days, I hopped an east-bound freight train. I rode for about 50 meters before jumping off, but I can definitely say I’ve done that.
Thank you, Lizzie. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the book.
Can we believe all that Davies tells us? Hmm, I’m not sure. He was a raconteur and enjoyed relating anecdotes to his mates in the pub when he was back in Wales. I’m inclined to believe a lot of what he says because it makes the book more enjoyable – possibly because I’m gullible, too! 😉
Thank you for the link. I notice he often describes himself and Brum as “beggars”. I wonder if that is because he didn’t see himself as being a true hobo (he never uses that expression if you notice). An interesting point, though.
Gosh, you were brave. That train ride was definitely a good one to tick off the bucket list! 😲
Urghh, I had forgotten I meant to read along with you. I’ll get myself a copy and just enjoy your posts for now!
No worries, Jane. There are no firm rules – just read at your own speed. Hope you enjoy the book. 😊
What a fascinating life. I like a simple style so this does sound really appealing. I’ve not been organised enough to join in but I’ll look forward to the rest of your posts on Davies and I’ll definitely pick him up at some point!
Not to worry. If it encourages you to pick up the book in the future (or any other piece of writing by a Welsh writer), then Dewithon has achieved its goal. 😊
I’m really enjoying this, reading a chapter each day, happily leaping from car to car and wondering where my dollars have gone. It’s not a book I ever would have picked up, so thank you for the nudge. I’m intrigued (and anxious) about your allusion to “darker times” ahead. But I suppose that’s all fuel for his writing. Onwards!
I’m so glad you’re enjoying this book, Marcie. I was unsure if I had made the right choice as readers vary so widely in their tastes – so I opted for something with an international theme. I thought it may also bring some people to his poetry. Yes, there are darker times to come but I find his tales of life on the road absolutely fascinating.