A Brief Summation of Chapters 15-21 – From ‘A Lynching’ to ‘London’
“I do not know whether I should describe our super-tramp as a lucky man or an unlucky one. In making him a poet, Fortune gave him her supremist gift; but such gifts are highly personal assets: they are often terrible destinies and crushing burdens.” – George Bernard Shaw
Week three of the inaugural Wales Readathon has almost ended. Here I summarize Chapters XV to XXI of our official Dewithon 19 book: The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by the Welsh poet and writer W.H. Davies.
In Chapter XIV (‘The House Boat’) we left Davies recuperating from malarial fever in a Memphis hospital after spending several days close to death “in a deadly swamp”. He is now travelling alone having lost Brum and left Australian Red in Baltimore.
We begin the third segment of this book with what is arguably the most troubling chapter in Davies’s memoir – partly because of its distressing subject matter, but also because of the difficulty many of us will have in comprehending the writer’s attitude towards black people. Undoubtedly, his views were shared (or otherwise tolerated) by far more white people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than we care to imagine days – although, racial prejudice, as we are constantly reminded, remains a canker on modern society.
I read Chapter XV (‘A Lynching’) with certain considerations at the forefront of my mind: We cannot change the most odious parts of our past; nor should we condone them, but by reading first-hand accounts of historical events (and the circumstances in which they take place), we can better understand their causes and perhaps be in a stronger position to prevent them from recurring. You may well challenge my views. You have a perfect right to do so. Respectful discussion and debate are always welcome.
“…negroes lived in small wooden shanties, and rarely received money for their labour. They worked for the planter at so much a day. This gentleman kept on his plantation a large general store, and supplied their wants at such an exorbitant price that the negroes were seldom out of debt… I have heard many an old negro say that he was far worse off as a freeman than as a slave.”
After spending several days enjoying the Memphis sunshine in a small park Davies decides to head to Texas. He notes that states such as “Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, are the home of “negroes of old”, and comments on the “strange contrast” between “old negroes, who in their young days were slaves, reverently raising their hats to any seedy looking white man whom they meet […] and the half defiant gloom of the free, young generations, who are still in some respects slaves to the white men.”
Some days after leaving the City, he arrives in a small town where he is “surprised to see an unusual amount of bustle”. A mob of armed men has gathered outside the stores and walks “quickly along the main street”, their faces “drawn and pale.” Davies follows, intrigued, “perhaps the one unarmed man among them”, until they come to a halt before the local jail. One of their number has “curled around his shoulders a long rope”, and he, with two others, knock “loudly with the butt ends of their guns on the prison door.” Almost immediately the door is flung open and the sheriff appears. Davies isn’t close enough to hear their words but gathers the men have demanded keys to the prison, which the officer hands over “without the least show of resistance.” The men enter the jail, and the silent crowd “cast their eyes in that direction.”
Suddenly, from inside the jail, comes “a loud shriek and a voice crying for mercy.” Until this point in the narrative, Davies has merely chronicled the incident, but in describing this most harrowing of episodes – as a petrified black man is dragged into the open at the “end of a rope” – he makes clear his revulsion at this “unfortunate wretch” who is “possessed of a terror that is seldom seen in a human being.” Far from having sympathy with his plight, he is disgusted by the man’s “howling and jabbering” and feels no pity as he foams at the mouth and reveals “the horrible whites of his eyes”. Davies simply sees a man who has “inflicted pain on another” and perceives in him “cowardice in anticipation of receiving punishment inadequate to his offence”. We cannot know if the man was guilty of a “brutal” crime, for there is no trial, however, modern readers may well deduce from the writer’s description of the prisoner’s behaviour that he has mental health issues of some sort. He is, nevertheless, tied to a tree and riddled with bullets.
Davies moves on to New Orleans, where he himself becomes a victim of mob violence. He is returning ‘home’ from an evening at the theatre when, “half a dozen men, whom [he] scarcely [has] time to recognise as negroes” appear from a dark corner, and “without saying a word, or giving the least chance of escape or defence, biffed and banged at [his] face and head until [he] fell unconscious at their feet.” He believes their motive was robbery, but they find only a five-cent piece in his pocket, for his money is concealed in a body belt. He recovers from this attack and continues towards Texas by way of “Galveston, Euston and many more towns of less importance,” but not before pontificating at length on “outrages” perpetrated by “this not very intelligent race” – something “seldom committed by white men, who, having the more cool courage, demand a man’s money at the commencement, and do not resort to violence, except it be their victim’s wish.”
Having made his way through the heart of Texas to the City of Paris, he boards a “fast cattle train” to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he discovers “Bill Cook, the great train and bank robber, and his gang, [are] being tried” that very morning. He catches sight of “this notorious free-booter” as he is put on a “special train” waiting to “convey them to the penitentiary.”
There is light relief in Chapter XVI (‘The Camp’), when Davies comes across several old friends (including Wee Shorty) at a camp on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The tramps have a jolly time exchanging confidences, drinking copious quantities of whisky, “foraging” (i.e. begging) and generally carousing until sleep overtakes them.
Davies has by now been in the USA for five years, working “here and there” as the inclination takes him, enjoying life in the main but feeling occasionally “appalled” at “the waste of time”. Knowing that his grandmother has left him “one third profit of a small estate”, and having squandered a summer’s earnings in Chicago, in Chapter XVII (‘Home’), he buys a newspaper and reads “an appreciation of the poet Burns, with numerous quotations from his work.” His mind immediately returns to old ambitions of becoming a writer and, after “thoughts had tugged and pulled at [his] heart,” he resolves to beat his way back to England.
He travels quickly to Baltimore, with fifty dollars in his money belt, and makes for the cattleman’s office, where he again meets Australian Red. Under his influence, he commences on “a spree that [ends] in a week’s debauchery”, which leaves them both “penniless”. He eventually shakes off Red and finds work on board a cattle boat, thoroughly enjoying the voyage home. Upon docking, he slips away from the cattlemen, purchases new clothes with his wages and returns to his “native town” that very evening.
He wanders lost for several hours, “making enquiries for [his] people,” who have moved during his absence. He finally finds his mother who, being a woman “full of premonitions”, recognises his “knock” at the door. She seems not the least bit surprised at his sudden reappearance and greets him “just as though [he] had been out for an evening’s stroll.”
Although vowing “never again” to leave his home town, in Chapter XVIII (‘Off Again’) we find him walking the streets, drinking “immoderately” and struggling to adjust to “a soft bed” and food served from “clean pots”. Scarcely a month after returning home, he makes a trip to Bordeaux aboard a local steamer to escape his costly drinking habits. This fails to curb his excesses and “the fever of restlessness that [has] governed [him] in the past, [breaks] out afresh”. He tells his family he intends “to open a bookshop,” withdraws the remainder of his money and takes a train to London.
One afternoon, while passing Trafalgar Square, he spots a bold headline in an evening newspaper entitled ‘A Land of Gold’ and, without further ado, heads straight to Liverpool where he catches a boat bound for Canada – travelling as a steerage passenger and living in conditions he describes as “abominable”. He blames this on “the disgusting, filthy habits” of his fellow travellers, describing them as “peasantry from the interior of Russia.”
“With the warm sun travelling through serene skies, the air clear and fresh above you, which instils new blood in the body, making one defiantly tramp the earth, kicking the snow aside in the scorn of action. The cheeks glow with health, the lips smile, and there is no careworn face seen…”
He lands in St. John’s and befriends an Englishman making for a relative’s house in Montreal. They travel there together and, after bidding him farewell, he seeks out Joe Beef’s saloon, an establishment famous among tramps “throughout the length and breadth of the North American Continent” for supplying its customers with “a good free lunch all day”. On his way he falls into conversation with a fellow wanderer who takes him to this surprisingly “clean looking restaurant” run by the Salvation Army, where he tucks into beef stew.
Having remained in this place of comfort for several weeks, in Chapter XIX (‘A Voice in the Dark’) he continues his journey west in the company of an old acquaintance, Three Fingered Jack. They travel slowly (far slower than Davies would like) towards “the gold of Klondyke”, loafing in railway stations during the day and “lodging” in local jails at night. The snow is still deep and the “mornings and evenings cold” as they reach Ottawa and push on towards Winnipeg.
Arriving in a town called Renfrew they plan to catch a fast, overland passenger train, “which [will] convey [them] four or five hundred miles before daybreak.” While attempting to jump on board “a blind baggage car”, however, the train whistles “almost before [they are] ready” and pulls out of the station.” Davies lets Jack leap on ahead of him (“owing to his maimed hand”), but as the train gathers speed and he grabs the handle bar preparing to jump, his companion stands “thoughtlessly irresolute on the step, leaving [him] no room to make the attempt.” He continues to hold the bar as the train’s speed increases, until it is moving so quickly he can barely keep pace. Davies shouts at Jack to clear the step, which he does “very deliberately”, then jumps – but he has left it too late. His foot comes short of the step and he falls, still grasping the bar. He is “dragged several yards before relinquishing [his] hold and remains lying on the ground for several minutes, “feeling a little shaken,” as the train disappears into the night. He attempts to stand but “something” prevents him. He sits in an upright position to better examine himself and discovers his right foot has been “severed from the ankle.”
“What a kind-hearted race of people are these Canadians!” exclaims Davies in Chapter XX (‘Hospitality’) from his hospital bed. He is overwhelmed by the number of people “making enquiries, and interesting themselves on [his] behalf, bringing and sending books, grapes, bananas and other delicacies for a sick man.” He comes close to death but twice survives major surgery and makes many new friends who invite him to remain with them but, his leg now amputated above the knee, and “not knowing what [his] experience [will] be in the years following”, he returns to Wales.
Sitting at home, considering his diminished prospects (Chapter XXI, ‘London’), he determines that his “brains should now have the chance they had longed for, when the spirit had been bullied into submission by the body’s activity.” Walking with an artificial limb, he endeavours to seek “literary fame” in London.
“…if during these five years I had had the daily companionship of good books, instead of all this restless wandering to and fro in a strange land, my mind […] might be capable of some little achievement of its own.”
Please share your thoughts on chapters 15-21 of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.
This is my eighth choice for The Classics Club.
Categories: Reading Wales