DEWITHON WEEK 3: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

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

STWeek 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.

CLASSICS CLUB

This is my eighth choice for The Classics Club.



Categories:The Classics Club, Wales Readathon

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14 replies

  1. One can only shake one’s head in awe and wonderment of it all.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s a shocker, Paula, but perhaps not ‘frightened them off’ as such. More along the lines of ‘I’m not touching that one’. Political correctness does tend to stifle a passionate response.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just needed time to think and even now I’m not sure what I want to say! I can say that I found ‘A Lynching’ extremely shocking, but I assume anyone reading that now would respond in kind. I interpreted the behaviour of the condemned man differently to you, Paula; I felt he was essentially terrified rather than mentally ill. We’ll never know. It was certainly a sobering chapter, as was Davies’ attitude towards the men who attacked him. If nothing else, I suppose it shows us that we have made progress in our attitudes towards difference, even if we still have a long way to go.

    A lot happens in these chapters and I felt that I understood more of who Davies was. And now we’re getting into the period of Davies the aspiring poet, which I’m very much enjoying. I hope I manage to get my thoughts together about the book as a whole. He was a unique character!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’d have to live to be 5,000 to read all of the books you like!

    I just read a good one: William Trevor’s Love And Summer.

    See you!

    Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What troubles me about chapter 15 is not only the content but the way he chooses to describe the scene. It’s not simply that he describes the man (and the other black men later in that chapter) as different from him but animal-like, and one-dimensional, with the emphasis on their behaving savagely. They are one dimensional and decidedly unsavoury. Elsewhere in the book, however, when he falls victim to other men’s violence or greed, he does not suggest that the reason for that behaviour is their race.

    Which I suppose is at the root of his inability to recognize that the man is behaving like a human being, not a beast, when he is being dragged to his death. Who among us would not flail and froth if we were in that position? And our narrator’s inability to recognize humanity before him is even more galling when he has recognized prejudice being directed towards him from another angle (for being from a different economic class).

    There he is, in prison but obviously not a criminal, but seemingly incapable of imagining that this might also be true for this other man, who might simply have been trying to get shelter/food like our narrator? (Of course we modern readers understand systemic racism and the historical tendency of white culture to persecute and exploit, and we know that’s unlikely the story of this other man, but our narrator recognizes that the authorities’ judgement of his being a criminal is invalid and only circumstantial, but he does not even entertain the possibility that these men’s definition of criminal could be just as invalid and circumstantial in the soon-to-be-lynched man’s case.)

    It’s not that I think his perspective was/is uncommon, but I look to artists to question the status quo! I’m curious whether any modern editions of this volume examine this chapter in context and present it against the author’s life experiences and later work or whether it is more often overlooked/forgiven.

    Like

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Marcie. I agree completely with all your points, except perhaps to say that sadly, some of our most brilliant creative thinkers/artists have also been bigots of one sort or another. It’s the age-old question of ‘should I admire or even look at this person’s work if they are/were a known anti-Semite, racist, misogynist etc.’ This debate has rattled on for years and I’m not sure that anyone has come up with a balanced answer. I do know that we both have huge respect for at least one living writer who questions the status quo quite vociferously (and I seldom disagree with the things she says) but, historically, she’s far less common than you might imagine.

      Chapter 15 doesn’t make pleasant reading. I felt sickened by Davies’s description of the prisoner and his hard-hearted reaction to his terror (I didn’t, up to that point, expect it of him) – but this was obviously considered quite unremarkable in its time (at least society as a whole has moved on since then). What I did find interesting, though, when I later came to think about this episode was that George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright who wrote the preface to this book, held certain views concerning eugenics that were contentious even by the standards of his day. I’m not suggesting for one moment that Davies approached him with this in mind, but it may explain why GBS was comfortable attaching his name to the work. I’m far from knowledgeable on this subject, though, so could be completely wrong.

      I purposely quoted Davies’s words regarding white men having ‘cool courage’ in the way they mug members of the public, because it’s an irony Davies quite obviously didn’t recognise, so deeply intrenched was his prejudice.

      The question I ask myself is: was Davies’s reaction extreme by late 19th/early 20th century standards or was he merely more open in expressing his opinions? It seems odd to me that this book has become a classic and yet little comment seems to have been made about the racial aspect by critics or literary scholars over the years (perhaps there has and I’ve simply been unable to find it). I came to this book knowing nothing of this particular aspect and found it quite shocking. I think next year I will be less naïve and choose a title with which I’m familiar. I had the daft idea that reading this text would be a new shared experience for most people, including myself.

      You raise an interesting question about modern editions of Super-Tramp – and it’s one which I’m afraid I can’t answer. It would, however be well worth looking into this issue in more depth. I will let you know if I find anything of interest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The chapter shocked me too; I was expecting his experience to be somewhat homogeneous, but not expecting blatant racism.

        And I am surprised that there are so many people who have read it and are either not commenting on this chapter or do not disagree with its depiction/content. Not here, necessarily, as there could be other readers here who are behind with the schedule or who are quietly lurking because they’re not sure what to say, but I did a quick search online and on GoodReads, where people are commenting in public about the book, and saw only a couple of open objections amid a sea of comments about other aspects of the book or gentle excuses made with reference to the book’s time. And while it’s true that we must take historical context into consideration, if we are to allow for that, we must also recall that there have always been people who dared to agitate for social change too.

        So what to do when modern readers are unwilling to call out this kind of behaviour or who don’t perceive it as an injustice. Maybe the question we need to be asking is not even whether his response was extreme by the standards of his time but whether it is extreme today. Which is abhorrent to consider. But perhaps things have not changed as much as we like to think, particularly when it comes to thinking and attitudes.

        I’m glad that you are inviting the discussion, because I think it’s important not to be silent. And that’s an excellent observation you’ve made about the praise he affords to the white men who behave unjustly. It reminds us how easily we, too, can be contradictory or hypocritical. Even when we are trying to change things for the better. So while I’m not likely to seek out other work of his, I’m not sorry to have read it. At the very least, it has made me think. And made me value other writers who are challenging the status quo even more than I already did.

        Liked by 1 person

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