In the final decades of the nineteenth century, railroad expansion and a series of economic crises gave rise in the U.S. to a population of transient, marginally employed workers known as tramps (and later as hoboes). The word tramp, which previously had signified a journey taken on foot, now named a distinct social type and an object of public concern and debate. In the late nineteenth century, tramps were understood by middle- and upper-class Americans in terms of deviancy and criminality; but by World War II, the tramp had entered the realm of nostalgia. The primary reasons for tramping did not change; what changed was the social meaning assigned to the tramp. The figure of the tramp emerged in the wake of the Panic of 1873 when millions of displaced workers hit the road. Although there had been depressions and worker displacement before, by 1870 wage-dependent laborers made up over half of the workforce, and the depression created for the first time, a national specter of huge groups of workers deprived of their means of livelihood. The scale of unemployment in the 1870s led to the perception that it was a new phenomenon.
This phenomenon was viewed by middle- and upper-class Americans as something of a mystery, and novelists were thus compelled to be among those who sought to explore it. George M. Baker begins his 1879 novel “A Tight Squeeze” with the question What is a tramp? This question sets the stage for the adventures of the novel’s gentleman protagonist. On a bet, he empties his pockets and (temporarily) joins the ranks of the transient unemployed. In detailing his protagonist’s travels and observations, Baker provides a survey of common late-nineteenth-century understandings of the tramp. While Baker does note that work is at present a very scarce article in the United States, he does not portray tramps as displaced workers. Rather than focusing on socioeconomic conditions, he points to individual character traits in explaining the existence of tramps. This sometimes takes the form of romanticization, as when Baker has his protagonist meet up with a Thoreauvian tramp who states, I could tramp forever and forever, with “nature” as his sole companion. More often, however, tramps appear as professional parasites, making up maudlin stories of distraught wives and starving children in order to cadge money off of naive but well-meaning marks.
By the early 20th century, however, the image of the tramp was undergoing an elevation in status. This status change coincided with a changing standard of masculinity in the United States. Whereas middle-class manhood had previously been defined in terms of honesty and industry, there was now a greater emphasis on physical strength and competitiveness. The growing power of middle-class women, working-class males, and wealthy capitalists seemed to call for a reassertion of manhood among bourgeois white males, who were believed to have been weakened as a result of sheltered, overly-domestic upbringings in which they were coddled by overbearing Victorian mothers. The new icons of American manhood were figures associated with the closed frontier: e.g., the cowboy, the gunfighter, the buffalo hunter. And thus, the tramp took on a new identity in American literature, one of a more rugged and free figure, who had shrugged off the shackles of domestic life.
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