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Performing the hobo in Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’

By Uttaran Das Gupta

In Kerouac’s writing, a homeless vagrant first appears in ‘The Town and the City’, Part Two, Chapter Six. Two of the Martin brothers, Peter and Francis, along with their friends Wilfred Engels and Alexander Panos, encounter a hobo, with a wound in his leg, in New York. The similarity between the hobo with gangrene on his leg, and Peter hobbling on his crutches because of a football injury is implicit. But the similarity is also ironic: Peter, a student at Princeton, is a world removed from the hobo – he gives the vagrant a coin and goes off with his friends. But at the end of the novel, Peter Martin – the one-time football hero – takes to the road as a hobo, much like Kerouac.

In On the Road, Kerouac associates closely with a number of hobos and vagrants, of whom the most remarkable is William Holmes Hubbard, a football player, who becomes a hobo by choice:

In my earlier days I’d been to sea with a tall rawboned fellow from Ruston La. called Big Slim Hubbard, William Holmes Hubbard, who was hobo by choice; as a little boy he’d seen a hobo come up and ask his mother for a piece of pie, and she had given it to him, and when the hobo went off down the road the little boy had said, “Ma what is that fellow?” “Why that’s a ho-bo.” “Ma, I want to be a ho-bo someday.” “Shet your mouth, that’s not for the like of the Hubbards.” But he never forgot that day, and grew up, after a short spell playing football at LSU, and did become a hobo. Slim and I spent many nights telling stories and spitting tobacco juice in paper containers[i]

Kerouac’s empathy for such characters has naturally prompted a sociological reading of the novel. In her essay, ‘Rewriting America: Kerouac’s Nation of Underground Monsters’, Penny Vlagopoulos explores the issues of class, race and gender in On the Road and arrives at the conclusion: “The years Kerouac spent writing about his experiences on the road were, in a sense, an exploration in nation building from below.”[ii] In other words, Vlagopoulos claims that by populating his novel(s) with characters such as hobos, delinquents, car thieves and homosexuals, Kerouac was creating an alternative nation to the one that forced him to alter the structure and censor the subject of his novel. I disagree with her because I believe that Kerouac is not interested in the process of nation-building at all; instead, in his novels, he is exploring the changing relationship between the individual self and the nation-state. The process of nation-building is essentially futuristic, whereas Kerouac’s writing is infused with the nostalgia for a nation that is lost.

His essay, ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, begins with a description of the predicament of the American hobo:

The American hobo has a hard time hoboing nowadays due to the increase in police surveillance of highways, railroad yards, sea shores, river bottoms, embankments and the thousand-and-one hiding holes of the industrial night. … — Great sinister tax-paid police cars (1960 models with humourless searchlights) are likely to bear down at any moment on the hobo in his idealistic lope to freedom and the hills of holy silence and holy privacy.[iii]

The vagrant and his desire for freedom are criminalised in an era of over-efficient and state-sponsored surveillance. Kerouac claims that it was not, however, always like this: “In America there has always been… a definite special idea of footwalking freedom going back to the days of Jim Bridger and Johnny Appleseed…”[iv] Even nation-builders like Benjamin Franklin, Kerouac claims, were hobos: “Benjamin Franklin was like a hobo in Pennsylvania; he walked through Philly with three big rolls under his arms and a Massachusetts halfpenny on his hat.”[v] All that has, however, changed by the time Kerouac is writing his book:

In Brueghel’s time, children danced around the hobo, he wore huge and raggy clothes and always looked straight ahead indifferent to the children, and families didn’t mind the children playing with the hobo, it was a natural thing.

But today mothers hold tight their children when the hobo passes through town because of what newspapers made the hobo to be — the rapist, the strangler, childeater. … — Though the Brueghel hobo and the hobo today are the same, the children are different. … — The hobo enters the child’s world… but today it’s an adult world, it’s not a child’s world. — Today the hobo’s made to slink — everybody’s watching the cop heroes on TV.[vi]

The association between the world of the child and the hobo should make us aware of the nostalgia for a sort pre-Lapsarian innocence that is lost forever. The hobo is unchanged but the children and the world they live in have changed. Kerouac describes this world as ‘an adult world’, in other words, a world deprived of innocence, and governed by a utilitarian rationality so often associated with adulthood. This kind of rationality constrains the individual to ‘rational’ pursuits such as earning a livelihood and providing for one’s family. However, On the Road (both the scroll and published versions) begins with a disintegration of the smallest social unit of any nation: the family; the death of a father and the break-up of marriage indicate the rupture in the structure. It should also make us aware that Kerouac is disinterested in re-creating any social structure, for he so clearly writes in his essay: “The hobo is born of pride, having nothing to do with a community but with himself and other hobos…”[vii] The sense of loss is acute, the nostalgia is overwhelming and the celebration of the irrationality (“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing… but burn, burn, burn, like roman candles across the night”[viii]) is superlative; but there is no blueprint on offer for how to remedy what is wrong in his contemporary nation.

So, if Kerouac is not building an alternative nation-state or a utopian society, what is he doing as a hobo? I would like to argue that although Kerouac empathises deeply with underclass characters in his novel, he never quite becomes one of them: he is never a hobo; he is just playing one. In ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, Kerouac confesses: “I myself was a hobo but only of sorts, as you see, because I knew someday my literary efforts would be rewarded by social protection — I was not a real hobo…”[ix] Near the beginning of On the Road, Kerouac describes his vision for his epic travel: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything: somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”[x] The pure richness of experience that he seeks is, however, denied to him because he is unable to translate himself completely into an outcast: his adopted identity remains at a level of performance. The reason for this inability is the intellectual apparatus he carries with him as an extra item of baggage with his backpack. He cannot merely experience, which was the initial motive, but needs to closely scrutinise and analyse each and every experience.

So, Kerouac, the poet and the intellectual, uses the character of the vagrant outcast to fulfil those desires which he cannot satiate as a conventional member of his contemporary society. But this fulfilment is not an act of dishonesty; instead, it is an act of ruthless honesty. To appreciate the sincerity with which Kerouac encounters this dichotomy between analysis and experience, as he performs his chosen persona, we shall look at theories espoused by Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski in his book, Towards a Poor Theatre. Grotowski claims that the only pure form of theatre is poor theatre because rich theatre is a theatre of ‘kleptomania’. Rich theatre continuously appropriates and steals from other art forms like literature (drama), fine arts (sets and costumes) music and dance; poor theatre is forced to exploit itself to create any art. Poor theatre is pure theatre. For an actor, Grotowski has the following advice:

The actor’s act — discarding half measures, revealing, opening up, emerging from himself as opposed to closing up — is an invitation to the spectator. This act could be compared to an act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings — this is just a comparison since we can only refer to this: emergence from oneself through analogy. This act, paradoxical and borderline, we call a total act. In our opinion it epitomizes the actor’s deepest calling.[xi]

What Grotowski is asking the actor to do is to make herself vulnerable, as in the act of a deep relationship of love. It is only by exposing — and not concealing — himself can an actor discover his artistic calling. This calls for courage unlike any other, because in the course of a performance, according to Grotowski, the actor is expected only to give away entirely what he possesses (not merely his material possessions but his deepest emotional ones) and not receive anything in return. Thus, the actor arrives to perform poor and goes away poorer and makes herself as vulnerable as possible.

Kerouac, too, is arguing for a similar kind of artistic calling as he performs the hobo: “There’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom.”[xii] This noble pursuit was not very easy in his contemporary society, though. Penny Vlagopoulos describes the contemporary climate of Kerouac’s On the Road in rather sinister terms:

In the year Kerouac composed the scroll of On the Road, the United States expanded its bomb testing from the South Pacific to the Nevada desert, literally bringing the war home. The House Committee on Un-American Activities began its second round of hearings, in which artists and intellectuals were required to prove their innocence and loyalty to the United States and to renounce their Communist ties. Any minor offence could have been labelled deviant, and citizens suffered the curtailment of civil liberties in the name of upholding freedom from totalitarianism. This period of compulsory confession was the performance mode of a vast movement of secrecy…[xiii]

Ginsberg called it the Shutdown Syndrome and Vlagopoulos, interestingly, describes the rituals of secrecy in terms of performance. I would like to expand on that argument and suggest that Kerouac’s act, as a hobo, is antithetical to the performance of secrecy and surveillance. In a climate that encouraged concealment and allowed only a certain kind of performance to conform to the sanctioned ideology, Kerouac’s performance of the hobo — in the novel and on the road — is throwing down the gauntlet to the disciplinary forces of the state. Within the larger performance of conformity, Kerouac’s act is like a black hole, an aberration; like a hobo who is a deviant in his contemporary American society. However, it is not a process of turning the world upside down, as Vlagopoulos claims. Instead, it is the cry for freedom of an individual in the face of claustrophobic regulations and restraints, it is a celebration of all that is banned or made taboo by the state to sustain itself and suppress the individual will. Playing the hobo allows Kerouac to escape the pincer-like grip of the state and assert his selfhood and individuality.

It would, however, be wrong to interpret it completely in terms of historical materialism and ignore his religiosity, as Kerouac’s deep devotion and belief in Catholicism and Buddhism inform and illumine his work.[xiv] The last chapter of the novel describes the final meeting between Kerouac and Cassidy. The scene is infused with a deep sense of melancholy: Kerouac introduces Cassidy to his friend from Horace Mann prep school, Henry Cru, but there is no interaction between them. Cru, attired in a painted necktie, armed with tickets for a Duke Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera, is a ‘formal gentleman’. He has hired a Cadillac to take Kerouac, his wife Joan, and another girl to the high-class entertainment. Cassidy, ‘ragged in a motheaten overcoat’, cannot go with them, he has to go to Penn Station to take a train. Cru is a patron of the state-sanctioned official culture; Cassidy is the hobo outside the borders of the state: by the end of the novel, there can be no more dialogue between them. This scene is reminiscent of the scene in ‘The Town and the City’, where Peter and Francis Martin meet the hobo on the street but leave him alone and go to a clean bar. At the end of On the Road, Kerouac, too, allows Neal to go his way and proceeds to the Met. However, there is a change: seated in the back of the swanky Cadillac, he keeps looking at Cassidy on the road. His mind is not on the sophisticated performance at the Met:

And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Neal and how he got back on the train and rode over 3,000 miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me and my sweet wife.[xv]

A little later, he adds: “If I hadn’t been married I would have gone with him again.”[xvi] So, the quest in On the Road remains incomplete: After the restless transcontinental wandering, Kerouac returns to settle down in the comfort of his home and gains recognition with the publication of his first novel. He abandons the costume of the hobo and become a member of polite society. But the search for enlightenment does not end there: On the Road ends with the phrase: ‘I think of Dean Moriarty’ repeated like a refrain. This is not a conclusion by any length of imagination: the travels continue; the novels, too. The search for enlightenment is formless and endless, like the original scroll of On the Road; no structure can be imposed on it by any state. The kingdom it seeks is not of this world.

[i] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll, pp 130-131 (London: Penguin Book, 2007)

[ii] Vlagopoulos, Penny. ‘Rewriting America: Kerouac’s Nation of “Underground Monsters”’, On the Road: the Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac, ed. Howard Cunnell, p 53 (London: Penguin Classics, 2007)

[iii] Kerouac, Jack. ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, Lonesome Traveler, p 148 (London: Penguin Classics, 2000)

[iv] Ibid, p 148

[v] Ibid, p 148

[vi] Kerouac. ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, pp 149-150

[vii] Ibid, p 151

[viii] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll, p 113 (London: Penguin Book, 2007)

[ix]Kerouac, Jack. ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, Lonesome Traveler, p 148 (London: Penguin Classics, 2000).

[x] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road, p 14 (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

[xi] Grotowski, Jerzy. ‘Statement of Principle’ translated by Maja Buszewicz and Judy Barba, Towards a Poor Theatre ed. Eugenio Barba, p 212 (London: Methuen, 1991).

[xii] Kerouac, Jack. ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, Lonesome Traveler, p 148 (London: Penguin Classics, 2000).

[xiii] Vlagopoulos, Penny. ‘Rewriting America: Kerouac’s Nation of “Underground Monsters”’,  p 55

[xiv] It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss at any length Kerouac’s religious philosophy but a few comments, I think, will not be out of place. In On the Road, Kerouac makes a virtue of the poverty of the hobo in capitalist, super-rich America, and poverty is the cornerstone of both Catholicism and Buddhism, the two religions that deeply inspired him. Jesus tells his followers: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). Gautam Buddha advises his followers to abandon mortal desires to be free of the cycle of rebirth and attain Nirvana. Kerouac was a devout Catholic when he wrote his second novel; he would discover Buddhism a few years later. The all-pervasive idea in On the Road is that stripped of all earthly embellishments, every human being is after all a hobo, deeply sad for he or she is in exile from the world of innocence or childhood in the corrupt world of utilitarian functions, and always full of nostalgia to return to that lost Eden.

[xv] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll, p 408

[xvi] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll, p 498


Brinkley, Douglas. Introduction, The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac, London: Penguin Classics, 2000.
Charters, Ann. Introduction, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, London: Penguin Classics, 2005.
Grotowski, Jerzy. ‘A Statement of Principles’, Towards A Poor Theatre, tr. Maja Buszewicz and Judy Barba, ed. Eugenio Barba, London: Methuen, 1991.
Kerouac, Jack. The Town and the City, London: Penguin Classics, 2000.
–. On The Road, London: Penguin Classics, 2005.
–. On The Road: The Original Scroll, ed. Howard Cunnell, London: Penguin Classics, 2007.
–, ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, The Lonesome Traveler, London: Penguin Classics, 2000.
Vlagopoulos, Penny. ‘Rewriting America: Kerouac’s Nation of “Underground Monsters”’, On The Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac, ed. Howard Cunnell, London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Uttaran Das Gupta
was born in Calcutta, India, and read English at Jadavpur University. His poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Reading Hour, Magnapoets, Raedleaf, Fulcrum, Open Road Review, The Sunflower Collective and Indian Literature, and have been translated into Bengali and Telugu. Also an amateur actor, he has written the award-nominated play, Murder and Create. He is a journalist with Business Standard, New Delhi, where he frequently reviews books and films. He is also the Assistant Editor for Prose at The Four Quarters Magazine and a member of The Sunflower Collective. At present, he is working on his novel and was at the Sangam House Residency in January.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. aj #

    wonderfully written

    July 7, 2016

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