Vancouver through the Eyes of a Hobo: Experience, Identity, and Value in the Writing of Canada's Depression-Era Tramps

Article excerpt

AS A WINDOW into contemporary debates about the concept of experience, this essay examines 1934's Vancouver Through the Eyes of a Hobo, which may have the distinction of being the only extant book about hoboing in Depression-era Canada written by a self-identified transient, Victor Wadham Forster. Forster mapped for his readers a dialectic: Nature--an antimodern pastoral refuge where hoboes lived in freedom--stood against the City--a wholly modern capitalist nightmare, home to economic exploitation and its attendant moral degradations. Yet, the author also articulated his desire to destroy this way of life--and the foundation of his claims to authority as a writer--in order to effect his and every hobo's reintegration with society. Casting off his avowed allegiance to tramping, Forster divined for his readers a third social formation, a new kind of capitalism infused with a Christian ethos of brotherhood and cooperation, and propped up by an unbounded white supremacy and a rigidly patriarchal division of labour. Herein lies the tragedy of Vancouver Through the Eyes of a Hobo: to save the hobo required the destruction of the hobo way of life.

COMME UNE FENETRE s'ouvrant sur les debats contemporains a propos du concept d'experience, cet article examine Vancouver a travers les yeux d'un vagabond, parut en 1934, un livre qui peut avoir la distinction d'etre le seul ouvrage d'histoire a propos de la vie vagabonde au cours de la periode de la Depression au Canada, ecrit par un migrateur autoproclame, Victor Wadham Forster. Forster a donne a ses lecteurs une pensee dialectique : la nature--un refuge pastoral contre la vie moderne ou les vagabonds vivaient en liberte--se tenaient debout contre la ville--un cauchemar capitaliste entierement moderne, centre de l'exploitation economique et de degradations morales. Pourtant, l'auteur a aussi exprime son desir de detruire ce mode de vie--et la base de son affichage comme ecrivain--afin d'effectuer sa reintegration, ainsi que celle des autres vagabonds, dans la societe. En laissant tomber son engagement voue a la vie vagabonde, Forster a presente a ses lecteurs une troisieme formation sociale, un nouveau genre de capitalisme infuse d'un ethos chretien de camaraderie et de cooperation, accompagne d'un suprenatisme blanc et d'une division patriarcale rigide de la main-d'oeuvre. D'ou cette tragedie inherente a Vancouver a travers les yeux d'un vagabond : pour sauver le vagabond il fallait detruire le mode de vie fonde sur l'itinerance.

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It came to an end; the mouths opened by themselves.... What a downfall! For the fathers, we alone were the speakers; the sons no longer even consider us as valid intermediaries: we are the objects of their speech.

Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, 1961 (1)

IN THE AUTUMN OF 1930, after exhausting all possible avenues of support, Harold Whyte slept outdoors in the False Creek area of Vancouver, British Columbia, fashioning his bed from abandoned wooden boards. (2) The civic Relief Department had already refused his requests for relief on several occasions, the last time after he met in person with the Relief and Employment Committee. Recognizing that his prospects for justice were now slim, Mr. Whyte broke with the time-honoured convention of deference to those with political power, authoring a blistering missive to Alderman Atherton, the committee's chair. "I have been trying for some time," he began, "to be given a chance or at least a fair hearing, but so far I havent found a politician in Canada big enough to grant the request that them selfs should have attended to with out any effort on my part." At his meeting with the committee, Mr. Whyte had found it difficult to convey his needs, since it was "the hardest task" to "plead ones own case." Nor had he had anything to eat in the preceding 24 hours, and was thus "in no shape to stand the hot air and BS" coming from the committee, "about as dirty a bunch of politicians as ever stepped in shoe leather. …