Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West

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HOBOES, BINDLESTIFFS, FRUIT TRAMPS, AND THE HARVESTING OF THE WEST

By Mark Wyman (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010, 368 pp., $28.00 cloth, $16.00 paper, $9-99 eBook)

HOBOS TO STREET PEOPLE: ARTISTS' RESPONSES TO HOMELESSNESS FROM THE NEW DEAL TO THE PRESENT

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By Art Hazelwood (San Francisco: Freedom Voices, 2011, 84 pp., $25.95 paper)

REVIEWED BY CHRISTOPHER HERRING, PHD CANDIDATE OF SOCIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY, AND ASSOCIATE RESEARCHER FOR THE NATIONAL COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS

IN THEIR LATEST BOOKS, Mark Wyman and Art Hazelwood offer lucid portrayals of the most marginalized characters in the history of the American West and, in the wake of the Great Recession, provide valuable historical perspectives of the contemporary migrant worker and the homeless American.

The men, women, and children variously called bindlestiffs, fruit tramps, bums, and hoboes were vital to the creation of the West and its economy, yet their history has been largely untold. In his book Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, veteran historian Mark Wyman provides this much-needed story of western development. The book's narrative follows the symbiotic evolution of rails, crops, and labor. With refrigerated freight and massive irrigation projects across the West, family fields of a few hundred acres were converted to "bonanza" farms composed of thousands, small farmers became small capitalists, and local hires were replaced by traveling flocks of seasonal labor. In the spirit of historian Howard Zinn, Wyman offers an alternative history of the West's development from below, tracing the migrations and struggles of the floating proletariat that harvested America's breadbasket, orchards, and forests from the Civil War to the 1920s.

Although Hoboes is singularly emblazoned on the book's spine, the work focuses equally on migrating families of wives and small children, wage-working Indians, and high school students. In his chapter on the "Beeters," Wyman explains how the early corporate domination of beets in Nebraska led to especially grueling labor conditions, where sugar entrepreneurs preferred families for their stability, less drunkenness, and, most crucially, more hands. The book depicts the use of convict labor, including several locked up on vagrancy charges, and the yearly migration to the Willamette of Native Americans, who picked hops for wages, moving between their traditional homes and capitalist society. The single itinerant hobo is but one of many characters in Wyman's work.

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Ethnic diversity also plays large in Wyman's history. The book illustrates the striking differences between organized Japanese work gangs, doubly discriminated Mexican laborers, and German-Russian migrant families seeking the American dream through acquiring their own property. It also brings to light the ethnic alliances forged through harvest labor, such as the pan-Indianism formed through tribal migrations and the successful organizing by the International Workers of the World of a seemingly impossible ethnic assortment. …