Issue #21, July 1997

Something less than conformity...
A study of three who turned their backs on it

I've been trying to put my finger on a certain strangeness in this year. Or is it a strangeness in me, this year? -- one can never be sure of the distinction between personal and universal reality, especially in situations that seem to have an aura about them, or some subtle quality not easily labeled.

We are at mid-year already -- the time has gone annoyingly fast for me, in the typical fashion of these late years, but in the oddest sort of way there's yet a quality of ease in my present world, as though I have suddenly found life to be timeless, after all. I move through my days with no sense of haste, despite the time of year, and not much concern about the various things I never seem to get to. I am immune to newspapers for once in my life, seldom tempted to the Web any longer, not even 'driven outdoors' when the weather is (though rarely) inviting.

My world, and hence the entire world (as I see it), has slowed down -- a gift of immense proportions, but I cannot account for it! There is a certain quietness in the air, and I can only assume that moving into my eighth decade is having that effect on me. There is another element, to be sure: Can you recall my having said that I timed my recent journey (or tried) to attune with the 'October' of my 7-year cycle? Well, a 'month' on the seven-year cycle runs for seven calendar months, so that I could very well still be in that gentle 'October' phase . . . in fact, my travels may have been too soon, for they felt more like the rocky uncertainty of September.

Perhaps it is a blend of both causes. I think there is something revitalizing in turning 70. Maybe that's not the right word . . . more like the lifting of some sort of burden. Maybe the burden of trying to 'stay young'? -- that would be a corker! Better, perhaps, the burden of trying to prove something, to justify something.

"Prove what?" you ask.

Would it make any sense if I said . . . my right to be who I am?

"Ha!" you laugh. "And who has ever questioned it?"

A few, I think, but worst of all . . . maybe I, myself. Why, else, was I in such a lather to have a book published . . . to memorialize myself? Why, else, do I toil and tire at setting up a Web site in order to present my 'works' to the wide world (with no small nod to posterity)? Does a person really satisfied with himself need such self-glorification? Does a person who knows his worth have to keep proving it?

Tough questions, those, and I've never had really good answers for them. But I think, at long last, some are coming to me, and I think it has to do with entering the closing stages of my life. An oddment of this recent and inexplicable journey of mine has even opened something of a pathway toward these realizations.

The difficulty has always been, you see, that I chose the life of an outsider. A choice I've never regretted, mind you, but a choice that has carried penalties and perils, all the way. I managed to master those that revolved around material insecurity; and I've done a fair joust with those concerning the natural need for closeness and relationship -- finally coming into a gentle harbor that seemed, a few years ago, hardly on the horizon. But one issue has dogged and hounded me every step of the way. I swear, sometimes, that the Devil himself rides this hound.

Whatever our course in life, we seem to require the validation of others. It's that old "no man is an island" thing . . . the ultimate necessity of community. We tend to see community as a practical, or merely sensible thing, but it is also a vital psychological need, without which there can be no such thing as well-being. We have to know that we are liked, appreciated and respected -- a need satisfied for most through family life and career affiliation, neither of which have I.

Still, my life has had its fair share of such blessings. But my life, at the same time, has flouted convention in a deliberately mocking and challenging way, for which I've earned also rebuke and disdain, which has never rolled lightly off my back (though I often pretend it has). I like to think I have the inner resources to counter the momentary downside tilt that such rejection invariably bestows, but give me an empty mailbox for a few too many days, or a serious effort to dislodge me from my lodging, and I find it isn't always so.

Little wonder, then, that the ultimate invalidation threat -- going to the grave with nothing to leave behind -- should have proven such a worrisome thing.

But this is the life an outsider chooses, whether knowingly at the outset or not. The challenge is to live it well: to gracefully navigate the course, to learn from it, and if your wits (and wit) be good enough, to hang in all the way, with no regrets. I think I've done pretty well at it, but I never found the key to letting that terminal anonymity roll easily off my back.

Well, I don't know if that will ever happen, but an interesting avenue has been opening for me that seems to bear on it, a funny trail that began with a book I ran across just before I left London. It's been a sort of genealogical trail -- finding my family -- but not of the usual sort.

A Book at a Boot Sale

It all started at a boot sale, on my very last day in London. That is not a typo -- I do mean boot, which is how a Britisher refers to the trunk of an auto. A boot sale is like a flea market, where second-hand goods were once sold from the open boot of a car. Today, of course, they have tables and stalls . . . but the name hangs on.

Anyway, it can be a wonderful treasure hunt for a stranger, and I hadn't had the opportunity to seek one out until that final Sunday in London. My remaining British currency was down to £8, and with a threatening gray sky to nudge me onward, I made the round of the several dozen stalls in an Earlsfield school yard, about a mile from Marjory's where I was staying.

I didn't linger at the old Scot's table of books, but had my eye on a slight little volume called The Friendly Road, for which his £2.50 price seemed a mite high. I had to be sure to leave enough for any chance windfall that might turn up. And, indeed, one did: a magnificent wide-brim, real leather Aussie hat that very nearly fit like it was made for me -- you know my passion for hats. But incredibly, I only had to pay a single pound for it!

Other odds and ends had taken my account down below £3, when the first few drops of rain told me the time was up. I swung around, and back to the old Scot's table just in time to grab that little blue book before it went into his boot (actually, a rather sizable trailer). I had no time for a more thorough browse of it, nor he to make sure I'd handed him the full amount of change -- which I think I didn't. Into an inner pocket it went, until I could shed my raingear, an hour later at Marjory's.

I had gotten a gem, as I soon realized, for it was hard to put down. I'd never heard of David Grayson, the man who penned The Friendly Road, but clearly he had touched the heart of many before me, for this 1923 imprint was a sixteenth edition. I assumed, of course, that he was British, and visualized the rolling, neatly ordered fields of an English countryside as I read the infectious tale of how he had set out one day on an open-ended wander, leaving his own work to await his return.

You can see, I'm sure, how I readily identified with it -- and you can imagine how I was blown away when I came to the following passage (slightly abbreviated) that explained his need (and method) for connecting with people along the way...

". . . when I [left home] I had only enough money in my pocket and sandwiches in my pack to see me through the first three or four days. Any man may brutally pay his way anywhere, but it is quite another thing to be accepted by your human-kind, not as a paid lodger but as a friend. Always, it seems to me, I have wanted to submit myself, and indeed submit the stranger, to that test. Moreover, how can any man look for true adventure in life if he always knows to a certainty where his next meal is coming from? In a world so completely dominated by goods, by things, by possessions, and smothered by security, what fine adventure is left to a man of spirit save the adventure of poverty?

"I do not mean by this the adventure of involuntary poverty . . . What I mean here, if I may so express it, is an adventure in achieved poverty. In the lives of such true men as Francis of Assisi and Tolstoi, that which draws the world to them in secret sympathy is not that they lived lives of poverty, but rather, having riches at their hands, or for the very asking, that they chose poverty as the better way of life."

He was clearly a man of my own persuasions, and I could hardly wait to get back to my library resources at home, to discover more about (and by) him. But I was in for something of a rude surprise.

David Grayson, it seems, never existed! He was the fictional creation of a man named Ray Stannard Baker -- an American, at that. But as the story unfolded, I found one surprise after another, and eventually came to see that Grayson was, in a sense more than imaginary, a real person after all -- a person unable to fulfill his passion for a free-spirited life, who yet lived an entirely fulfilling life that brought him a good deal of renown . . . only to vanish, finally, like the morning dream of an imprisoned...America -- which you may not understand until I finish the tale.

The real person, of course, was Ray Stannard Baker, whose authorial name is to be found on a couple of musty old multi-volume sets about Woodrow Wilson, one of which brought him the 1939 Pulitzer prize for biography. But, then, W.W. being the most forgettable of our heroic presidents . . . who cares about R.S. Baker?

His claim on history has a stronger base, however, going back to the century's opening decade, and a feisty crew of journalists -- the first to rip into the growing trend to business monopoly, with all of its ugly, unethical, power-grabbing ways. They became known, pejoratively at first, as the muckrakers, a term bestowed in 1906 by another feisty personage, President Teddy Roosevelt. They were having so great an impact, mainly in a magazine called McClure's, that TR, himself, took the bait, finally, and came to the defense of American enterprise, pointing out that it wasn't all bad. Obviously, the American public had their justified doubts about that . . . as they still do.

Ray Stannard Baker, in those days -- and by reputation for the rest of his life -- was in the top echelon of that muckraker crew, sharing the McClure's scene with Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and affiliated with such stalwart others as Upton Sinclair and Jack London. But rather strangely, in the half-century since his death -- and despite two full-treatment biographies in the mid-1960s -- Baker seems to have 'faded from the picture' like some hapless fantasy-film victim who vanishes when his ancestors are slain by a time-traveler. Which makes for some provocative speculation about the forces at work.

From Muckraking to Ruck-making

But how does David Grayson -- our original interest -- fit into this picture? In that same year of 1906 that TR went on his teeth-baring rampage, the core crew at McClure's (including Baker) split off to start a magazine venture of their own: American Magazine. Hungry for copy to give it a good start, the writer-investors ransacked their files of unpublished material for anything that might fit. Baker had nothing that seemed usable, but he had for many years packed his notebooks with stray thoughts and idle reflections of a philosophical sort . . . pure musings on how life might be, the sort of world we should rather be living in, with scraps and quotes from others in the same vein. His heart's dream had always been to write a great novel, for which these bits and pieces were sketch material -- but, of course, there were always more important things, and he never had any time for it. But now, he wondered if a fictional framework might be quickly drawn up for this vast and varied mine of material.

The thought, trifling at first, would not let go of him, for all he worked at being rid of it. When he finally gave in, what he came up with seemed flawed as a piece of fiction -- no plot, no mystery or tension, no love interest . . . the meanderings of a free spirit looking at life. Yet, it resisted any alteration. It was what it was, and the question, now, was whether he dared submit it to the editorial staff that knew him only as a hard-driving, no frills investigative writer. After some further soul search, he took the single safeguard of disguising the authorship, and took it in. Absolutely no one but the chief editor was to know from whom this work really originated.

To Baker's amazement, the six-part series (as it began) quickly became the most popular thing he had ever written. The readership demanded more, and so he obliged. And continued to oblige, though he wouldn't let it interrupt the pace of his more significant labors and primary mission (in his view): muckraking.

Not for ten long years, and several full books into the David Grayson stream, was Baker willing to reveal his authorship. By that time, he knew it was no fluke: Grayson was connecting with the American soul at some profoundly deep level -- though Baker honestly acknowledges, in his late-life autobiography, that he never really understood the power those writings seemed to have. Written more easily than his labored and serious work, it yet generated a deeper, more intimate kind of appreciation. The contrast never ceased to amaze and intrigue him.

Eventually, late in life, he tallied the Grayson output: 9 books, published over the course of 37 years, at an estimated total of two million copies, both here and abroad. The earlier ones remained in print and in demand all through that time, which puts Baker right up there in the category of successful novelist. But more, it establishes him as a kind of 'national nostalgiac' (if I be permitted a coinage), for a time and way of life that by mid-century was long vanished.

San Francisco's recently departed Herb Caen might similarly be thought of as a 'Frisco nostalgiac' for the manner in which he consistently renewed people's memories of a city long vanished but somehow still alive, in the spirit at least. (Oh, he hated the term Frisco with a passion! -- forgive me, Herb). The comparison is not so far-fetched: Grayson's "Friendly Road" and Herb's old San Francisco each portrayed not so much a place, as a way of life; and each tugs at the heart because it was a way of life that we once lived, on the upper slope of what has been a long, slow slide into alienation. We look back, in each instance, to that way of life, yet refuse to let go our tight hold on the things of life today, and the promise of more of them. We cannot seem to see the connection between an unrestrained progress and the intensifying alienation that has been the course of our century's history.

The most fascinating aspect of Baker and his alter-ego, from my perspective, is that he/they personified both sides of this quintessential ambivalence of America, and managed to keep the tension in a productive balance for the whole of his life -- thanks largely to that fortuitous 1906 'birth' of David Grayson. I suspect, in fact, that Baker was able to escape the alienation, himself, on that account. His early ability to document internal conflict, coupled with a lifelong pastime of actually going on Grayson-like wanders (if only briefly and tepidly) whenever his real-life burdens became too oppressive, worked in tandem to provide an effective personal therapy.

A Trail is a Trail...

Following the Baker trail down its junction with the muckraker trail, I came upon the name, Josiah Flynt, which at first meant little to me, until I saw what his investigative specialty was. It rang a bell, and I stretched for my own top shelf of bound Century Magazines -- 20 years of them -- and, sure enough . . .

Josiah Flynt was not properly one of the muckraking crew, though some have said he was the first of them -- he was a precursor, really, writing on the world of tramps and hoboland (as he called it), a good decade before the anti-establishment barrage got underway. His work verged on exposé because it eventually revealed the cozy ties between big city police departments and the outcast culture that Flynt called the Underworld -- a vagabond fringe element with a reputation in those days for violence and petty criminal activity. But there were other reasons than a principled concern that put Flynt on this tack, as his autobiography unintendedly reveals.

That book, titled simply, My Life, was written shortly before his untimely death at 38 and published posthumously in 1908. He stares soberly, almost grimly, from a frontispiece studio portrait that may very well have been made near the end. There is a kind of flat, defiant resistance in his expressionless eyes, the set of his jaw, the fold of one arm over a coat too large for his modest frame -- not an inviting visage.

The text opens with a dedication to all "who, like myself, have come under the spell of that will-o'-the-wisp, Die Ferne, the disappearing and fading Beyond, and who, like myself again, are doomed sooner or later to see the folly of their quest..." and one immediately realizes that he was not very happy with the lifestyle he is about to portray and defend.

Die Ferne, for him, was the call of the open road -- the strongest motif of his life, and one that I can easily identify with. But Flynt felt himself plagued by it, going back to his very earliest memories. He was raised in a midwest small town, strait-laced and unsympathetic to his wandering ways, and he had a "bad boy" reputation right from the start. He seems to have absorbed this judgement of himself, but not to the point where it could overcome his roving spirit. The result was a conflicted soul -- living his life as he would, but never quite clear of conscience about it.

Along with the wanderlust pure and simple, he was fascinated with the social outcast and his way of life, working his way into that fabric just for the pure joy and excitement of it. Had he come along a century later, he'd surely have become a field ethnologist, but the profession did not then exist -- nor any recognition that a sub-culture has its good reasons for being . . . and its devotees, theirs. Flynt was a man out of time and place for his own well-being. Even had he never made it in today's academia, he'd have felt far more at home in the wandering youth culture of the 1960s than in that late 19th century world he had to contend with.

He eventually found a way to live his Die Ferne life and make it pay -- even gain him a modicum of respect, though it came, ultimately, at a cost he may not have envisioned. Indeed, there were undertones of classic tragedy in the tradeoff, for the social respectibility he earned revealed itself a Faustian bargain, in the end.

Flynt discovered, in the early 1890s, that there might be a writer's market for his hobo lore -- if he handled it right. He had to do it as an investigator might, portraying a purpose of serious study, set against the morality backdrop of his Victorian era. His articles were to inform and warn the reading public of the legal and moral irregularities in this outcast world he was documenting. Thus -- for economic opportunity, more than any personal convictions -- he became 'the first muckraker,' exposing the 'sordid life' of an under-culture he'd chosen as his own.

You can see the bind it put him in: Having steeled himself, for twenty years, against the disapproval of his family and parent culture, he now took up their cudgel, as it were, and performed the coup d'grace against his remaining self-esteem. Where Baker's compromise had resulted in a supportive alter-ego, Flynt's created a persona in magisterial robes that turned around and sat in judgement on himself . . . and eventually became his executioner, for it was dissipation that brought on his death. He could as well have sat by a voodoo fireside, sticking pins into his own image. a Trail...

Trails have a fascinating way of maintaining their own momentum. I wanted a look at the American Magazine that the erstwhile McClure's crew had not got very far with, but I was told they were in auxiliary storage, not readily available. So I went instead for a 1956 compilation, "...the best of its first fifty years" of American. That proved disappointing (after 50 years, origins become quaint, never 'best'), but not entirely fruitless. The UW library keeps its earlier (Dewey Decimal System) books in their own separate order -- a library within a library, as it were. As I returned the 1956 volume to its place, I saw something interesting alongside: a large book with the intriguing title, The American Scrap Book. It had nothing to do with American Magazine, as I had briefly thought, but was a collection of magazine articles from everywhere, for the year 1928. And as I flipped pages in a casual browse, the book fell open by mere chance to page 80, near the bottom of which the name of Josiah Flynt (by that time, 20 years gone and forgotten) flashed out as if in blinking boldface.

He was mentioned only in passing. The article was by someone named Jim Tully, and titled "An Ex-Hobo Looks at America" -- the ex-hobo being Tully, not Flynt, and the tone of the article being much more even-handed toward the hobo than anything Flynt might have written. In fact, Tully took the discussion back to where David Grayson might have felt comfortable with it. Here's a taste:

"During my wandering boyhood I learned that most of our criminal population was made up of those who had committed crimes against property. This condition has not changed. Our criminals are merely the stragglers in the great American forward march, the leaders of which are those who believe 'that they shall get who have the power, and they shall keep who can.'

"...I looked more closely about me and realized keenly how impossible it was for a young fellow of the middle or lower class to obtain a cultural background worthy of the name. Everywhere he was given the same advice in family, school or college. Syndicated platitudes were as common as fog in London. I could see youthful minds reeling under the staggering burden. They were seldom strong enough to survive its monotonous weight. It made of them types and not individuals. Banker, merchant, tailor -- the viewpoint of America was the same."

Why had I never heard of Jim Tully? Once again, I set about to find out who he was, and what had happened to him. But he proved even more resistant than the other two, to any easy disclosure. A few fiction books by him, but nothing (in my hurried first glance) that seemed of any consequence. He was not in any of the standard biographical sources. Finally, a reference librarian uncovered a trace for me, in a 1982 issue of the quarterly mimeographed newsletter of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.

Though I later found a book of his on my own shelves! (Beggars of Life, subtitled: a hobo autobiography), that nine-page review in the 1982 newsletter, by its editor, David D. Anderson, titled "A Portrait of Jim Tully: an Ohio Hobo in Hollywood," is the only biographical material I have so far found for him.

His story is, in some ways, more remarkable than either Baker's or Flynt's, for its amazing shifts in lifestyle, fortune and public recognition. From his early years in an orphanage, and a life on the road between twelve and twenty-one, he finally became a writer and a very well paid Hollywood press agent, living comfortably off the 'excess greenery' that flows so plentifully in that environment. Timing may well have been his forté, as he hit Hollywood early in the 1920s when such things were possible for a streetwise ex-"road kid" (to use his own term), and lasted until it peaked, in the mid-'40s. Not an exceptionally long life, but possibly a more integrated one than either of our earlier protagonists, for he seems not to have had need of a constructed alter-ego as a buffer for the life he led. While the thirty novels he's credited with are said to be autobiographical -- telling the same essential story -- there is no indication, as with Baker or Flynt, that he was ever in denial of the inner self motivating him. He considered his success, in large part, a joke . . . and shared that assessment quite easily with everyone. He was ready on the drop of an invitation, it seems, to strip the tinsel from that tinsel capital and let the shards fall where they might.

But Tully, too, faded as fully from history's recall as his two predecessors. More understandably, perhaps, for his attainments were certainly less than Baker's, and he showed us no such tragic dimension as Flynt -- but since Hollywood has a mythic hold on our culture, it is still something of a puzzle. Why do we insistently discard all reminders of a more carefree time and spirit, in this ever too mechanized, far too regimented world? Why would we rather not know of such things?

Tully's biographer also dwells on those very concerns. Anderson wonders "...whether his works were considered simply no longer relevant in a socially conscious age that sought to suffocate hobo kids in various deals, societies and frontiers..." (in other words, denying those youngsters the opportunity to seek the world in their own way, thus blinding ourselves to the need for such freedom). He observes Tully's awareness of "...a significant dimension of American life that we overlook or ignore because it denies what we prefer to believe about our country, our values, ourselves." And again, "The reality that [Tully] defines is not that of the American dream nor of its naive acceptance. His reality is what he calls the American 'underworld,' not a place or an ideal but a group of people who reject the American mainstream and its values even as they are rejected by it." (The emphasis is my own, here, for it links back to where I began this report.)

Pulling in the Net...

It seems that we are compelled, in this society, to act out the fantasy of growth, whether it be our true (personal) course, or not. We are drawn into a stream of conformity that involves a success ethic, a consumer ethic, and what is generally regarded as a responsibility ethic -- the idea of which, however, is almost entirely argued in economic terms. Thus, you cannot be 'responsible' in this society, in its view, without having first subscribed to the success and consumer ethics -- both of which force you on a path with pre-determined notions of what is good for you.

The individual who bucks this ordained way becomes an outsider. The society, at any given time, is full of youthful outsiders, which is why the youth culture is invariably vibrant and alive (if often a bane, for the settled and resigned). But the natural course of aging leaves the outsider ever more isolated, allowing basically two possibilities on his/her horizon: a relatively solitary and usually impecunious later life, or eventual surrender to the primary cultural motif . . . and the dulling of one's inner spirit, in order to accommodate.

A few outsiders -- but only a few -- become avante garde cultural icons, for their iconoclasm, but it may be less a breakthrough than another pitfall -- as one may gather from the symptoms of despair that all too often plague their lives. From any standpoint but fame, they may have lost more than was ever gained by it. In any event, most of the youthful outsiders sooner or later conform.

I think it is important to realize all this, especially the lonely path of the rebel if it persists, and the ultimate anonymity of it as a predictable future, if one would avoid despair. Our three case histories illustrate various kinds of compromise made with society's relentless pressure -- not leastwise of the economic sort -- toward conformity, and they've been a useful study, right at the time in life when I most need it. Baker's compromise was probably the most successful, giving him almost everything he wanted of life -- though Baker seems never to have been as deeply rebellious as the other two. Flynt's was the most damaging, for it was a compromise of the very spirit that motivated his rebellion. Tully, like Flynt, compromised in a cynical, opportunistic way, but was able to carry it off, apparently, without rejecting his spirit in the process.

For all these differences, however, their stories come to a remarkably similar conclusion: Even having obtained the recognition for which they compromised, they are forgotten by the world as they pass from the memory of their contemporaries. As much as I deplore that circumstance, I also find it comforting to know, in the face of the doubts that occasionally visit me, for having resisted compromise, myself, in these outsider years of my life.

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