Before I started reading William H. Davies’s 1908 book, Autobiography of a Super-tramp, I was only familiar with his most famous poem, Leisure, the opening lines of which are:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Armed with this minimal knowledge of his canon, I was hopeful Davies’s memoir about life as a tramp in North America and Britain might illuminate a new perspective about labor that I, who was complicit in the traditional notion of career, sorely needed. As Tomos Owen wrote in his afterword to the book, “the tramp threatens and challenges the prevailing ideas of a society predicated upon stability, rootedness, and commitment.”
This sounded promising. I wanted to threaten my prevailing ideas and those of society. It was particularly on my mind in the wake of a US presidential campaign, during which we were repeatedly reminded by both major parties of the centrality of work to the American mythos—that access to the good life is premised on a willingness to work hard—without any thought that human beings may be built for more than just work, that perhaps idleness may be our greatest aspiration.
But Owen continues with a less heartening assertion that, “simultaneously and particularly in the American context, the movements and mobilities of the tramp are in many ways entirely compatible with the independence, resourcefulness and enterprise which underpin a modern industrial capitalist order.” Indeed, Davies’s days as a tramp were characterized at least in part by work that supported the modern industrialist capital order. He did his part for international trade by working cattle ships to gain passage back to England when he was homesick and helped build a major piece of infrastructure in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Whether chopping wood in Connecticut or picking berries in Michigan, Davies moved around America working the gig economy of the late nineteenth century. This was off-grid living while the grid was still being built.
Much about Davies’s life as a super-tramp is not what it seemed, starting with that label. Davies did not give his most famous book its title—that came from George Bernard Shaw, his unlikely benefactor and a significant force in Davies’s eventual success as a writer. The lineage of the name begins with Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or ‘Super-Man,” a figure who Owen notes is “an extraordinary and superior individual whose outlook and morality transcend that of his society,” and extends at least to the 1970s English rock band, Supertramp, who took their name from Davies’s book.
In his lifetime, Davies came to resent the label, considering himself first and foremost a poet rather than a tramp. He was more successful in both the Nietzscheian and literary sense as a poet, and in the preface to Super-tramp Shaw is blunt, telling the reader he has “volunteered” to pen the preface “for the sake of his [Davies’s] poems.” Shaw also uses his preface to tell the reader that “Mr. Davies is no propagandist of the middle-class tramp fancier.” No one can say I wasn’t warned.
About one hundred pages into Super-tramp, Davies started to disabuse me of the notion that he would offer a transcendent view of society. This begins with an anti-Semitic riff when he and two of his fellow-travelers, a Scot and a Texan, shop for a houseboat in St. Louis with the intention of navigating the Mississippi River to New Orleans. “We found one, at last, rather battered, and ill-conditioned, for which we were asked eleven dollars. Scotty, to our unfeigned disgust, acted the Jew in this matter of trade, and had succeeded in beating the price down to nine dollars and a half when we to his annoyance offered to pay that sum without more ado.”
In the next chapter, A Lynching, Davies raised my expectations again, starting with a description of a corrupt justice system in the southern United States where suspects were tried and fined. Other citizens in need of cheap labor would pay the fine then take possession of the criminal, buying him clothes that the prisoner was then forced to pay for at inflated prices. To work off both the fine and the clothes, the prisoner would end up working twice the value of the court’s original penalty. “I was very much afraid of this, although a wandering white man was not in nearly so much danger as a negro,” Davies wrote. But this awareness of his privilege doesn’t last long. In the very next paragraph, Davies describes a lynching of a black prisoner in Tennessee. Witnessing the prisoner’s terror, Davies wrote, “filled me more with disgust than pity.”
Such sentiments often made spending 287 pages in the company of Davies a chore, as did my frustration at Davies’s lack of exploration of his drive to continue tramping in America, even when conditions were brutal. He was the recipient of a small income from his grandmother’s estate—from Shaw, “enough to give him reasonable courage, and not enough to bring him under the hoof of suburban convention”—even before he set out for America, so it was not solely a matter of financial hardship. The most obvious explanation seems to be that he was simply young—twenty-one when he sailed for America the first time—and going with the flow, as I also did at that age, albeit on a much more conventional current. This is not a memoir in the contemporary sense, demanding a psychological metamorphosis, but rather a plainly told account of Davies’s life through his mid-thirties.
Davies, for instance, uses parts of the book to educate us about the various classes of beggar. For peddlers, as Davies sometimes was, he recommends a stock of laces for their qualities of being lightweight, portable, and profitable. Gridlers, men who sang for money, considered themselves to be at the top of the pecking order because they didn’t have to carry inventory like the peddler. His profit was in inverse proportion to the quality of his voice: “The more shaky and harsh his voice becomes, the greater his reward.” (I once had a gridler who sang under my apartment window in Boston, in front of a Starbucks, although I only now know that to be the name of his profession. His voice was gravelly and grating, singing not just the same song but the same stanza for hours on end, and I often fantasized about paying him to leave. My assumption it would be insulting prevented me from doing so, and I regretted my inaction when I learned that paying him to go was the intended consequence, at least according to Davies.)
On the road, Davies learned that grinders were universally detested—“As a rule he is a drunken dissolute fellow, a swearer, and one who, if he picks up a quarrel, which is usually the case, is in no hurry to drop it”—while downrighters were the purists of the profession. The latter are men who scorn grinders, gridlers, and peddlers for working at all: “I am not satisfied with getting a penny for a farthing pair of laces—I get the whole penny for nothing,” explained one to Davies.
Brum, a notorious beggar who Davies meets early on in his first trip to America, was a downrighter to the extreme. “What he required he proceeded to beg, every morning making an inventory of his wants. Rather than wash a good handkerchief he would beg an old one that was clean, and he would without compunction discard a good shirt altogether rather than sew a button on—thus keeping up the dignity of the profession to the extreme.” While the make-do-and-mend puritan in me recoils at Brum’s waste, there is a certain Buddhist logic to his focus on the present. I admire that he asked for each day’s wants rather than needs. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of our human fickleness, and some deeply ingrained, misplaced sense of politeness often prevents me from being so direct.
Common across the hierarchy was a code of ethics that held theft in the lowest regard. When a fellow tramp, Slim, is suspected of stealing, Davies declares him a “disgrace to the profession.” That such a hierarchy and code existed amongst tramps is both disheartening and comforting. It echoes the absurdity of official corporate org charts and unofficial pecking orders that pit IT and accounting against marketing and sales, while both sides equally loathe HR, the grinders of corporate America. Humans are humans, whether the workplace is in a skyscraper or on the street.
The most interesting and endearing of Davies’s stories start when, around the age of twenty-six, after five years tramping around America, he returns to England and becomes enamored with the idea of opening a secondhand bookshop in London. It is a fantasy that made me smile because I harbor a similar idea (specifically, a combination bookstore and wine bar modeled on La Belle Hortense in the Marais in Paris, not that I’ve thought about this much). This opening-a-bookshop idea—one that comes complete with a cat who lounges disdainfully across stacks of books—is a staple fantasy of my demographic. As with the term “super-tramp,” I just didn’t know its origin went so far back.
Davies got tripped up on the logistics, not knowing where to acquire the books, and instead became fixated on the idea of striking gold in the Klondike. A man who couldn’t figure out where to buy used book inventory figured out how to get to Canada within the same month he hatched the idea for a bookshop, riding in steerage from Liverpool to St. John’s. From here, he wrote, “I knew that I could beat my way across the Canadian continent, without using a cent for traveling.” I can’t help thinking that in failing to start his bookshop Davies fell prey to the same thing I’ve often experienced in life: it’s easier to do what you know.
That trip to Canada was a turning point in Davies’s life. Although he was experienced in catching rides on freight trains—riding the rods below or the bumpers above—one evening he had an accident that ended with his leg being amputated beneath the knee. After his recovery, Davies returned permanently to the UK and set his mind to writing. He had become an avid reader as a child, thanks to the influence of a friend called Dave who had introduced him to Byron. (Let’s pause here to tip our hats to the Daves of the world.) Later, as an apprentice to a picture-frame maker in the years before he left for America, Davies had made the acquaintance of a learned woman, a “great reader of fine literature,” with whom he had shared one of his compositions. Her encouragement never left him.
In London, he lived in a lodging house in Newington Butts, near Elephant and Castle, for two years. For the first twelve months, he wrote non-stop, producing tragedies, comedies, humorous essays, and hundreds of short poems. He had no success in his attempts to publish until after the first year, when a publisher offered to print a volume of his short poems at his expense for £25, more than a year’s worth of his weekly stipend. This figure didn’t discourage Davies, and, to fund the book, he paid to print a sheet of poems and tried and sell them door-to-door.
The scheme failed disastrously, culminating in an episode where a lady threw a penny down the stairs for him but refused to let her maid accept the poems in return. Finally, the reader gets some of the emotion that was largely absent from his years wandering in North America. Davies is so disgusted with himself he returns to the lodging house and burns all the remaining copies of the poems, “taking care not to save one copy that would at any time in the future remind me of my folly.” Every writer I know can relate to that feeling, even if very few have had the drive and determination required to attempt to sell their work door-to-door—and poetry no less! When a relative requires some financial assistance, Davies obliges and makes up the difference by leaving his modest but agreeable lodging for the Ark, a working men’s house run by the Salvation Army.
It’s worth pausing here to consider Davies as an example of how someone chooses to live on a basic income—the concept of government paying everyone a minimum income, which has seen a revival in the media since the failed 2016 Swiss referendum on the topic and the rise of automation and the associated risks to full employment. In today’s money, Davies was living on roughly £150 per week, a figure that’s not far off from the $1,000 per month often tossed around as a baseline for a basic income (Finland’s 2017 trial program will provide about $900 per month to participants).
Of his eight shilling per week income, Davies, at this point in his life, chose to spend a quarter being altruistic by helping people back home in Wales, another quarter paying for a place to sleep, and the remaining half for food, general living expenses, and his writing. While his (privately-funded) basic income enabled him to stop working for money for stretches, it didn’t stop him from his unpaid work of writing. In this way, he modeled one of the principle benefits of basic income and a worthy goal for whatever work we pursue: the ability to make such choices about how we spend our time.
The Ark was not to Davies liking and, having received another offer to publish it at his expense, he decides to hit the road as a peddler to save money on rent while earning some income. Even with a peg leg he remained a prolific walker, noting he could keep up a pace of three miles an hour. This scheme is no more successful than his previous attempt. Worst of all, he has been cut off from writing and reading for four months. “The poor man, who has daily duties to perform, has his quiet evenings at home, with friends to lend him books, and being known in the locality, a library from which to borrow them, but what privileges has the wanderer?”
Davies again returns to London, this time to a lodging house called the Farmhouse. Here he works on a manuscript, gets another offer of publication at his expense, and decides to borrow the money from the trustee of his stipend. This once more forces him on the road to save the cost of his bed. He sleeps rough during spring and summer, taking to peddling in the autumn so he can pay for board as the weather worsens. After five months, he returns to the Farmhouse and receives the loan amount in full in the first week of January 1905. Over 200 copies of his volume of poems, The Soul’s Destroyer, are printed. The total of its publicity is two tepid newspaper reviews, one in Yorkshire and one in Scotland.
Again, Davies despairs and considers burning the remaining copies, but the lack of a fireplace in his lodging room prevents him from doing so. With the tenacity we’ve now come to expect of him, Davies decides to send the book to “successful people” with a note asking them to pay for their copy. He does this with sixty copies and, in this way, makes the acquaintance of two well-known writers who promise to help promoting the book with the press. One is “a playwriter, an Irishman, as to whose mental qualification the world is divided, but whose heart is unquestionably great.” This Irishman is George Bernard Shaw.
An avalanche of publicity for The Soul’s Destroyer follows, as does a career in which Davies goes on to write more than fifty books. Towards the end of Super-Tramp, Davies writes of his change of luck, “Certainly I have led a worthless, wandering and lazy life, with, in my early days, a strong dislike to continued labor, and incapacitated from the same in later years. No person seemed inclined to start me on the road to fame, but, as soon as I had made an audacious step or two, I was taken up, passed quickly on from stage to stage, and given free rides farther than I expected.”
This would have been a fitting place to end the book, but Davies instead closes with a brief chapter called A House to Let, in which he describes his bitterness over an episode with a peculiar landlady in his hometown in Wales. Having returned there with an intent to settle down and write, Davies is thrilled to find a beautiful house for rent. He has only just moved in when the landlady gives him notice for no apparent reason. “Never live in a house next door to your landlady or landlord,” he concludes. “Many people might not find this warning necessary, but the hint may be useful to poor travellers like myself who, sick of wandering, would settle down to the peace and quiet of after days.”
With the help of the Welsh poet, Edward Thomas, and his wife, Helen Berenice Noble, Davies did find an idyllic cottage in which to write in Kent and, later, several in Nailsworth in the Cotswolds. Looking back on his life and his prolific written output, Davies once commented, “…it seems to me that the finest life on earth is to choose the work you love, and it must then follow that the harder you work the happier you will be.” This is a pleasing sentiment to close an essay, but I’ll resist the temptation to end on a high note—as Davies did in Super-tramp—because it’s utter baloney.
What was consistent about Davies in Super-tramp was not that he chose work he loved but rather the work that would help him accomplish his goal, from working cattle ships to hawking laces in Swindon while he saved money to publish his first book. Davies more accurately could have said that “doing what you love is not always loving what you do,” a piece of wisdom writer Mark Manson ascribed to the poet Charlies Bukowski—who himself was a sort of modern-day Davies.
After reading Super-tramp, I read Davies’s most famous poem, Leisure, differently. It is as sentimental as his quote about working hard at work you love, and I think it was Davies’s admonition to himself as much as to society. More than most of us, Davies lived a life full of care. I’d venture that those experiences are what gave him the ammunition to write such a good poem about the folly of it.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
—William H. Davies, from Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)
Jennifer Richardson is the author of a travel memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Full Grown People, and Edible Ojai & Ventura County, and is forthcoming in the anthology A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis.