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Fred T. Marsh, “Absolutely Down and Out,” Books

March 3, 1935, p. 2

This is a short book, slightly self-consciously literarily, I think, autobiographical, written out on odd scraps of paper under the conditions it describes.

It is a little piece of dynamite which probably will accomplish nothing in its explosion because people will stuff up their cars with cotton and flee to their bomb-proof cellars. But it should give them a good jar. The legendary practice of the ostrich, moreover, doesn’t always work.

The surplus population is a terrible nuisance. It has got so you can’t walk the streets without being pestered by bums, panhandlers, and riffraff. Even if you give one of them a dime he will most likely spend it on drink or “smoke” or hashish or something. These birds are no good, anyway. They are depressing. Let’s talk about something else.

The unhappy reviewer, however, has to write something about the book because it is his job. Anyway, merely as a curiosity it ought to be interesting to people who, possessed of some slight glimmer of the imagination, have wondered what it is like to be absolutely down and out, on the fritz, a self-confessed bum, sniping butts from the gutters, panhandling or doing a little petty thieving for the next meal, the night’s flop or some kind of juice to send him Lethe-wards (John Keats’s word, I believe).

The trouble with these modern books is that there is no glamour about them. Now the old-fashioned hobo was a picturesque figure on the American landscape—like Mobey Dick [sic] and the Duke—vying with the Negro as a first-rate comic character. He led a merry life, carefree, untroubled by office hours, investments or factory whistles. And sometimes he was a noble fellow underneath, for all his rags and tatters. Frequently he reformed for a woman’s sake or in memory of his old mother. There is no glamour in this autobiographical record, no sentiment, no laughs, no color, no pathos, no humor, no nobility. The here is frequently urged to come to Jesus, but he never does. And the less said about the one love-story episode, all things considered, the better.

Still and all the thing sticks in your mind. It may depress you a little. After all, even a bum, even a bum who could no longer hold down a job even if he got one, even the unfortunate addicts of canned heat, bay rum or gasoline, are men [with] (as Shylock said in defense of the pecu[liarities) of his race) the usual number of features, members and parts, and in a general way the usual feelings and emotions.

There are twelve episodes in this book. These episodes tell of certain experiences in the life of a young man who has been over two years on the bum. He’s at the bottom and he know it, dins into himself the philosophy that the only thing that matters is the next meal and the night’s flop. It would probably be better if he kicked off, but men have a strange propensity to hang onto life—biological, probably. He has learned all the ropes, for his is a veteran now. The fact that he was a little more education than most doesn’t mean anything. To hell with that. He is beaten, hasn’t even the guts to turn criminal. And getting his next meal and a place to sleep for the night is a full-time job in itself. You’ll have to read the book—one of the extraordinary documents I have run across in this age of human documents—to know what it is like. You’ll get no more out of me. But I’d like to distribute it around until it became as ubiquitous as a Gideon Bible.

Of the author we are told that he is the son of working people—factory workers. He got himself an education. Five years ago he went to Kansas to get a job in the wheat harvest. There wasn’t any job. He went back home; no job there. He rode the rods to California; nothing done. Since then he has been knocking around trying to keep himself alive. Here’s his story. It will take only a couple of hours of your time.

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