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From the Vagrant to the Fugitive: Institutional Models in Nelson
Algrens Somebody in Boots.
Nelson Algren, hard-boiled chronicler and fellow traveller of skid row society, maintained a sentimental aesthetic for junkies and petty hustlers, prostitutes and losing gamblers, which both stamped his work and imprisoned him on the fringes of American letters. Whilst hoboing around the social wreckage of depression America during the early 1930s, Algren became incarcerated within the cells of Brewster County jail for a number of weeks, awaiting trial on charges relating to the theft of a typewriter. The horrific institutional experience fed into the thematic of his first novel Somebody in Boots , published in 1935, transforming the trajectories of the central protagonist from those of the would-be pioneer to the labyrinthine wilderness squatted by the vagrant and the fugitive. Drawing on the polemical fusion between the historical and the imaginative, emblematic of the so-called proletarian writing of the period, this article argues that Algrens narrative exposes the productive nature of the penal network in America and the malign rituals of hijacking and corrupting the innocence of the individual.
From the romantic conception of the open road, celebrated in the poetry of Walt Whitman and propagated by the populist aesthetic of the dime novel, to the spectacle of the destitute tramp, the practices of American penality have sustanined a synonymity between the vagrant and the villain. Thinking in terms of cultural heritage, this may have had much to do with the legacy left by the isolated settlement communities of the New World their uneasiness with the mysterious external landscape became a guiding principle in equating the appearance of the outsider with the deviant traits associated with the outlaw. A fundamental reinforcement of this inheritance, manifested during the enduring economic and near political bankruptcies that had existed cyclically from the 1870s to the 1930s, hurling an enormous flux of unemployed migrants onto the roads and rails that had traditionally been the transient sites of the hobo worker. The underpinning contention of this article, then, is to examine how such an assigned relationship has been grounded within an institutional model a model of exile from society that functioned to codify a space where the conception of the vagrant is projected as the dangerous other', the deviant and the criminal.
The opening of the narrative locks us into the epicentre of poverty that plagued the rural landscape in the mid-1920s. Shrouded in dust storms, the infertile nature of the West Texas wasteland encloses the McKay family, whose alienated lives spiral into states of unemployment, drunkenness, and violence, engendering "a dim feeling as of daily loss and daily defeat". (SB p.13) In order to anaesthetise this despair, the adolescent protagonist Cass McKay pursues two main trajectories within the town. The first path directs the character to the Mexican pool-hall, where he acts as a small-time pimp for local prostitutes. The second track leads to the jungle, a locus occupied by transients lodged within the demonised fringes of the town. The symbol that conceptually envelops these sites compressing them into, and maintaining them as, peripheral spheres of both geography and deviancy is the jailhouse, which for McKay "held a peculiar kind of dread". (SB p. 69) The claustrophobic pitch that escapes from the dungeon cell captures the gaze of the character, forging a nexus between the walls and bars and the entrapment imposed upon McKay by the mendicant family and town. As a consequence of the overt visibility of the penal institution, the protagonist is imbued with a yearning to be free, the instinctual need to elude the "oppressive heat" (SB p.69) of confinement gradually translates being on the road to the trajectories generic in being on the run.
The initial transience of the hobo represents the rite de passage tramp into an institutional paradigm. For McKay, the genesis of such a model manifests itself in the spectacle of the welfare line, which, because of its unprecedented en masse nature, symbolised a near fracture of the ideological and urban landscape of the 1930s. As the character regresses down the line, he advances into an awareness that "each man in the line ahead [ ] was writing his name in the book before receiving food." (SB p.44) The experienced vagrants in the soup-line implicitly translate such practices into the institutional ritual of naming; that is, connoting the threshold of committal into a definable penal term, such as vagrant, delinquent, and deviant, which holds extensions to the numbering of the prisoner and the fingerprinting of the accused what Tony Tanner would call "harpooning". The fugitive Thomas Clancy, who imposes an array of aliases upon his identity, infuses the dynamics of elusiveness into McKays consciousness.
In Skid Row as a Way of Life, Samuel E. Wallace argues that such an interaction represents a process of assimilation that both alienates the new vagrant from the norms of conventional society whilst educating the tramp in the deviant characteristics commonly associated with skid-row, serving to reinforce the positions of centrality and marginality that had developed into overt penal objectives for controlling the underclass.
In A School for Bums, Mary Heaton Vorse observed the "long shuffling "passage of the bread line in New Yorks Lower East Side during the early 1930s. The rigid pattern of movement mirrors the jarring images of the institutional lock-step, projected by the miserable march of the chain-gangs shackled internees through the streets of states like Georgia. The analogy is not that vacuous when one considers the events that could shape such correlative representations, such as the popular publication in 1932 of Robert E. Burnss I Am A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang. The spectre of the requited convict in Mervyn LeRoys cinematic adaptation of this "document of barbarism," to borrow Walter Benjamins phrase, his freshly unshackled feet still fettered within the restrictive and engendered reflex of the lock-step, instils an unconscious and analogous reading of the spectacle that the welfare line imposes upon the gaze. McKay migrates into this midst of what Vorse calls the sites of "massed misery".
There appears a military recruitment officer alongside the soup-line, who the narrative depicts as a "tall man in khaki, in glistening black boots, with badges and buttons, with red stripes and gold braid." (SB p.43) This functions to compress the ragged individuals within cogent institutional parameters, codified by the comparable awareness of the agenda of the guards in both jails and prisons who serve to project a whole network of projected antitheses; such as the demarcation of power from non-power, and normality from deviancy. Thus, the soup-lines, like the jungles, the sprawling urban Hoovervilles, and the hustling atmospherics exuding from skid-row scapes, represent a perpetually reinforced and guarded periphery that projects the legal and panoptical surveillance of the outsider and outcast.
Having ended one section with a view of the dishevelled tramps being sentenced to sixty days in jail on a charge of vagrancy, Tom Kromers semi-autobiographical narrative Waiting for Nothing, published in 1935, institutes the following chapter with the stark depiction of life within a mission flop; a philanthropic site that draws queues for scant supplies of food usually soup or bread and a flop, that is, a place to lie down or doss. This jarring juxtaposition, accentuated by the readers anticipation of a jail scene being replaced by an almost Orwellian pathology of the mission, constitutes a shared rationale. What Irvin Goffman refers to as the penal ceremonies of degradation, which, among other rituals, involves the stripping and strip-searching of the new inmate, becomes an integral feature that heralds McKays admittance into the Jesus Saves Mission:
The exposure of naming and stripping, I would argue, pivots on the same principle of penal logic, which, according to Robert Woods in the late 1800s, defined the "dangerous types" as the "confirmed pauper, the confirmed prostitute, and confirmed drunked". This is not that surprising when one considers that as late as 1895 in states such as Minnesota, both the mission and jail were regulated by the State Board of Corrections and Charities. In this light, the two sites function to produce the vagrant model that is intrinsically associated with what Woods calls the "habitual criminal act". The eventual experience of both spaces hurls McKay through a perpetual series of entrances and exits, a process that would remind James P. Spradley, in his survey of destitute areas within the American City, of the trapped figure in the revolving door. This enforced recidivism categorises both the vagrant as a named jailbird and the jailbird as a named vagrant, until the journey through the missions and jails becomes almost an inevitable determinant of skid-row acculturation, as McKay eventually comes to realise: "Going to jail was all a part of this life; no one escaped it for very long and hed been pretty lucky for a long time now." (SB p 138)
Unlike the penitentiary, the unwritten rationale of the jail possesses no fear of the innocent individual, compressing the accused awaiting trial and the convicted serving sentences within the same publicly labelled deviant space, overcrowded with "the sounds of human trouble". This has much to do with the historical premise of the penitentiary, which seeks to destroy the external world in order to impose modes of reform upon the inmate, which, by the 1930s became couched in medical terminology that categorised the convict as the patient and criminality as the disease. But if criminality was a disease, a virus that seeps into and determines the motivations of the individual, then the jail had always existed as its carrier. As late as 1935, only five years after its formation, the Federal Prison Bureau published a report that recommended the closure of nearly half of American jails. Of the three thousand jails visited by the Bureau, nearly thirteen hundred were observed to be unfit for human habitation. [In the 1950s that figure rose to eighty percent]. The report concluded by stating that such "deplorable conditions" often influenced those awaiting trial to admit to a crime "whether he committed it or not."
Algren articulates the productiveness that underpins such transference from innocence to guilt through the protagonist Nubby oNeill, who is the only experienced criminal imprisoned within the jail. The fact that oNeill has only one arm, the other being torn off whilst working as a child on a production line in a reform school, tentatively lends itself to Michel Foucaults coupling of the institutional lobotomy of identity and the "amputation of nature," which marked the genesis of the characters deviant state. The inclement patterns of behaviour ordains oNeill as the hub of inmate society, serving to perpetuate the dangerous delinquent sensibility that had become a marginalising generic term encapsulating peripheral groups, such as vagrants and prisoners, strikers and communists, during economic and Red Scare social crises. Such an enclave of deviancy, captures the readers means of surveillance within the spectacle of the monstrous, as the young jailbirds become engendered by the debris resulting from the implosion of violent behavioural patterns within the jail. The gestures of characters such as Creepy the glance away, the vacuous stare into space - are motivated by the fear of brutalities and the sexual molestation that oNeill represents. The most immediate manifestation of this fear, serving to accentuate what Gresham Sykes calls "the pains of imprisonment" becomes imposed on the consciousness of McKay by an inmate run body known as the kangaroo court, which represents a mirror of the external judicial apparatus that encloses them. Earlier accounts, such as Joseph F. Fishmans statement in 1923 that the conditions endemic to the jail system manufactured high levels of criminality, prompted the ex-Deputy of Corrections Joseph Fulling to investigate the problem in 1934, the findings of which suggested that internal groups permeated inmate life in more that sixty percent of the nations jails. The effects of such an intense form of confinement, leads McKay to a level of institutionalisation that represents a divorce with all the traits of a childhood past what the imprisoned Robert Lowell would later extend into the prison writers aesthetic of "lost connections". In this sense, the isolated figure displays almost a premonitory conception of the model being assigned to him:
A register of this "nuance of damage", to borrow W.H. Audens phrase, on the institutionalised individual can be gleamed from the levels of recidivism, that is, the amount of prisoners who perpetually re-offend and become subject to re-imprisonment. By 1931, President Franklin Roosevelt was in despair at the thought of the high levels of such recidivism, which had reached as much as sixty percent in the penitentiary circuit. But the jail, with its constant influx of transients, drug-addicts, alcoholics, and ex-mental patients an anathema to the concept of a classless America possessed habitual rates escalating towards eighty percent of those released. Algren plays with the anticipated consequences of such a cyclical experience that Roosevelt, along with many penologists of the period, was eventually forced to admit codified a school for criminals.
So far, I have established a framework where the characters motivation to teach and learn legally defined terms of deviant behaviour can be partly understood by drawing upon the underlying forces that writers like Foucault and Mike Fitzgerald perceive as the primary function of the penal institution. Once released, both oNeill and McKay embark on a felonius caper that leaves an intervening uniformed figure dead, resulting in the absolute fugitation of trajectories:
The intense experience of institutional restriction in the form of the jail, and, by extension, the rituals endemic to the mission and welfare line, has served to mould McKay within a network of furtive actions unprecedented in his life before hitting the road. Together with his apprenticed side-kick, the ex-skid row prostitute Norah Egan, McKay embarks on a chain of night-time hold-ups that result in the fleeting movements across the dim-lit underworld sprawl of 1930s Chicago: