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Homegrown Faculty Series featured John Lennon, Ph.D.

TAMPA, Fla. -- On Jan. 14 the USF Humanities Institute’s “Homegrown Faculty Series” kicked off the spring semester with John Lennon’s presentation on his recently published book, “Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869-1956.” Held in the Grace Allen Room of the Library, attendees embarked on a historical journey of the hobo while indulging in wine and cheese kindly provided by the Institute.

In his presentation, Lennon explored the cultural history of the hobo in the United States. Lennon argues that hobos are very much part of the fabric of America and intertwines historical, theoretical and literary representations of the hobo in his book. Historically, hobos weren’t simply pawns to American capitalism. They were part of a subculture of working-class individuals who formed a collective voice in order to resist American hegemony. Lennon suggests that part of this resistance was synchronous with train hopping.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in the late 19th century provoked the popularity and allure of hopping trains, an illegal activity that presented hobos with the opportunity of finding work while experiencing freedom and mobility. Lennon views the train as a collective space for hobos to engage in light-hearted conversations and story-telling. But, more importantly, this space was a place of temporary refuge where identity was re-negotiated and bonds were formed.

What Lennon discovers is that eventually categories were put in place to police the hobo body. The hobo was considered an unwelcome “parasite” within mainstream American society, and although often viewed with sympathetic eyes, was labeled as a “nuisance,” that was “depraved” and seen as “savage.”

Eventually, riding the rails became more dangerous as the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 passed; guards were hired to police the trains and arrested those who did not pay. The infrastructure of the train also morphed from being the commanding, brute force of the 19th century, to the sleeker and faster model that we are familiar with today. Thus, the decline of the hobo was inevitable.

In contemporary culture, the image of the hobo is staring back at us from the periphery of society. Representations of the image of the hobo revitalizes itself in popular television shows and movies. While time constraints prevented us from a full analysis of his book, Lennon’s presentation provided eager listeners with a rich array of historical facts, myths, music and images allowing us a fascinating glimpse inside of the subculture of the hobo.


Filed under:English Arts and Sciences    
Author:Stephanie Derisi