Monday, September 13, 2010

Hoboes: by Mark Wyman

by Mark Wyman
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Publisher: Hill and Wang

In Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, historian Mark Wyman attempts to define the role of the migrant worker in the expansion of the western United States. Centered on the years between the advent of the railroad and the rise of the automobile in the pre-Depression 1920s, the book offers a rather untraditional account of the West's settlement, abandoning the popular depiction of a rip-roarin' wild west of outlaws, cowboys, Indians and hokey Johnny Cash songs in favor of a narrative that places this mass of seasonal workers at the forefront.

At its best, Hoboes provides a mostly sympathetic and thoroughly researched picture of the transients whose grunt work in the fields, farms and orchards of the western United States played a major role in the country's economic growth. Wyman's hobo is not that of the stereotypically shiftless and potentially dangerous loner portrayed in various newspapers of the day. Instead, the author paints a revisionist portrait that is far more balanced, showing how laborers of various stripes - American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican - made the country's agricultural industries possible. With each chapter built around the story of a specific state's economic development, Wyman tells of these workers' hard, anonymous lives: those already below the poverty level and how they endured low pay, long hours, dangerous working and unsanitary living conditions; a public and government whose sympathy for immigrant laborers decreased as the isolationist xenophobia of post-World War I America increased; the physical and psychological tolls such a lifestyle exacted.

Nevertheless, Hoboes cannot be recommended to a general audience. Wyman is first and foremost a historian, exhibiting many of the negative connotations that come along with that. The author's writing style tends to be overly methodical (read: dry) and professorial (read: very dry): if a reader doesn't already have an interest in Western labor history, this book likely won't spark such an interest. Although the text is far less imposing than other labor histories, it too often reads like a textbook or dissertation written solely for the highly-educated and tenured-for-decades academia crowd. Certainly, Wyman again proves himself an authority on this topic, but his writing sometimes feels cold, clinical and occasionally repetitive; the book's final summary pages give a concise recap of Wyman's main arguments, but it could be a difficult task getting to that point for some readers. For a casual audience, the most interesting aspect of Hoboes may be its colorful title.

Hoboes does succeed as a study that asserts the migrant's importance in the development of the West and brings some dignity to the many whose lives and contributions to the United States mostly went unnoticed. Wyman also shows how some of the key features and moral questions of this westward expansion, particularly immigration, continue to remain relevant today. But it's a book best left to the scholars, as it assumes a familiarity with the subject that many readers simply won't have and is written without much flair or personality. Those scholars will have plenty to discuss and debate; the rest of us who tag along could find the ride fairly tedious.

1 comment:

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