Homeless people are without many of the possessions that give identity. Without permanent residence, they have no fixed regional identity; they are everywhere and anywhere. Most have also left their families and professions; they are therefore without those networks by which the majority of people define themselves. Homeless people leave the world of public identity to enter what amounts to another world. Authors who portray the homeless in their works set about to depict and to understand this world apart from houses, jobs, and material possessions.
One of the first writers to explore the world of the homeless was George Orwell, whose Down and Out in Paris and London appeared in 1933. In this book, Orwell describes his own experiences living as a homeless man. Orwell wants people to drop their prejudices and accept the homeless as fellow humans. He claims that begging is a job like any other—a difficult and very low-paying job, but a job. Orwell addresses the accusation that the homeless are drifters, always on the move, and answers that there are laws that prohibit vagrants from staying in any one shelter longer than a few days. Such laws are still common.
With much wit, Orwell shows that the charities that help the homeless do so by demanding that vagrants pay for their supper by listening to a sermon. He asks why, when people drop below a certain level of income, others believe they have the right to preach to them. In one absurd sequence, he shows vagrants who have marched for miles to get a charity meal. They are forced to spend a half hour on their knees in prayer to pay for that meal. Orwell’s account is written in the first person. It is highly realistic; he tries to overwhelm the reader with the gritty details of homeless life.
In John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), a small group of homeless men are central characters. Mack and the boys live in Monterey, where the book is set, in an abandoned warehouse, which they have converted into a flophouse and which they call the Palace. Mack and the boys provide comic relief throughout the book with their bumbling misadventures. Their best plans go awry: They decide to give a party for a man who has befriended them. It is to be a surprise party, so they give it in the man’s own home when he is away, expected back any moment. By the time he returns home, his house is a shambles. His favorite possessions are broken. The wonderful party backfires completely. Mack and the boys, however, recover from this as from every disaster to try again.
Steinbeck romanticizes this group of tramps. They are brave and lovable figures, akin to Charlie Chaplin. Because they are without ambition, he sees them as healthier than “normal” competitive people. They are true philosophers.
Laurie King, in her novel To Play the Fool (1995), makes a homeless man her central hero. She creates a character who was once a famous scholar and who gave up his former life to become a vagrant. Her main character speaks only in quotations from the Bible, even when ordering food at a restaurant. Her novel is set in Berkeley and San Francisco, and the students at the University of California, Berkeley, have turned the man into a popular prophet.
King’s book is fascinating in that she brings in much material pertaining to the literary tradition of the fool. This figure dresses in motley and, through mime and other modes, acts the fool in order to expose foolishness in society. King’s implication is that her central character has given up the comfortable trappings of being socially acceptable. He has made a sacrifice of his former life. He has done so in order to reach more people on a common level and is, therefore, heroic.
It is a tradition in fiction to satirize and to question the customs and conventions of society. Homeless people are living outside of those customs that make up “normal life” for the majority. Therefore, they make good material for authors who wish to reflect upon the human condition from a perspective that is outside of the norm.
Blau, Joel. The Visible Poor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Brandenburg, Franz, and Michael Rosen, eds. Home. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Nelson, Theresa. The Beggars’ Ride. New York: Orchard Books, 1992.
Neufeld, John. Almost a Hero. London: Macmillan, 1995.
Spohn, Kate. Broken Umbrellas. New York: Viking, 1994.
Torrey, E. Fuller. Nowhere to Go. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.