Each month of 2021 Sothis Medias will feature a brief sketch of someone who did things their own way, who lived their own iconoclastic life. Last month we looked at the fringe dweller Harlan Hubbard, this month we are going to ride the rods and look at the life of orphan, hobo, boxer and writer Jim Tully.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
“Jim Tully was one of the fine American novelists to emerge in the 1920s and ’30s. He gained this position with intelligence, sensitivity, and hard work. . . . No matter how crazily violent or fantastic his stories are, readers accept them as nonfiction. Tully makes the improbable seem true.”— Harvey Pekar
Jim Tully is a true American hero, a writer's writer and hero who came to the fore in 1920s and '30s. He started his career as a hobo, a train hoppin' tramp, who left behind the slop and shudder of life in St. Mary's, Ohio to see the country for himself. His story is a rags to resources tale of hardscrap pluck.
Jim Tully's father was a ditch digger, an Irish immagrant named James Dennis. His mother, Bridget Marie Lawler Tully gave birth to him in 1886. Until the death of his pop, he was happy, even if living in a family whose financial condition was broke. His mom died when he was six years old, and like many kids whose moms died in that era, his father found himself unable to really care for his son. So he was sent down to Cincinnati where lived at the St. Joseph Orphanage Asylum for six more years.
At some point he went back home to St. Mary's where he lived with his relatives, the "Shanty Irish", and the name of one of his later books, exploring the world of the underclass Irish workers in the mud spattered streets of Ohio. There wasn't much going on for him there except for hanging out with his cousins, with his Uncle John Lawler, a horse thief who was sentenced to fifteen years in the state pen for his crimes, with his grandpa, Old Hughie Tully, who had the gift of gab and was a natural storyteller, “capable of turning death into an Irish wake and pouring liquor down the throat of the corpse.” He also had a girlfriend of sorts, herself a young prostitute, who was fond of Jim for his kind boyishness and his red hair.
On a fortuitous occasion he was hanging out at a bridge where he met a young vagabond, who convinced him there was nothing for him but hard labor if he stayed in town. He decided to head out for a life on the rails himself. This was Tully's education. His first trip took him to Muncie, Indiana, where he was quick to spend a night in a hobo jungle. It was a gateway to a hobo jungle state of mind. AS he crisscrossed the United States by railway he spent a lot of time in the public libraries where he satiated his lust for the written word.
Sara Haardt wrote that “He became an inveterate library bum, ducking in and out of public libraries from one end of the country to the other. He read everything: biography, history, fiction; Dostoievsky, Carlyle, Olive Schreiner, Balzac, Dumas, Mark Twain, Conrad, the files of the old Smart Set.”
During the six years he spent tramping about, he spent some time working for a circus. Too bad running away to join the circus isn't much of a viable career option anymore as it was in the days of Tully, and the days of the Mighty Atom, another man who met his fate underneath the canvas of the big top. Another of Tully's books, Circus Parade, came out of his experiences as a laborer the traveling entertainers. He paints a lively if unflattering look at the life. In its pages you meet Blackie, a drug addict without a moral compass, the hard-ass Cameron, the owner of the circus, whose business practices erred on the side of the seedy, and Lila the four-hundred pound strong woman, amongst others.
In 1907 he'd had enough of the roadlife for a time. He'd traveled back to Ohio and found himself in Kent. There he found work as a tree surgeon, chain maker, and in another instance where his life gave material for his writing, as a boxer. His experiences in the ring gave authentic shape to his 1936 novel The Bruiser, the tale of a drifter who brawls his way up the ladder and into the heavyweights. Tully got to know a lot of boxers in his life and the characters are modeled on figures such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Gans, Stanley Ketchel, Gene Tunney, Frank Moran, and Johnny Kilbane. Tully dedicated the novel to Dempsey, whom he counted as a friend. Dempsey said of the boo, “If I still had the punch in the ring that Jim Tully packs in The Bruiser, I’d still be the heavyweight champion of the world today.”
During his time in Kent, inspired by all that he'd read on the road, he started giving his own words space on the page. He started writing poetry which was published in the local papers. In 1912 he decided he'd finally had enough of Ohio and moved to Hollywood, where he really started burning the midnight oil as a writer. He became a freelance journalist, which at that time was a path still open to working class folks who hadn't gone to college (1).
Tully was one of the first reporters to start covering the Hollywood scene. As a free-lancer he wrote what he wanted and how he wanted. His portrayals of people like Charlie Chaplin, for whom he had worked, were not always flattering, but people still loved Tully. His work writing up the exploits of the movie stars earned him the name of the most-hated man in Hollywood -and his muckraking wasn't nothing compared to the vituperation and vile seething of today's hate mongering media. Even so, Tully grew journalistic strength from the barbs and lashes thrown at his way, reveling in the title.
As he gained success in the papers, he gave his hand to writing books, memoirs, such as Beggars of Life, about his early days as a hobo. Beggars of Life was his first book and he wrote it in a six week stint while he was living with a bootlegger. His novels that drew on his experiences followed, and he continued to write article after article.
Critics of the day thought his work was violent, his depictions of the realities of prostitution and the life of common workers cut too close to the bone. He did not water it down for a public he thought could not handle it. He respected his audience more than that.
In writing to an editor he said, “I have tried, however futilely, to get away from all the namby-pamby trends of American literature. My reward has been misunderstanding. I am considered a roughneck because, as an artist, I seek to lay bare the broken hearts of the people from whom I sprang.... I have no whine at fate. I began with nothing and have ended with more money than is good for one. . . I write because I love to. . . I have perhaps less academic training than any man who has ever succeeded at writing in America. . . I will never be the artist I thought I would. Words are not elastic enough. . . I have done as nearly that which I set out to do as any American writer ever has. . ."
Please forget and forgo the MA in creative writing. In my opinion it is a mar on America's once vibrant literary landscape. Skip class and go to the library instead, forget the debt. Read books and consider getting into the thick of life, as Jim Tully did.
Literature is in need of the hot fire of lived experience, and the souls like Tully who could lay it all bare and share their unique journey.
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Footnote as media rant:
1 [Matt Taibbi covers the transition of journalism from a job a blue collar type could get into without a degree, to the credentialed mire of elitism for rich kids that it is today in his excellent book Hate Inc., the "Manufacturing Dissent" of today's youtube generation ;) Hate Inc. is probably the most important book I've read this year in terms of the divide between the Coke/Pepsi type non-choice of Red Church or Blue Church.]
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.