When I finished Mystery Train and Ranters & Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus, I found myself dazzled by the breadth of the author's knowledge and his ability to connect ideas. I also wanted to run to my shelves of CDs and albums to re-examine Marcus's primary sources, to hear the music I already knew in dynamic new contexts.
I was no less creatively and intellectually energized by Todd DePastino's Citizen Hobo. DePastino's subject is American homelessness, not the cultural gravity of pop music a la Marcus. Citizen Hobo, though, is quick to view the issue not only through traditional scholarship, but also through literature, dime store novels, letters, the underground press and songs, material that brings DePastino's stories to life. By the time I finished Citizen Hobo I wanted to re-read On the Road and The 42nd Parallel, dive into some Whitman and Frost and burn my own CD compilation of songs about hoboes and home, spinning off from Springsteen, Dylan and Guthrie. I offer that as high praise.
As for the primary theme of DePastino's work, it's not easily summarized. Make no mistake that this is a rich, academic text that assumes a strong understanding of post-Civil War American history and political ideologies. Still, the narrative is crisp, engaging and eminently readable. Citizen Hobo traces the metamorphosis of hoboes from white men who followed the roads to work in the late 1800s to the modern men and women of various backgrounds who have become both homeless and "houseless." In doing so, DePastino delves into American racism and sexism, the failures and successes of capitalism in providing genuine opportunities for all, public perceptions versus the realities of homelessness, and the politicizing and artistic celebrations of "hobohemia." If there's one overarching idea it's that American notions about the homeless have too often been oversimplified, ideologically charged or based on erroneous information. Citizen Hobo gives individuals back their various unique and compelling voices by presenting the subject of homelessness in all its complexity.
I'd go on, but I'm distracted by thinking about which of Lou Reed's New York songs better represents DePastino's depiction of 1980s homelessness - "Dirty Boulevard" or "Xmas in February." Read Citizen Hobo and prepare to be inspired to rethink your own perceptions of the homeless and re-explore your own touchstones of the American experience.