Wednesday, November 28, 2012

JIm Tully: The Origins of Hardboiled Fiction?

"Across a chasm of years the outlines of even the most vivid of life are blurred. But impressions gained as a youthful hobo are likely to endure until the rover has wandered the last road home. I have often wished that Cervantes had written a tale of his wanderings on the sunlit roads of Spain, or that Goldsmith had written in matchless English of the days when he played a flute for bread, or that blind Homer had left a few pages about his experiences while tramping the roads of Greece. The old minstrel might even have immortalized a Greek slave who fed him."
                                                             (Jim Tully, Beggars of Life)

I've been collecting books by circus worker, laborer, road-kid,  boxer and writer, Jim Tully for the last twenty years, so by now I have a pretty good collection. But I dare not open them too often for fear of damaging them. So these  reprints- seeing the light of day for more than half a century- are particularly welcome. I think I must have first heard of Tully sometime in the early 1970s, most likely in Kenneth Allsop's forgotten classic text of the open road, Hard Travellin.' I think that must have been where I first heard of Tom Kromer as well. Two writers I immediately knew I had to find out about. While someday a biography of Kromer might appear, there is now  an excellent and long-awaited biography of Tully, written by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidzirk. The thoroughly researched Jim Tully- American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, published in 2011 by Kent State University,  portrays Tully warts and all, and should be read by anyone interested in hardboiled fiction, proletariat writing, or books about the open road.  

The Tully reprints all come with excellent introductions: Shanty Irish  by director/novelist John Sayles; The Bruiser by boxing expert and cultural critic Gerald Early; Circus Parade by graphic novelist writer Harvey Pekar; and Beggars of Life by Bauer and Dawidziak. While Bauer and Dawidziak's  biography sports an  intro by historian Ken Burns. The latter makes the point that  Tully is a quintessential American writer, comparing him favorably to Mark Twain. Born in 1891 in Cleveland, Ohio,  Tully, whose forebearers came from Donegal, Ireland, became friends with  Charlie Chaplin, for whom he worked as publicist, but about whom he was not beyond criticising in his writing.  He was also a friend of W.C. Fields, Langston Hughes, Stanley Ketchel, Jack Dempsey, who, regarding The Bruiser, "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," and H.L. Mencken, who also promoted Tully as a writer. No doubt about it, The Bruiser is one of the best boxing "novels" ever written; Circus Parade, one of the finest portrayals of what occurs beyond the big top; Beggars of Life arguably the best depiction of life on the road; and Shanty Irish, an incisive, often humorous portrayal of working class immigrant life. Influenced by a range of writers, from Jack London to the Russians, Tully, in his time was ranked alongside Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neil and Dreiser. It's claimed that, before becoming an actor, Robert Mitchum went on the road after reading Tully's Beggars of Life. 

Nathan considered  Tully was the original hard-boiled writer, preceding Hammett, Chandler or any of the other Black Mask writers. I suppose one could make a  case for this, though it remains arguable. No matter, because the autodidact Tully, whether writing about poor Irish, boxers, movie people, hoboes, or circus folk, always had an eye on the  lower depths, a literary precursor to Woody Guthrie, whose book Bound For Glory, he admired.

It was hanging around hobo jungles and libraries where he could get warm and not be harassed by the police, that Tully began to read. Encouraged by his sister to write, he was, according to Charles Laughton, the most intelligent man in Hollywood. Always a hard drinker, Tully saw his book- here, as Bauer and Dawidziak point out, it's  difficult to call any of his books novels, more like fictionalized autobiography- Beggars of Life made into film starring Wallace Beery and Louis Brooks, who apparently found the short, red-haired, odd-looking Tully somewhat repulsive. His Laughter in Hell was filmed in 1933, starring Pat O'Brien. He also worked uncredited on the screenplays for 1935 The Raven starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karlof, and appeared in the 1930 Way For a Sailor starring John Gilbert and Wallace Beery, not long after  Tully decked Gilbert in the Brown Derby after writing a profile of the heartthrob. Tully died in Hollywood in 1947, a literary star already in decline. Soon he would disappear from literary history.

Anyone reading these four Tully titles will find that, after all these years, they hold up well. If you haven't read Tully, you might start with the biography or, if you want to get straight into his work, try Beggars of Life.  These are all important books that anyone interested in early noir/hardboiled fiction, hobo and low-life literature should read.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

circuses, hoboing, and boxing first hand by a literate man - what more could you ask for?