Tom Kromer: Forgotten Depression Era Writers

CaptureTom Kromer wrote one novel (Waiting For Nothing) and several stories and reviews about depression era life. Considered a proletarian or working-class writer his prose took on that Hard-Boiled stance of the tough-guy façade, and yet underneath was a man who felt more than other men the dark portent of his country’s nightmare of poverty and degradation as a vagabond and hobo wandering from city to city in search of jobs and food.

I’ve been rereading a selection that includes his only novel (Waiting For Nothing), and a few stories and reviews. The novel depicts with searing realism life on the bum in the 1930s and, with greater detachment, the powerless frustration of working-class people often too locked in to know their predicament. Waiting for Nothing, Kromer’s only completed novel, is largely autobiographical and was written at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in California. It tells the story of one man drifting through America, east coast to west, main stem to side street, endlessly searching for “three hots and a flop”―food and a place to sleep. Kromer scans, in first-person voice, the scattered events, the stultifying sameness, of “life on the vag”―the encounters with cops, the window panes that separate hunger and a “feed,” the bartering with prostitutes and homosexuals.

You get a taste of his style from the opening paragraph of Waiting For Nothing:

IT is NIGHT. I am walking along this dark street, when my foot hits a stick. I reach down and pick it up. I finger it. It is a good stick, a heavy stick. One sock from it would lay a man out. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would lay him out. I plan. Hit him where the crease is in his hat, hard, I tell myself, but not too hard. I do not want his head to hit the concrete. It might kill him. I do not want to kill him. I will catch him as he falls. I can frisk him in a minute. I will pull him over in the shadows and walk off. I will not run. I will walk.

I turn down a side street. This is a better street. There are fewer houses along this street. There are large trees on both sides of it. I crouch behind one of these. It is dark here. The shadows hide me. I wait. Five, ten minutes, I wait. Then under an arc light a block away a man comes walking. He is a well-dressed man. I can tell even from that distance. I have good eyes. This guy will be in the dough. He walks with his head up and a jaunty step. A stiff does not walk like that. A stiff shuffles with tired feet, his head huddled in his coat collar. This guy is in the dough. I can tell that. I clutch my stick tighter. I notice that I am calm. I am not scared. I am calm. In the crease of his hat, I tell myself. Not too hard. Just hard enough. On he comes. I slink farther back in the shadows. I press closer against this tree. I hear his footsteps thud on the concrete walk. I raise my arm high. I must swing hard. I poise myself. He crosses in front of me. Now is my chance. Bring it down hard, I tell myself, but not too hard. He is under my arm. He is right under my arm, but my stick does not come down. Something has happened to me. I am sick in the stomach. I have lost my nerve. Christ, I have lost my nerve. I am shaking all over. Sweat stands out on my forehead. I can feel the clamminess of it in the cold, damp night. This will not do. This will not do. I’ve got to get me something to eat. I am starved.

Like many others who traveled the rails, worked odd-jobs, went hungry, did what they had to do to survive, Tom’s novel chronicles this dark period of desperation. As I think about the future, of the broken promises of our leaders, of the way the world is heading into a dark time again I return to the men and women who wrote of despair and noirish necessity in other eras of poverty and degradation. Tom’s work doesn’t pull any strings, it doesn’t put a rosy tint of the world, but rather puts it out there as he lived it and saw it under little illusion. Maybe we need such works to remind us what may one day be upon us sooner than we’d like.

Kromer himself came from a classic proletarian background; his family life is similar to that of Larry Donovan, the proletarian hero of Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited. Yet Kromer’s ideas are essentially apolitical. His narrator has dropped below the worker class to the lumpenproletariat, the horrifying world of stiffs and bos. The book, however, does have its leftist spokesmen—Karl, a writer, and Werner, an artist. Because their work captures the pain and suffering of life on the stem, it is unacceptable to the general public.

Cut off from any feeling of connection with the masses and relying instead on his individual know-how to survive, the narrator rejects this vision of a better future: “I am tired of such talk as this. You can stop a revolution of stiffs with a sack of toppin’s. I have seen one bull kick a hundred stiffs off a drag. When a stiff’s gut is empty, he hasn’t got the guts to start anything. When his gut is full, he just doesn’t see any use in raising hell.” Kromer has captured perfectly the whining, whipped-dog tone of the down-and-out vagrant. These stiffs are no threat to property or the social order; they have no politics, no ideology. All they care about is a decent feed and place to sleep.

As James West III states,

We must be careful to distinguish between Tom Kromer, the author of Waiting for Nothing, and “Kromer the narrator of the book. In the act of writing this account, author Tom Kromer betrays his hope that the inhuman situation he describes can be corrected. His book functions, on its most obvious level, as an account of life in extremis. Kromer seems to believe that once people are shown degradation and injustice, they will do something to help. It is also important to draw a distinction between “Kromer,” the narrator, and the majority of the vagrants he encounters. In Waiting for Nothing we see this narrator’s strong fellow feeling prevent him from bludgeoning an innocent passerby, from robbing a bank, and even from performing the “dummy chunker,” a scam that preys only on people’s feelings. The narrator has chosen to show us incidents where he has, in a sense, failed. By emphasizing these failures, Tom Kromer has transformed what could have been a documentary of skid-row life into an artistic creation that traces a personal struggle to preserve human virtues and emotions in the face of a brutal and dehumanizing reality. (284)


You can find Waiting For Nothing and Other Stories: here…

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