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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 1
Spring, 1987



4. WILLIAM BREVDA, HARRY KEMP, THE LAST BOHEMIAN. Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell University Press, 1986. 278 pp. $37.50, cloth.     ISBN 0-8387-5086-9.

Like driftwood or cork at sea, Harry Kemp, boxcar poet, "tramp" autobiographer and dunemaster, always seems to turn up, never to disappear. In literary anecdotes and asides, footnotes, bibliographies and even in an occasional conversation or two, there he is! Now, remarkably, he is the subject of a full blown critical biography.

Perhaps the best single point that the book makes, and the one of most interest to O'Neillians, is Brevda's observation that "In his declining years, Kemp could have been a character in The Iceman Cometh, a kind of Harry Hope, or one of the others in the play who wait for their dream ship to come in, with a glass of cheer in hand to drown away the knowledge that it isn't coming in." Harry Kemp's story definitely brings a weird historical perspective to the Harry Hope bar universe. But unfortunately, as for Kemp's and O'Neill's actual relationship with one another--touch and go, at best--there is just as much, or more, to be found in Louis Sheaffer's O'Neill, Son and Playwright, in a brief passage or two, than in Professor Brevda's book.

For those curious about Harry Kemp--and he was a curious man, indeed--the handful of photographs certainly make looking at this intensively researched book worthwhile. But whether or not this kind of biography is appropriate for such a randy character as Kemp is another question altogether. Perhaps Kemp himself best dealt with the situation by writing his still readable, autobiographical Tramping on Life, a bestseller in 1922. In many ways, it appears difficult to improve on Kemp's own telling of his story. Perhaps that is why he keeps surfacing, time and again. Salut, Harry! Till the next time.

--Marshall Brooks



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