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Harry Kemp: Super Tramp Before Jack and Jack

Most visitors – residents likely too – know the name Harry Kemp from the street in the East End that honors him, Harry Kemp Way, where Outer Cape Health Care has its offices. The honor, however, has nothing to do with STD testing or stitches, though Kemp, a lothario of note and general tough guy, might have enjoyed the proximity.

Kemp was a notable member of the arts colony that thrived here after the First World War. He was a poet and writer of prose, and, like his hero Jack London, became, through books and lectures, a spirited idol of adolescent American boys who admired his rebel spirit and taste for adventure.

He was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1883. He grew up near a train yard and was always eager for the bigger world, leaving home at 17. He made his way to the coast by jumping trains heading towards the Pacific, and became a cabin boy on a steamship, traveling a considerable distance.

He eventually enrolled at the University of Kansas, arriving in Wichita in 1906 clinging to the underside of a boxcar, and landing on the front page of the New York Tribune in a human interest story appealing to a national appetite for tales about tramps and hobos. The Kansas City Star proclaimed him the “Tramp Poet,” a moniker that stuck throughout a long career marked by similar self-promotion.

Building on his early notoriety, he began selling poems to newspapers and magazines, and left school. He wrote and vagabonded, and lived for a time in Utopian communities which, popular among artists at the time. He had numerous affairs with women, including Upton Sinclair’s wife, and became embroiled in their public divorce in 1911, furthering his notoriety. Kemp also found himself in Paris amongst the Lost Generation, and published “Tramping on Life” in 1922, a bestseller in the genre.

Kemp first visited Provincetown in the 1920s with fellow bohemians and progressives from Greenwich Village, as the town became a regular refuge for them. In this time, he published work that made him a known tramp poet: Chanteys and Ballads: Sea-Chanteys, Tramp-Ballads and Other Ballads and Poems. His work was also published in periodicals The Smart Set and The Masses. As part of Eugene O'Neill’s crowd, he played a seaman in the original production of “Bound East for Cardiff.”

Kemp became a star of the lecture circuit, due to his lack of pretense and direct style, and always returned to Provincetown, to the shack he built for himself in the East End and lived in for forty years. Many long remembered his readings at the shack, where he also composed and signed minute poems with a seagull feather.

After World War II – or perhaps because of – Kemp denounced Leftism, and it said that, in the end, he praised Jesus as the Divine Hobo.

Seaside Talkers Provincetown Summer of 1917

They drank the bitter, salt wine of the sea, They breathed up drowning bubbles from below While we sat in the storm’s red after-glow Discussing Art and Love – sipping tea. I was a poet, he, an artist; she, A famous actress . . . lightly to and fro We shuttled epigrams as salesmen show Rich silks that change in colors momently.

And while the fishers clung to planks and spars And rode the huge backs of waves, we sat Beneath a young night full of summer stars: And we discussed of life this way and that Until we felt, when we arose for bed, That there was nothing left had not been said.

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