Vagabond Adventures Revisited: Rediscovering the World of Ralph Keeler

Vagabond Adventures - Ralph Keeler
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Since Notoir Books likes to think of itself as “a publisher of books on topics of esoteric interests, eccentric memoirs, overlooked history, otherworldly stories and distinctive voices from the past”, it was inevitable for us to ignore one of the few great books that the 19th century American author Ralph Keeler (1840 – 1873) wrote. It is the quintessential travelogue of its time, and as such a testimony to the sense of adventure and the unknown, that enveloped living in that time frame in the area and around the great lakes and the Mississippi river.

I cannot talk about this book, without telling something about the man who wrote it. At first I thought VAGABOND ADVENTURES was significant because it represented a departure from the more formal and structured literary traditions of its time. But a critical reader pointed out to me that this was the style of the times. There already seemed to be a rich tradition of an oral, vernacular prose around the Mississippi area (George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovinggood stories that later influenced Mark Twain). Keeler embraced this more informal, conversational style wholeheartedly.

Written in a braggy, cock-sure tone, VAGABOND ADVENTURES is a funny read, as well as a testimonial to the fact that those who have a big mouth own the world. This guy obviously likes to talk about himself. We follow the protagonist while he is bluffing his way from one unknown situation into another. Reading it, we will find out that he learns on the go, and practices what he learn. Then he applies it to new, unknown territories.

Born to Improvise

Keeler likes to improvise, as he stumbles from one situation into another. The book starts with his childhood. As a eight years old orphan his schooling was obviously not one of osmosis, as he had no formal training. As a drop-out, young Ralph Keeler had to explore the diverse options of life as a prelude to selecting a direction and trade of specialization. Since he was a restless boy, this was not an option. So unhindered by boundaries, he started to improvise.

Smart people who in recent years studied the human brain during improvisation (in playing music, for example) found that improvisation turns down the brain areas associated with focused attention, inhibition, and self-censoring. It is as if the brain turns off its ability to criticize itself. While improvising, the brain identifies errors and corrects them on the spot. It is as learning when we were babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, learn the rules later. This is exactly what we see happen in VAGABOND ADVENTURES.

Vagabond Adventures - Ralph Keeler
Vagabond Adventures – Ralph Keeler

Vagabond Adventures Book

An orphan runaway child, as an eleven years old kid he became cabin boy on the great lakes. some years later, he learned himself some banjo-tunes and enrolled in a couple of travelling blackface minstrel “troupes”, where he alternated between impersonating a girl singer, and jig-dancing.
After working carnivals and drifting penniless through Europe, he studied at the university of Heidelberg, Germany. This is where the book ends.

Upon returning to the US, he became somewhat of a modest celebrity. He wrote for several papers, and got an assignment to go to, and write about Havana, Cuba. At the time, hostilities between Cuba and the US were the order of the day. On this journey he disappeared. His trunk with clothes was still aboard in his cabin.

Having read VAGABOND ADVENTURES, it is easy to imagine Keeler on board of a ship off the coast of Cuba, standing on the deck. Surrounded by Spanish loyalists, he makes verbal jabs at them, pokes fun, as he brags about how fantastic Americans – and he himself in particular – are. He probably hurls cruel jokes at them, or insults the intelligence of the people of Cuba. I can see how they would pick him up and throw him overboard.

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