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Henry Beston's Gallant Vagabonds

In May 1924 Henry Beston departed the United States for a trip to Spain, spending the next five months traveling throughout the country. Beston hiked through the Pyrenees, the Basque country in northern Spain, and throughout the Spanish countryside. For at least part of the tour he was accompanied by his friend Joe Wood, who would later serve as a brigadier general in the Second World War. Beston and Wood visited the Alhambra, the great Fourteenth-century castle built in Granada for the last Moorish emirs of Spain, where they posed for a photograph in the flowing Moorish robes of the era. While traveling Beston sent few letters back home, writing to Jake Day upon his return that autumn, “I haven’t given any signs of life for a long while. I’ve been in Spain—blessed Spain—the most interesting and civilized country in the globe.” With his facility for languages, Beston was soon speaking fluent Spanish, and found the culture and history of Spain to be entrancing.

By the late spring of 1925 Beston was back at his rented cottage in Eastham, working on a new book he entitled The Book of Gallant Vagabonds, which he dedicated to his friends Colonel and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. “There are times,” Beston wrote in the foreword, “when everyone wants to be a vagabond, and go down the road to adventure, strange peoples, the mountains, and the sea. The bonds of convention, however, are many and strong, and only a few ever break them and go. In this book I have gathered together the strange and romantic lives of actual wanderers who did what so many have wished to do; here are some who gave up all to go and see the world.”

Beston differentiated his “gallant vagabonds” from both “professional travelers and the vagabond ne’er-do-wells,” stating that the true gallant vagabond was neither an idler nor one whose journeys were based on a quest for riches or a purely geographical interest; theirs was a romantic fascination with “the whole fantastic mystery of life.” While this may arguably have been a point of view shared by his vagabonds, it certainly describes Beston’s own romantic fascination with the “fantastic mystery of life” very well. Beston chose six wanderers--John Ledyard, Giovanni Belzoni, James Bruce, Thomas Morton, John Trelawny, and Arthur Rimbaud-- to feature, all of whom shared an urge to travel, an insatiable curiosity about the world, and a spirit of adventure.

Despite the fact that his new book was a significant departure from Beston’s previous work, the critical reception to The Book of Gallant Vagabonds bolstered his conviction that he had more to offer as a writer than simply journalism and children’s stories. Writing for the New York Tribune, Harrison Smith wrote, “Whether these vagabonds were gallant or miserable, or both Mr. Beston has told their tales most entertainingly.” In the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post, A.H. Gibbs wrote, “Mr. Beston’s fine enthusiasm adds color to every page. He has long since won his literary spurs, but in this most excellent volume he proves himself to be a worthy squire to his sextet of knights of the open road.” The reviewer for The New York Times also waxed enthusiastic, writing, “It is difficult to see how one could be other than captivated by the spirit which pervades ‘Gallant Vagabonds’ and the highly lifelike movement which the author imparts to his narratives.”

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