Tom Kromer, Appalachia’s Forgotten Modernist

By Stefan SchöberleinJuly 21, 2022

Tom Kromer, Appalachia’s Forgotten Modernist
WHEN STEVE BARNHILL moved into his dead uncle’s old room, he decided it was time to finally read the man’s mysterious book. It was the mid-1970s, in his aunt’s house in Huntington, a small West Virginia city on the border of Ohio and Kentucky. He recalls the book sitting on a shelf, a slim hardcover volume dressed in taupe cloth and stamped with bold red letters: Waiting for Nothing.

Steve was impressed — as though, in a strange way, it was the first time his uncle had ever spoken to him. “I personally never had any conversation with him, even though he lived with my aunt,” Steve recalls. “He was a recluse.” Only a few memories survive. “I would just see him in front of the TV or see him walking over from the room he was in to the bathroom.” This was a few years before the uncle’s death, when Steve was a little kid. The house is still around, though it is no longer in the family: a modest, single-story home with a small porch. “He was usually dressed very nice,” Steve continues, “in a silk and satin robe, pajamas, and house shoes. And a scraggly beard.” The thought makes him chuckle. “His mother was actually the one who cared for him. Made all his meals, cleaned his room, picked up the plates afterward. And took care of his red wine. He needed a lot of red wine. He drank wine and listened to classical music.” Steve still has two of his old records, moldy vinyl pressings of Bach and Tchaikovsky.

Then there are the family myths. There was an album with photos of his uncle supposedly “dressed like a Russian, meeting with Russians in New Mexico.” Perhaps he was a spy, but Steve is not sure. What he does know is that his uncle was heavily medicated with antipsychotic drugs and received electroshock therapy at the nearby hospital. Some family members speculate that his condition may have been caused by experiments with LSD when he lived in Albuquerque in the 1940s and ’50s. His only biography supposes it must have been the lingering effects of his tuberculosis diagnosis. What is clear is that he died quietly, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 62, and was buried in an unassuming grave on the other side of town. On his death certificate, he was still described as an “author,” even though he hadn’t published anything in 30 years. His gravestone simply reads: “Brother. Thomas M. Kromer, 1906–1969.”


I’m talking with Steve as part of an Appalachian Literature class that I’m teaching at Marshall University, Tom Kromer’s alma mater in Huntington. None of my students had ever heard of him, and many of my colleagues hadn’t either. There is no plaque in town to commemorate Kromer, no street named after him, no historical marker in front of his birthplace. His university hasn’t even added him to their Wikipedia page. Still, when Kromer’s single (and singular) book, Waiting for Nothing, was published in 1935 by Knopf, it was heralded as the next major American novel — equal to, if not surpassing, anything Hemingway had written. Kromer’s autobiographically tinged tale of life “on the fritz” during the Great Depression briefly captured the American imagination. Actor Paul Muni, of Scarface fame, wanted to turn it into a major Hollywood film but quickly realized that “it dealt so frankly with sex and the class struggle” that no studio would touch it. [1]

In 1934 Kromer even briefly lived in a small, rear room off Hollywood Boulevard, next to a shabby movie theater, in a section then known as “poverty row.” There, Kromer wrote most of his book, relying on sex work to finance a typewriter. Thinking back on this period “almost makes me cry,” he recalled.

We know as much from love letters he exchanged with the infamous socialite and publisher Caresse Crosby (1892–1970). Caresse had become infatuated with Kromer’s prose and author photo, after encountering both en route to France in an advance copy of Waiting for Nothing (“I took the jacket off so that I could prop his photograph before me as I read”). After some letters and telegrams were exchanged between the two, they confessed their love for each other. With her assistance Kromer even got his book published in France. In the summer of 1935, the two were supposed to meet near Sunset Boulevard. In her mind, she later notes, she had adopted “the role [of] half angel and half siren that [she] hoped to play in [Tom’s] life.” But one of the two flaked out and Caresse met her future husband Bert instead — a man even younger and dreamier than Kromer. [2] Kromer, in the meantime, moved to New Mexico, where he sought treatment for the TB he had caught during his youth in West Virginia.

By the following year, Kromer had largely slipped out of public memory.

The reluctance to remember Kromer has much to do with his politics: he was an outspoken socialist. His agent was the notorious Maxim Lieber, an alleged Soviet informant and likely inspiration for the spy stories still handed down in the Kromer family. Kromer’s disappearance certainly echoes the larger erasure of communist labor agitation from West Virginia’s history. “You know, when you talk about all this socialism,” our state’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, still sermonizes, “that’s not who we are […] that’s not how I was raised in West Virginia.” Of course, West Virginia is a small state, and the Kromers and the Manchins actually share a history. In the 1910s, both families lived in Fairmont — the Kromers as itinerant laborers, the Manchins as state politicians, store owners, and mayors.

Kromer’s grandfather was crushed in a mine, and his father worked himself to death in a glass factory, succumbing to cancer at the age of 42. His son eulogized him in a moving piece of prose poetry in Lincoln Steffens’s Pacific Weekly, an association that landed Kromer in the crosshairs of the House Committee on Un-American Activities:

And my old man would hand his pipe up to the blower who stood on the dummy, this boxy platform with a mold that they called a dummy, and that blower had the bugs and he knew he had the bugs. He knew it. Cancer? Hell, not cancer. He blew all the cancer out into the pipes and my old man caught the cancer.

Of course, West Virginia is still run by the rich: one of the few men to have amassed even more wealth than Senator Manchin is the current governor, Jim Justice. Yet the state remains one of the poorest in the nation: the average life expectancy for men in Kromer’s old neighborhood is now 62, Kromer’s age at the time of his death.

Kromer’s novel is in the public domain, but it is also in print in an expertly edited volume from the University of Georgia Press, published in 1986. The latter, still sporting its Cold War bona fides, makes every effort to downplay Kromer’s socialism, briefly noting his “revolutionary politics” but ultimately finding other issues much more “noteworthy.” The collection grew out of plans by West Virginia author Breece D’J Pancake to reinvigorate public interest in Kromer. Pancake ultimately abandoned the project to work on his 1977 short story “Trilobites,” which invokes Kromer as a poetic father figure of modern Appalachian literature. After Pancake’s suicide, friends of the author expanded and completed the project.

In depoliticizing Kromer, publishers and pundits settled on an approach to his work that would seal its fate as footnote literature: authenticity. Waiting for Nothing, a daring modernist experiment in hobo slang that evokes Nietzsche in its title, thus became merely a piece of historical evidence, largely unvarnished by authorial craftsmanship. Kromer’s own experience of homelessness over a period of several years became the singular selling point for the book. Reviewers and editors claim that Kromer documented and disclosed “real truth.” Theodore Dreiser, in his rambling introduction to the British printing, even called Waiting for Nothing a “poignant record.” Kromer leaned into this strategy himself, suggesting that the book was “strictly autobiographical” and ended up in publisher’s hands almost by accident.

Reviewers loved that story. London critic Basil de Sélincourt celebrated Kromer’s prose as “belong[ing] with the granite curb and the freezing wind at the street corner.” [3] Still, what appealed to reviewers did not necessarily draw many readers. In the end, Waiting for Nothing failed to sell out its first print run. It entered the historical record under the guise of a raw, marginal piece of documentary writing whose only value was to record events the American public was hoping to forget. Literary critic Fred T. Marsh illustrates this point:

The surplus population is a terrible nuisance. It has got so you can’t walk the streets without being pestered by bums, panhandlers, and riffraff. Even if you give one of them a dime he will most likely spend it on drink or “smoke” or hashish or something. These birds are no good, anyway. They are depressing. Let’s talk about something else.

Still, Marsh considered the book worthwhile reading and “one of the extraordinary documents [he had] run across in this age of human documents.” [4]

Indeed, the critics’ celebration of the novel as “authentic” may have led readers to anticipate a delightful hobo romp, full of hardship but also uplifting and cheery in tone. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of the adventures of a Little Tramp, readers encountered death and hunger on every page. Waiting for Nothing is an unceasing, apocalyptic stew of suicide, starvation, murder, and prostitution. Kromer’s narrator even engages in sex work himself, hanging out in parks waiting for wealthy johns to pick him up — which, unsurprisingly, caused the book to be censored in Great Britain.

Waiting for Nothing is a short book, but it is not light. A reviewer for a Kansas paper even compared the experience of reading it to being shelled by artillery: “It is full of bombs fashioned out of the 24-hour-a-day task of getting the next meal. The bombs almost persuade one to hunt a cave and jump in. It takes stamina to read it.” [5] Its narrative structure is simple yet shockingly effective: Waiting for Nothing has little to offer in terms of overarching plots or grand philosophical lessons — aside, perhaps, from the inevitable misery of the narrator’s own death, postponed each day by mere hours. Instead of character arcs, the narrative, as its titular Nietzsche nod suggests, is afloat in “time without end” — a series of scenes running together at largely unspecified locales, featuring only transient characters who visit the narrative for a few minutes before disappearing forever. Most chapters present two of these scenes, put in conversation with each other: a slow night at a mission turns into a harrowing suicide, a jovial meeting with a fellow artist concludes with a scene of a starving woman abandoning her child, a police raid on a hobo jungle ends with a young man being ripped apart on the train tracks. There is realism to these moments, but it is a deeply psychological realism.

Waiting for Nothing is a disordered stream of consciousness, an exploration of the psychological effects of living an existence devoid of any sense of stability, agency, or security. The mindset readers are asked to inhabit is a fundamentally decentered one. Kromer’s prose is not just “authentic” slang, it uses this slang as an auditory loop constantly circling around themes of survival. One of the opening scenes well illustrates this technique:

I stare in at this couple that eat by the window [of the restaurant]. I pull my coat collar up around my neck. A man will look hungrier with his coat collar up around his neck. These people are in the dough. They are in evening clothes. This woman is sporting a satin dress. The blackness of it shimmers and glows in the light that comes from the chandelier that hangs from the dome. Her fingers are covered with diamonds. There are diamond bracelets on her wrists. She is beautiful. Never have I seen a more beautiful woman. Her lips are red. They are even redder against the whiteness of her teeth when she laughs. She laughs a lot.

I stare in at the window. Maybe they will know a hungry man when they see him. Maybe this guy will be willing to shell out a couple of nickels to a hungry stiff. It is chicken they are eating. A chicken like the one in the window. Brown and fat. They do not eat. They only nibble. They are nibbling at chicken, and they are not even hungry. I am starved. That chicken was meant for a hungry man. I watch them as they cut it into tiny bits. I watch their forks as they carry them to their mouths. The man is facing me. Twice he glances out of the window. I meet his eyes with mine. I wonder if he can tell the eyes of a hungry man. He has never been hungry himself. I can tell that. This one has always nibbled at chicken. I see him speak to the woman. She turns her head and looks at me through the window. I do not look at her. I look at the chicken on the plate. They can see that I am a hungry man.

This is an orgy of mastication from the perspective of a starving brain. Reading it, one can feel the narrator’s teeth grinding. Compulsive thoughts race through his mind, circling and circling, turning a banal scene into a grotesque dilation of sensory input: it is all red lips and brown chicken, enormous forks moving in slow motion, fantasies of psychic communication read into passing glances.

Social and behavioral scientists have demonstrated, again and again, the devastating effects extreme poverty can have on cognitive ability, decision-making skills, and even children’s brain size. Kromer had already told us as much in the 1930s.

In Waiting for Nothing, reality itself breaks down. A drunk in a near-comatose stupor after a Bay Rum bender has hairy organs; “stiffs” by the campfire turn into gravestones; and the white eyes of a man starving to death illuminate the ceiling of a mission dormitory like spotlights. And then there are the characters so deformed by their circumstances they turn into almost Lovecraftian monsters. In a dark train car, readers wake alongside the narrator as characters in a horror story:

[I hear a] sound as though something were slipping up nearer and nearer. A sound as though someone was raising one foot and then putting it down. Then sliding the other foot up. Nearer and nearer.

Then, through the dark, comes this squeal. It is a wild squeal. A squeal like something is mad and crazy. It is like something that has lost its mind. I feel it bound through the air and land on my back. It knocks me down to the floor. These sharp claws bite into the nape of my neck. The long fingers grip my throat so that my breath comes in sobs. I am strangling. I grab at these claws. I feel a man’s wrist. A strong wrist. A wrist that is all covered with hair like an animal’s.


There is a flash in his hand. Through the ray of light that comes through the door I see this flash. My spine creeps. I know what that flash is. It is a knife. I cannot let him get at me with the knife. I cannot let him rip me open with the knife. He is going to murder me with the knife. I have to get out of here. Great Christ, I have to get out of here. I leap towards the door and reach it. I claw at it and try to pry it open. It is caught. The splinters bury themselves in my finger-nails. I do not notice the pain. I am too afraid to notice the pain of a splinter in my nails. Again behind me I hear that scream.


Through the ray of light that comes from the door I see this guy stand and stare at the floor. The gleam of the knife is there. He does not pick it up. He is not looking at the knife. It is this pool of blood from my slashed-up arm he is staring at. He stares like a guy in a trance at this blood. He flops to his knees and splashes his hands in the blood and screams. He splashes his hands in the pool of blood and smears it all over his face. I can see him quiver and shake and hear his jabber as he smears the blood. I lie here and wait for the flash of the knife, but it does not come. He leaps to his feet and jumps towards the door of the car. He jabbers and babbles as he shoves against it. He slides it open and leaps to the tracks. I can hear his screams as he crashes through the thickets.

I lie in the darkness with my bloody arm and shiver and sob in my breath.

Then the chapter ends and a new one begins. There is no lesson to be learned from this encounter with a once-human creature, deformed by a society in which diamond necklaces and abject destitution coexist. There is no “accounting” for any of this because the scales are broken.

Still, the stigmata of poverty that Kromer so oppressively captures on the page also attached itself to him and his work. The rich and the middle class may create true literature about poverty — think: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Pinckney Benedict — but the poor can only self-disclose. Experience creates witnesses, while distance creates modernists. As a result, Kromer ended up in another pantheon of writers: forgotten Appalachian authors, a genre in its own right. He does and does not belong there.

Appalachia is the place where the national literary imaginary can safely deposit Kromer and his fellow inductees — distorting their writings into examples of a safely pigeonholed regionalism that transforms misery into local color. Structural violence is turned into spectacle, into bootstrapping lessons for non-Appalachian audiences (looking at you, J. D. Vance). Thus, Kromer’s dangerous writing is rendered safe. But Kromer never saw himself as a regionalist: his language is the universal slang of the lumpenproletariat (as he himself put it). Kromer’s argot of the dispossessed is like a sponge, oozing the terror it absorbed. It resists the regionalist impulse at every turn.

States like West Virginia, positioned at the crossroads of federal neglect and exploitative local elites, have long served as weathervanes for emergent national trends, be they industrial die-offs, the opioid epidemic, or the advent of Trumpism. Paradoxically, the acknowledgment of that fact rarely leads to a reconsideration of the Appalachian voices that had long been living these realities. In this sense, perhaps Kromer is an apt representative of his region, after all. In a time when most Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, with a devastating recession always just waiting around the corner, we ought to contend with Kromer’s devastating modernist bombardment once again.

For Kromer himself, of course, this all comes too late. After a few years of literary experimentation amid the desert bohemia of Albuquerque in the 1930s and ’40s, which saw him abandon his plan for a grand work of proletarian literature inspired by his family’s history, Kromer himself broke down: slowly, at first, from tuberculosis, then more quickly following his wife’s passing. By the time he returned to his hometown of Huntington to die a slow death of TV dinners, red wine, and Thorazine, he was already presumed dead. When Waiting for Nothing was first republished in 1968, a California newspaper exclaimed: “Poor Tom Kromer. He might, if he had survived, have become an American Gorky.” [6] One can only hope he didn’t read this review.

Kromer died a year later without so much as an obituary.


Stefan Schöberlein currently teaches at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. He will join Texas A&M University–Central Texas as an assistant professor of English in the fall of 2022. His German translation of Waiting for Nothing is forthcoming from Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis.


[1] “Muni Blocked by Censorship,” The Los Angeles Times (November 3, 1935), 2.

[2] Caresse Crosby, The Passionate Years (New York: Dial Press, 1935), 323–335.

[3] “Waiting for Nothing,” The Observer (June 30, 1935), 5.

[4] “Absolutely Down and Out,” Books (March 3, 1935), 2.

[5] C. G., “There are Bombs in this Book about Bums,” The Kansas City Star (April 13, 1935), 14.

[6] William Hogan, “Bookman,” The Signal (July 3, 1968), 21.

LARB Contributor

Stefan Schöberlein currently teaches at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. He will join Texas A&M University–Central Texas as an assistant professor of English in the fall of 2022. His German translation of Waiting for Nothing is forthcoming from Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis. You can visit him at his website.


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