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Tom Kromer was a prolific writer best known for his semi-autobiographical 1935 novel, “Waiting for Nothing.” Kromer’s work is heavily inspired from his experience with homelessness during the Great Depression.
Now, students studying digital humanities at Marshall University have developed an online archive of the forgotten work.
Kromer was born in 1906 in Huntington, where he studied journalism at what was then Marshall College.
“You didn’t know that an author, that papers at the time compared to Hemingway, lived here,” said Stefan Schöberlein, director of digital humanities at Marshall University, “There’s no marker to Kromer at his birthplace, no statue or sign for him anywhere in town, and no street bearing his name.”
Students designed the Tom Kromer Digital Archive in an effort to restore his visibility. Students put four variations of Waiting for Nothing in the archive, including a German translation, an annotated edition, and an audiobook.
Kristen Clark helped produce the Waiting for Nothing audiobook.
“The way the work is written it’s kind of like Kromer speaking to you about his experience,” she said. “Having somebody read it to you embodies that affect really well.“
The archive also features transcribed book reviews from the time the book was published, a student developed podcast, and virtual tour using the external history website, Clio.
Michael Martin said the Kromer Clio tour focuses on locations of personal significance to Kromer in New Mexico, Virginia, and West Virginia. Students chose locations like the Keith-Albee Theatre (now known as the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center) in Huntington, which relates to his time at Marshall. Martin said, “He had a small experiment for the journalism major that he wrote about, where he panhandled in that little area.”
During the early 20th century, Kromer was part of a growing American socialist movement. He spent time writing for socialist newspapers in Appalachia and around the rest of the United States.
“It was a great piece of culture to read about to really give the other side of the sentiments at the time, because of course, when you’re learning about the Cold War, you learn about America as being super anti communist, when in reality there was a huge movement,” Krys Smith explained.
Students working on the archive interviewed one of Kromer’s nephews, Steve Barnhill. Although Barnhill was young when he knew his uncle, he recalls that his family suspected Kromer of being a Russian spy.
Although Kromer’s work has a wider scope than Appalachia, Michael Martin says the influence is present.
“Kromer very specifically writes from a proletariat perspective,” Martin said. “It’s something that you wouldn’t get in a lot of other places that didn’t have the specific economic conditions Huntington had and still has.”
Despite students archiving a great deal of documents, many of Kromer’s writings are lost forever as a consequence of the Red Scare.
As an example, Schöberlein said, “his literary agent was Maxim Lieber, who was then accused of being a Soviet spy, so he fled the country and burned most of his correspondence.”
Despite the loss of historical documents, students are still optimistic about what they can find, as many documents are left to be discovered in the physical archives of newspapers and libraries, and private storage; what scholars refer to as The Great Unread. The students are looking to expand the Tom Kromer Digital Archive with more podcasts and more documents.
“Living history through this single man and his writings throughout the country was probably my favorite part about this whole experience,” Smith said.
Kromer is buried in Springhill Cemetery in Huntington, West Virginia.
You can find the Tom Kromer Digital Archive at kromerarchive.org.