In the summer of 1902, respected American author Jack London (1876-1916), previously known for his descriptions of life during the Klondike Gold Rush, spent two months living 'down by the docks' in London's East End among the city's poorest residents. During this time he often slept in workhouses or on the streets, seeing first-hand how the ...
In the summer of 1902, respected American author Jack London (1876-1916), previously known for his descriptions of life during the Klondike Gold Rush, spent two months living 'down by the docks' in London's East End among the city's poorest residents. During this time he often slept in workhouses or on the streets, seeing first-hand how the impoverished struggled daily for adequate food, clothing and shelter while the rest of the city lived in relative prosperity - a prosperity which the author believed was gained at the expense of the poor. One of the earliest eyewitness descriptions of life in the slums of London, this book would influence later socially minded authors such as George Orwell. The text is also illustrated with photographs of the places and people mentioned, offering an important insight into the living conditions of the poor at the dawn of the twentieth century.
When somebody says ?muckraker,? I recall names such as Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Izzy Stone and a few others. I never thought of Jack London in that context because books I associated with his name ("White Fang," et al.) were works of adventure fiction. I was aware of London?s socialist-labor sympathies having read a few of his short stories: tales such as "South of the Slot" come to mind. But I never knew Jack London for a muckraker.
Now I?ve read "The People of the Abyss," I?m willing to allow that Jack London was a muckraker. Still, I note that London?s approach to muckraking was different than some. Where Ida Tarbell (for example) did years of research, gathered mountains of documented evidence and used something like 800 pages to expose the foetid monstrosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jack London did only a few weeks of leg work, composed just one airtight analogy and used fewer than 250 pages to expose the foetid monstrosity of the British Empire and of civilization as we know it.
"The People of the Abyss" is Jack London?s eyewitness account of what he saw when, in the summer of 1902, he went to England disguised as a merchant seaman on the skids. Arriving in England, the author dived headlong into the reeking labor ghetto at the notorious East End of London.
Walking the same mean streets that Jack the Ripper had stalked just 12 years earlier, the American novelist spent several months living the life of London?s poor. He wore the clothes. He ate the swill. He slept out in the weather. He visited housing in which families of six, eight, or more dwelt in single, 7-by-8-foot rooms with no heat or water. He stayed in Dickensian workhouses. He visited hospitals that made people sick and asylums that drove people crazy. He worked for pennies a day while he watched multitudes of people slog through filth, disease and starvation to achieve misery, despair and death.
In this writer?s ken, Jack London never wrote a book that didn?t contain a purple passage or two. No surprise, then: "The People of the Abyss" contains a few. But if London was a passionate writer, he was also a damned good one. He understood that rhetoric won?t stand without facts to support it. He also understood that a long recitation of bald facts will alienate most readers. Accordingly, London?s "Abyss" uses few statistics and those few statistics are shrewdly chosen. The following paragraph (p. 178) is about as thick as the narrative gets:
"The figures are appalling: 1.8 million people in London live on the poverty line and below it, and one million live with one week?s wages between them and pauperism. In all England and Wales, eighteen percent of the whole population are driven to the parish for relief, and in London, according to the statistics of the London County Council, twenty-one percent of the whole population are driven to the parish for relief. Between being driven to the parish for relief and being an out-and-out pauper there is a great difference, yet London supports 123,000 paupers, quite a city of folk in themselves. One in every four in London dies on public charity, while 939 out of every 1,000 in the united Kingdom die in poverty; 8 million simply struggle on the ragged edge of starvation, and 20 million more are not comfortable in the simple and clean sense of the word."
The bulk of London?s narration describes with horrid clarity what it meant to be ?driven to the parish for relief? and to be ?not comfortable in the simple and clean sense of the word.? Here it should be sufficient to say that in America today, cattle and hogs are often more ?comfortable? than poor Britons of 1902.
For all it tells a depressing story, "The People of the Abyss" is an almighty good book that offers today?s American reader plenty to think about. Tales of parents who killed themselves after murdering children for whom they could not provide ring all too familiar. Even more chilling is the idea that we today are afflicted with militantly moronic leaders who want to do away with ?entitlements? such as Social Security and Medicare and Food Stamps so we can enjoy the good old days that supposedly prevailed before such programs existed.
Jack London was a great writer who was never better than he appears in this swaggering muckraker of a book. "The People of the Abyss" will curl your hair, stiffen your spine, and stand you right up on your hind legs. Read it. Get mad. Raise Hell!
Oct 18, 2007
People of the Abyss
In 1903 Jack London went to live in a slum in the worst area in London's East End, known as "the Abyss." For several months he explored the maze of slums, rubbing shoulders with the masses of poverty-stricken people, learning firsthand what it was like to live literally hand to mouth. His documentary book graphically depicts the suffering, disease, starvation and horrible conditions the poor lived in. Low wages, inadequate housing, serious lack of healthcare and illiteracy were rampant. Over 50% of children died before the age of 5. Any small event could plunge a person into a downward spiral that inevitably lead to death: illness, injury, loss of a job or lodgings. London spent time living in small rooms, staying in workhouses and sleeping on the streets. His book was a plea for assistance and humane treatment of the poor to people in power. It can be very political at times, but is mostly thorough journalism colored with firsthand experiences.
The powerfully detailed descriptions of abject poverty really brought home to me how horrible and inescapable their conditions were. When I was younger, I used to see homeless people on the street and think they had brought that situation upon themselves, they could get a job if they wanted to. But after reading a book like this, it makes you realize they often have little ability to escape their condition. The oppression they live under and lack of skills makes it near impossible for them to get ahead.
People of the Abyss inspired George Orwell to live as a tramp in England in the 1930's, resulting in his semi-documentary book Down and Out in Paris and London. It has a similar feel as well to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, both great works on social inequality and the conditions of the poor.
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