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Aug 15, 2012

The People of the Abyss: London

“THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS” by Jack London (first published 1903) 

Reading a new novel about street-people and bums reminds me of a famous documentary book with subject matter that is at least in the same ball-park.

I’m always fascinated to find a book that gives a vivid snapshot of a past age, even if it comes through the medium of a defective writer. The People of the Abyss is such a book and Jack London was such a writer. 

A little background. Rough-diamond sailor and self-taught journalist Jack London (1876-1916) was one of the huge best-sellers of his own day, churning out short stories, short novels and magazine articles by the yard in the twenty years before his death. Working-class readers in particular liked him for the crude vigour of his tales and their no-nonsense pace. They also loved his occasional jabs at bosses and exploitative capitalists. It was easy to mistake him for the socialist which he professed to be in his earlier years and Lenin was said to be one of his fans. One of his novels, a dystopian fiction called The Iron Heel, has sometimes been cited as a “prediction” of Fascism, controlled by the boss class.

But there was a much darker side to the man. Jack London bought into the “scientific” racist mythology of his day, so that his sympathy for poor white toilers was partly based on the premise that they shouldn’t be treated as “inferior” races were. He also believed fervently in the Social Darwinist notion that life was a struggle in which only the fit deserved to survive. Small wonder that his best-known works (most often read by adolescents) are the tooth-and-claw stories about wolves, White Fang and Call of the Wild, followed by a story with a Nietszchean superman hero, The Sea Wolf. 

The only full-length biography of him that I’ve read, Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: a Life (1999), is as positive about London as it can possibly be, but it cannot disguise the man’s huge and overbearing ego. Like so many sturdy American individualists, London’s individualism tipped rapidly over into complete self-regard. A dabbler in narcotics, he died aged 40, a very rich man with a big Californian estate earned from his own writing, and basically despising all those lesser human beings who did not have his talent to make it rich. He had long since abandoned socialism. I see him as the spiritual ancestor of somebody like Hunter S.Thompson, who started out as the anarchic anti-authoritarian individualist (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas etc.) and ended up rich, paranoid and drug-addled before taking his own life on his own country estate. American individualists play at bucking the system in order to better enrich themselves from it. What’s more American than a self-made millionaire?

Having just done a hatchet-job on Jack London, why am I here recommending one of his books? Because it is well-written, for all its moments of flaky philosophising; and because it sticks in the mind. That’s why.

The People of the Abyss is Jack London’s account of the worst of the London slums and the time he spent there, dressed as and living as one of the slum-dwellers. Jack London copied Jacob Riis, who had just made a personal exploration of New York’s slums for the book How the Other Half Lives. Much later, Jack London was copied by George Orwell, who had read The People of the Abyss and who made similar explorations for Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

The book begins with Jack London hiring shabby clothes to plunge into the abyss, and he tells us that every so often when he was challenged by one of the locals (presumably because of his American accent) he would claim to be a “beached” sailor.

When he writes out of what he saw and experienced, he is brilliantly vivid. He gives sharp accounts of the “pegs” and “spikes” (the workhouses and dosshouses) and their inmates. He hates the general unsanitary filth that he sees everywhere – the book’s most disgusting moment is his description of vagrants finding food by plunging their hands into a pile of greasy scraps which have been thrown out, half-eaten, from a hospital ward. Like Orwell, Jack London can be quite fastidious. He is also splendidly scornful of the laws which punish vagrants for sleeping in public places, and he gives an account of men doomed to spend the night walking the streets because the police would hustle them on if they dared to sleep in doorways. His accounts of over-crowding are heart-rending, as are his tales of despairing workers attempting suicide and then being prosecuted for the attempt.

Regrettably, he sometimes mounts the soapbox and tells rather than shows, contenting himself with quoting statistics, law-reports and other people’s accounts of such things as lead-poisoning in factories, comparative wages etc. Most unusually for personal reportage of this sort, there are few revealing anecdotes about things he did himself, or meaningful encounters with other individuals. To me, it suggests that Jack London, the American, did not insinuate himself among the Cockney poor as fully as he had hoped to. He does, after all, have a return ticket. When he goes down to Kent to pick hops with down-and-outs, he tells us he didn’t have to live on the starvation wages they were paid, as he had extra money sewn in the lining of his coat. It is also odd to find him having so little to say about prostitution.

Most of the time, Jack London’s moral perspective is an honourable outrage that such spirit-crushing poverty should exist, although there are times when his own peculiar personal agenda pops up. The odd phrase tells us that, as an American, he regards English poverty as infinitely inferior to the American variety. The lowest American wages, he reminds us, are higher than the lowest British wages. Being in London at the time of King Edward VII’s coronation, he can make easy irony out of the contrast between Britain’s imperial splendour and its domestic squalor (Chapter 12 “Coronation Day”). He clearly believes that the most virile and enterprising of Britain’s poor have left for the colonies, so that those remaining are the irredeemable dregs (Chapter 15 “The Sea Wife”) – a theme, by the way, that was later taken up by the popular English novelist Nevil Shute after he had decided to settle in Australia. Then there is a peculiar passage like the following, in which Jack London compares American tramps with Cockney tramps:

“They [American tramps] were all cheerful, facing things with a pluck which is their chief characteristic and which seems never to desert them, withal they were cursing the country with lurid metaphors quite refreshing after a month of unimaginative monotonous Cockney swearing. The Cockney has one oath, and one oath only, the most indecent in the language, which he uses on any and every occasion. Far different is the luminous and varied Western swearing, which runs to blasphemy rather than indecency. And after all, since men will swear, I think I prefer blasphemy to indecency; there is an audacity about it, an adventurousness and defiance that is better than sheer filthiness.”

Jack London was probably onto something here. Americans (and Australians and the Irish) do tend to be better at cussing than Cockneys, though it is equally possible that Jack London was merely reacting to Cockneys saying “F***” at everything whereas Americans would say “Jesus H. Christ”.

Jack London’s ideas for remedying the poverty he witnesses are vague and nebulous. In this respect, The People of the Abyss is very like Thoreau’s Walden – so brilliant when it reports and describes what is actually in front of the author; so unconvincing when the author imagines he is constructing an overall scheme or philosophy.

One chap Jack London quotes hits things perfectly on the head, however. He has an insight which is very similar to George Orwell’s insight as he saw a wretched woman having to unblock a drain in a famous passage in The Road to Wigan Pier.

The chap Jack London quotes says “What is not good enough for you is not good enough for other men, and there’s an end of it.”

Amen to that. And amen to Jack London who, for all his sins, did write at least this book with his heart in the right place.
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