Department header
Bewildering Stories

Jack London, The People of the Abyss

In the name of defeated generations

review article by James Graham

The People of the Abyss
Author: Jack London
Publishers: various, at
Date: 1903

A New York Times article in 1884 described a novel leisure pursuit which seemed to be growing in popularity:

Slumming commenced in London [...] with a curiosity to see the sights, and when it became fashionable to go ‘slumming’ ladies and gentlemen were induced to don common clothes and go out in the highways and byways to see people of whom they had heard, but of whom they were as ignorant as if they were inhabitants of a strange country.

It is unlikely that such travel did much to broaden the minds of the tourists, though faith in human nature allows that there may have been exceptions, some who were at least troubled by what they saw. For others of the middle class who never indulged in ‘slumming’ the poor must have ranked with ‘savages’ of whom they had heard but knew little or nothing.

For the Victorian middle classes, London districts such as Whitechapel must have seemed as remote as the impoverished suburbs of Dhaka seem to us today. The Victorians needed writers who practised ‘slumming’ in a sense very different from the common one: who went into the streets and homes of the poor, ready to interact with them without condescension and describe not only the surface of their lives but some of the depths as well.

The work of these writers was not unlike the writings of explorers, offering insights into hitherto unknown societies. The best of the genre, such as Engels’ Condition of the English Working Class (1845) and Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) evince a humanity comparable to that of Livingstone writing about Africans; and just as Livingstone was devoid of racism, so these superior ‘slummers’ largely transcend class prejudice.

The documentation of poverty is a genre that does not end with the Victorian age. It continues through Orwell, James Agee and many others into the twenty-first century. Today we need such writers as Mike Davis, whose Planet of Slums (2006) combines vivid documentary with in-depth analysis and impassioned polemic.

Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903), his excoriating exposé of poverty in the East End of London at the turn of the twentieth century, is not an exhaustive survey. But his impassioned writing sets his work alongside any other in the genre.

He took his whole being, his humanity, with him into Whitechapel. He slept in doss-houses, joined poorhouse queues. Some years later, wealthy from the phenomenal sales of such works as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, he said: ‘Of all my books, I love most The People of the Abyss. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor’.

London’s book is full of sharp and sardonic comment on the many ways in which those already down are daily and nightly pushed even farther down. ‘It is a law of the powers that be that the homeless shall not sleep by night.’ Continually moved on by the police, their nights are a weary trek from doorway to doorway, street to street. At the Salvation Army, they must endure four hours of hymns and moral sermons before receiving a charitable breakfast of bread and cheese. At the workhouse, they have to earn a meal of skilly and dry bread by breaking stones. At every turn they are hurt, humiliated, and insulted, as if poverty itself were a crime for which they must be continually punished.

From beginning to end the book is peopled with ruined men and women. A British Navy veteran he met in a poorhouse queue had ‘served his Queen and country’ for forty years, earning three good-conduct awards and the Victoria Cross, until one day he struck an officer who made a remark that ‘referred to his mother’. For this natural reaction to an offensive remark he was given fifty lashes, dishonourably discharged, forced to give up his medal, and jailed for two years after his discharge.

Jack London’s account of this man is an exemplar of Walter Benjamin’s redefinition of history as a ‘struggle for the oppressed past in the name of defeated generations’: a history turned upside down, in which most of the powerful from ancient kings to democratic leaders enter the stage merely as enemies of the people. In this inverted history the old sailor’s retaliation becomes a noble and tragic act; and the petty thieving and brawling of the poor become acts of desperation, class struggle without a purpose, for which the ultimate blame lies elsewhere.

But London’s coup de maître occurs in Chapters 12 and 13, which juxtapose in a most powerful way two individuals: the King of England and a working man of honourable character and bitter experience.

In the Chapter 12 account of Edward VII’s Coronation Day, a king — admittedly one having far less power than ancient ones — does indeed enter the stage, amid scenes of ‘elaborate tomfoolery’. ‘I never saw anything to compare with the pageant, except Yankee circuses and Alhambra ballets, not did I ever see anything so hopeless and so tragic’.

List after list follows of ‘lackeys’, colonials, and regiments with their high-ranking officers: ‘masters of destruction, engineers of death’. Then London asks an old man in Green Park what the occasion meant to him, no doubt anticipating the answer he gets: that for rough sleepers there is some respite because the police are elsewhere; but even though you won’t be moved on, it is almost impossible to sleep for the noise.

In the context of the King’s solemn promise to ‘restore the things that are gone to decay’, we see a couple on a bench, the woman swaying in half-sleep and painfully jolting upright. And so the King’s oath is empty, and the whole pageant meaningless except as a cruel irony.

Then, as if to set aside this ‘tomfoolery’, London devotes the whole of Chapter 13 to Dan Cullen. He is not concerned here with the most pathetic rough sleepers or the lowest criminals but with a man who deserves our greatest respect: a real, person-to-person respect wholly unlike the manufactured adulation that surrounds the King.

He had come too late to know this man at his best. Cullen had worked thirty years as a casual dock labourer. Self-educated and articulate, he had been much admired by his fellow-workers as a trade union activist and columnist for the labour journals.

For his political activities he was punished in the cruellest possible way: ‘not absolutely turned away... which would certainly have been more merciful’ but hired for only two or three days per week. A whole week’s wages were little enough, but two or three days’ pay made his life a daily struggle against starvation. ‘Ten years of it broke his heart, and broken-hearted men cannot live’.

As Cullen’s health deteriorated, a friend tried to act on his behalf. Having cleaned his room and brought him fresh linen, he went to the offices of the dockyard company, described the plight of this honest man who had given them thirty years of hard labour, and asked them to sign a letter requesting his admission into hospital. A simple request, not an outrageous demand for compensation or indeed any other response that would have cost money. A simple request that was denied.

Dan Cullen’s story is told in such detail, and his strength of character so convincingly portrayed, that he becomes a powerful exemplar of Benjamin’s kind of history. In the history of defeated generations he becomes a protagonist. Drawn out from the amorphous mass of ‘the poor’, he is given due recognition.

London has been criticised for what is seen as a peculiar brand of racism, as when he describes the lowest criminal elements as ‘a new species, a breed of city savages’. There is a certain ambiguity here, however: the effects of extreme poverty are so destructive that it is easy to make the mistake of describing the poor not as a social class but as a degenerate species of humanity. In any case, London’s perhaps ill-judged generalisations are belied by his compassionate individual portraits.

He is certainly no political theorist. His mantra of ‘mismanagement’ as a root cause of inequality fails the test of time rather ignominiously. The present management of the British Empire, he confidently asserts, must be done away with, and a new management put in its place, ‘so that the average man comes in for a share of the profit’.

London could not have foreseen the degree of mismanagement that was to beset the Soviet Union, or the long decline of the socialist element in the British democratic socialist movement. With our twenty-first century hindsight, however, his brisk analysis seems very naive.

In spite of the inadequacy of his generalisations, London deserves to be ranked with the best of those who practised ‘slumming’ in that special sense of the word; with the great upside-downers, who will never be happy until the world flips over. Seen as radical troublemakers, mischievously seeking to disrupt the natural order of things, how reasonable and commonsensical they could be at times!

As he sets out on his mission, London first sets out his ‘ simple criteria’: ‘that which made for more life, for physical and spiritual health, was good; that which made for less life, which hurt, and dwarfed, and distorted life, was bad’. Alongside the many exhaustive analyses of social injustice, from Marx to Bourdieu, we can easily accommodate such a plain, honest maxim.

Copyright © 2013 by James Graham

Home Page