Jack London: “The People of the Abyss”

I now have the pleasure to begin what I plan to be a two-week exploration of Jack London’s major writings.  As I see it, Jack London is one of a handful of authors who articulated particularly well the American dilemma between individualism and the reality of an industrial economy with a collective workforce.  Readers are often surprised to find in London a mixture of socialism and rugged individualism, support for radicalism and queer Social Darwinism.  This mixture makes sense in the context of a nation changing from one of individual small farming families to national markets, corporations, and industrial gigantism.

We also need to understand London’s life.  So, here are some of the highlights.  London was raised by his mother and a step-father, his real father abandoning him before he was born. From early in life, he worked to help support his family, taking on odd jobs in Oakland.   He worked as an oyster pirate and eventually when 17 he signed onto a sealing ship, which turned into a half-year voyage in the North Pacific.  When returning, he started writing, participated in the mass action Kelley’s Army during the Depression of 1894 and became a hobo for a period time.  When he returned to Oakland in 1895, he got involved in local politics and returned to school.  He later dropped out of college and joined the Klondike gold rush.  In 1898, London started his full-time writing career.  He wrote novels, short stories, journalism (reporting on the poor of London and the Russo-Japanese War), political tracts, and autobiography.  London died young, at age 40.  He remained a socialist for most of his life, married twice, and maintained an active life on the move – spending time in the South Seas and East Asia.  His biography suggests that he is a Pacific figure and not strictly American – like other California writers such as Steinbeck.  This explains some of my attraction toward his work.  His California is the California of a rising Pacific empire, not of farms and valleys.  San Francisco, for London, was always one boat away from Australia, Fiji, Alaska, Manchuria, or more rarely the “old world” of the Atlantic.  At the same time, he never ventured into the Pacific as a vulgar imperialist.  He went as a worker and a student but was not immune from American racial hierarchies of the day.

Jack London as a Sailor

The Library of America published two volumes of Jack London’s work, roughly divided between his non-fiction and his fiction, but this line is often confused in London.  Martin Eden seems semi-autobiographical, as does The Sea-Wolf.  The collection is not complete by any means and I do not know if the series intends to complete his work.  Most of his later fiction and many of his essays are not included (only four political and literary essays are provided).  These are also some of the first I purchased from my subscription when I started in late 2008.

The People of the Abyss, my reading for the day, (am I sounding religious with daily “readings”?)  is London’s report on the London “East End,” the working-class slums of imperial London.

1872-East End

His method was simply to live among the people of the East End for six weeks.  There are about four types of writing going on at the same time in The People of the Abyss.  Some is strictly sociological, describing the living standards, wages, rents, cost of bread, and the numbers in workhouses.  In a chapter on “Wages” London showed that the typical income was clearly not enough to support a family given the costs.  When faced with these brutal figures, London is capable of great empathy. “Good housewives of the soft and tender folk, imagine yourselves marketing and keeping house on such a scale, setting a table for five, and keeping an eye on your deputy mother of twelve to see that she did not steal food for her little brothers and sisters, the while you stitched, stitched, stitched at a nighttime line of blouses, which stretched away into the gloom and down to the pauper’s coffin a-yawn for you.” (123)

Another part describe London’s adventures as an investigative journalist.  For example, he goes into great detail about his attempts to let a room, work a job like his subjects, and night-time adventures (‘carrying the banner’).

Third, we can find many passages describing the lives of individuals living, working, and dying in the East End.  Some of the more colorful are a drunk sailor who spurs women and a young socialist.

Finally, we see London’s political commentaries on the conditions in the East End.  He speaks broadly of the East Ender’s ingenuity and hard-work, but also the numerous forces holding the back, not least of which is alcohol, unavoidable force in the East End as he sees it.  “It is of no avail to preach temperance and teetotalism to these people.  The drink habit may be the cause of many miseries; but it is, in turn, the effect of other and prior miseries.  The temperance advocates may preach their hearts out over the evils of drink, but until the evils that cause people to drink are abolished, drink, and its evils will remain.” (175)  What are these evils that, in such a productive  and rich empire, keep thousands in poverty and desperation.  London blames the primacy of property over people.  In a chapter simply called “Property versus Person” London describes how the criminalization of poverty was affected by harsh punishments for theft.  To make his point clear, he also showed how crimes against persons were resolved with simple fines.  For example, a worker was fined one pound for assaulting another man.  In another case, someone cause sleeping outside was jailed for 14 days.  The absurdity of the law is ever present in the East End.  Making it illegal to sleep at night in the public spaces, forced workers to sleep during the day in the same place, making it more difficult for them to find work and ensuring more people “Carrying the Banner” at night.  Like a good socialist, London blames “The Management” for most of the ills he sees.  Why, he asks at the end of The People of the Abyss, do the Inuit live more secure and stable and meaningful lives then the denziens of the most important city in the world system?  “There can be no mistake.  Civilization has increased man’s producing power a hundred fold, and through mismanagement the men of Civilization live worse than the beasts, and have less to eat and wear and protect them from the element than the savage Innuit in a frigid climate who lives today as he lived in the stone age ten thousand years ago.” (182)

London’s answer is socialism; better management.  Are the people of the East End capable of uplifting themselves?  Are they capable of saving themselves?  London does not see much hope of this.  While a few East Enders are politically conscious and active, the vast majority and living day to day and cannot make change themselves.  Help will have to come from the outside.  It is this that makes The People of the Abyss an unfortunate tract.  London exposes his sympathy for the working classes alongside his Social Darwinism.  When discussing the “Ghetto” he writes: “To make matters worse, the men of the Ghetto are the men who are left, a deteriorated stock left to undergo still furthur deterioration.  For a hundred and fifty years, at least, they have been drained of their best.  The strong men, the men of pluck, initiative, and ambition, have been faring forth to the fresher and freer portions of the globe, to make new lands and nations.  Those who are lacking, the weak of heart and head and hand, as well as the rotten and hopeless, have remained to carry on the breed.” (129)

But is it not the liberal tendency to reform “mismanagement” with better management.  No where does London suggest that management it self is the problem.  We, of course, looking at this text from the perspective of seventy years of a welfare state, of a century of reforms to the capitalist system, cannot help but be disgusted with this talk of more reform.  Been there, done that.  What else do you got for us?

Modern-day Slum Life


One response to “Jack London: “The People of the Abyss”

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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