Wednesday, April 25, 2012
The People of the Abyss by Jack London
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here
The People of the Abyss, first published in 1903, is Jack London’s first-hand account of life in the slums of the East End district of London. A combination of undercover investigative reportage and sociological research, this book provides a vivid picture of an urban environment which a century ago was notorious worldwide for its horrible living conditions. It is analogous to the chronicles of contemporary authors who venture incognito into the back alleys of Mogadishu, the slums of Calcutta, or the favelas of Rio. Although renowned for his novels and short stories, Jack London was also an excellent journalist. It is a testament to his skills as a reporter that he holds the reader’s interest in what is essentially a series of National Geographic articles about a place you would never want to visit. In the 27 chapters of this book, London examines the East End from 27 different angles, offering chapters on the workhouse, a night spent on the streets, breakfast with the Salvation Army, hop picking, police reports, and suicide. Each of the chapters could stand alone as an autonomous essay, with Chapter 19, “The Ghetto” being probably the best encapsulation of the volume as a whole.
In the worst portions of the book London rattles off lists of mind-numbing demographic statistics; in the best passages he relates the haunting life stories of individual workers trapped in this maze of overcrowding, unemployment, squalor, filth, and degradation. London’s attitude towards the East End inhabitants alternates between empathy, condescension, disgust, and admiration. Although he views the denizens of this vile ghetto as the casualties of the industrial revolution and the victims of a capitalist society, London’s political views at this early point in his career do not come across as firmly defined. While in later years he would have proposed socialist revolution as the cure for the East End’s ills, here his plan of attack is a mixture of complaints about government efficiency and exhortations to the reader’s sympathy. An underlying theme reverberating throughout the book is London’s variation on the golden rule: “What is not good enough for you, is not good enough for other men.” The People of the Abyss is a valuable historical document of poverty during the industrial revolution. It may be the most depressing book you’ll ever read, but it’s quite educational and at times deeply moving. Even if you’re a fan of London there’s no guarantee you’ll like this book, but it has its merits and is worth a look.
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