In 1902 Jack London resolved to travel seven thousand miles from California to England. His stated purpose was to lose himself in the docks and slums of London’s squalid East End, and see what he might learn from the experience. One might reasonably ask why he would do this, when numerous examples of urban misery could be observed in the cities of his own country, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or any of a dozen others. But the idea was actually presented to him by his British publisher after the release of London’s first book in England.
According to a notice printed in T.P.’s Weekly on November 14, 1902, his publisher thought it might be a good idea for London to visit England, especially the East End of London, where “he would find endless material of the kind that he would know how to use.” Thus was planted the seed of exploration. London initially demurred, but was won over once he realized that he could treat the experience as a kind of urban Klondike expedition.
His preparations were made in secret. Arriving in England in the summer of 1902, he told no one of his presence except the American consul. Two months later, Jack London—an internationally famous author—dressed in miserable rags and stinking of the gutter, strode into the offices of his London publisher and announced his identity. They were delighted to see him, and asked when he had arrived in England. “About two months ago,” was the bland reply. They asked him where he had been all this time. “Down by the docks, in the East End. This is the first call I have made,” London answered. The literary result of his experiences, written in Piedmont, California, was a blunt and fascinating piece of journalism entitled The People of the Abyss. Illustrated with photographs taken by London himself during his East End sojourn, the book is a sobering record of the era that deserves to be studied carefully today.
His friends could not understand why he needed to do this. They responded with the same incredulity that London would later encounter when he told them he wished to sail his boat, the Snark, to the South Seas and beyond. They thought he had lost his mind. “We are not accustomed to taking travelers to the East End,” one shocked British acquaintance told him. “We receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all!” Jack found a more sympathetic ear at the American consulate. He wanted to alert the consul to his presence, in the event he got himself “into a scrape with the bobbies.” London recognized the consul as “a man with whom I could do business,” and informed him of his plans. The consul barely twitched. He nodded to London, and said, “All right, Jack. I’ll remember you and keep track.”
And with that, London was off to the East End. “Having burnt my ships behind me,” London later wrote, “I was now free to plunge into that human wilderness of which nobody seemed to know anything. But at once I encountered a new difficulty in the shape of my cabby, a grey-whiskered and eminently decorous personage who had imperturbably driven me for several hours about the ‘City.’” His first task was to get himself to a ragpicker and buy a set of used garments. There is a humorous exchange where London tries to explain to his cabby that he wants to be taken anywhere in the East End. The cabby, with mounting alarm, cannot divine the objective of his bizarre American fare:
“Drive me down to the East End,” I ordered, taking my seat.
“Where, sir?” he demanded with frank surprise.
“To the East End, anywhere. Go on.”
The hansom pursued an aimless way for several minutes, then came to a puzzled stop. The aperture above my head was uncovered, and the cabman peered down perplexedly at me.
“I say,” he said, “wot plyce yer wanter go?”
“East End,” I repeated. “Nowhere in particular. Just drive me around, anywhere.”
“But wot’s the haddress, sir?”
“See here!” I thundered. “Drive me down to the East End, and at once!” It was evident that he did not understand, but he withdrew his head, and grumblingly started his horse…
“Stepney, sir; Stepney Station,” the cabby called down. I looked about. It was really a railroad station, and he had driven desperately to it as the one familiar spot he had ever heard of in all that wilderness.
“Well?” I said.
He spluttered unintelligibly, shook his head, and looked very miserable. “I’m a strynger ‘ere,” he managed to articulate. “An if yer don’t want Stepney Station, I’m blessed if I know wotcher do want.”
“I’ll tell you what I want,” I said. “You drive along and keep your eye out for a shop where old clothes are sold. Now, when you see such a shop, drive right on till you turn the corner, then stop and let me out.”
I could see that he was growing dubious of his fare, but not long afterwards he pulled up to the curb and informed me that an old-clothes shop was to be found a bit of the way back.
“Won’tcher py me?” he pleaded.” There’s seven an’ six owin’ me.”
“Yes,” I laughed, “and it would be the last I’d see of you.”
“Lord lumme, but it’ll be the last I see of you if yer don’t py me,” he retorted.
Jack eventually finds his way to an old clothing store. With difficulty he explains to the shopkeeper that he truly wants old, desperate-looking clothing. He purchases wretched trousers, frayed jackets, and a pair of brogans (a type of heavy shoe with ankle-high leather). London would later sew a gold sovereign in the armpit of his “stoker’s singlet,” as a precaution in the event of an emergency. One of the most interesting passages in People of the Abyss is London’s comment on the abrupt difference in treatment he received from people once he donned the clothing of an urchin. Gone in an instant were the pleasantries, the courtesies, and the deference:
No sooner was I out on the streets than I was impressed by the difference in status effected by my clothes. All servility vanished from the demeanor of the common people with whom I came in contact. Presto! in the twinkling of an eye, so to say, I had become one of them. My frayed and out-at-elbows jacket was the badge and advertisement of my class, which was their class. It made me of like kind, and in place of the fawning and too respectful attention I had hitherto received, I now shared with them a comrade ship. The man in corduroy and dirty neckerchief no longer addressed me as “sir” or “governor.” It was “mate” now—and a fine and hearty word, with a tingle to it, and a warmth and gladness, which the other term does not possess. Governor! It smacks of mastery, and power, and high authority—the tribute of the man who is under to the man on top, delivered in the hope that he will let up a bit and ease his weight, which is another way of saying that it is an appeal for alms.
Anyone doubting that appearances matter has only to read these sentences. But at least Jack was now relieved of the obligation of tipping; and he no longer feared the crowd, because now he was one of the crowd. He roams the streets for a time, and then resolves to rent a room by the week. The one he finds can be had for six shillings per week—about a dollar and a half in US dollars of 1902. He makes a few friends, and shares mugs of beer with other down-and-outers in Wapping. Oddly, few apparently care that he is an American; the solidarity of the destitute seems to transcend nationality. There is a sort of vicarious pleasure in reading of these experiences—provided, of course, that we are not forced to plunge into the abyss ourselves. For it is often true as Seneca says in his Natural Questions (II.59.13),
No one has ever been afraid of any lightning, except that lightning he has avoided.
Yet it is not long before London’s analytic mind begins to draw conclusions about his environment. The “Abyss” (his word for the slum) is its own world; he describes it as a “vast shambles” collecting all the failed hopefuls who arrive from the rural areas, expecting a better life, only to find no place or position in the big city. A hard realist, London knows that it makes no sense for denizens of the Abyss to marry or have families, since they would accomplish nothing but add to the balance of Malthusian misery:
The satisfied torpor in which they [the people of the Abyss] are sunk is the deadly inertia that precedes dissolution. There is no progress, and with them not to progress is to fall back and into the Abyss. In their own lives they may only start to fall, leaving the fall to be completed by their children and their children’s children. Man always gets less than he demands from life; and so little do they demand, that the less than little they get cannot save them. At the best, city life is an unnatural life for the human; but the city life of London is so utterly unnatural that the average workman or workwoman cannot stand it. Mind and body are sapped by the undermining influences ceaselessly at work. Moral and physical stamina are broken, and the good workman, fresh from the soil, becomes in the first city generation a poor workman; and by the second city generation, devoid of push and go and initiative, and actually unable physically to perform the labor his father did, he is well on the way to the shambles at the bottom of the Abyss.
In Spitalfields Garden and Frying-Pan Alley (what colorful names masking such anguish!), Jack finds more grist for his squalor mill. Fifty percent of East End children die before they reach the age of five, he tells us. Finding everyone sleeping during the day, he notes that it is a law of the street that the homeless are condemned to be awake at night. Walking the streets all night in London is known as “carrying the banner.” The purposelessness of the exercise mirrors the meaninglessness of the lives of those who do it. At the Whitechapel workhouse, he talks with other men “on the doss” (as London explains, the East End phrase for vagabondage), and learns the bleak desperation that attends a fall into the ranks of the urban proletariat.
Yet one can detect vague threads of contradiction in London’s grim descriptions. He has sympathy for the plight of the destitute, but finds them animalistic, brutish, and all but useless; it is a contradiction that underpins much of London’s fiction. His ideas were an odd mix of rugged Nietzschean individualism, of heroic triumph over the grey monotonies of life, combined with a sincere concern for the miseries of the world’s unfortunates. Or perhaps there is no contradiction here at all—I for one find it perfectly natural for both these sentiments to inhabit the same mind simultaneously.
Perhaps the best passages in People of the Abyss are those in which London expresses his scorn for temperance advocates, thrift advocates, and other do-gooder types. He finds them out of touch, disconnected with reality, and peddlers of lies. In this he evokes Melville’s railings against the missionaries he encountered as a ship-jumper in Polynesia in the 1840s, those scripture-thumping crusaders who believed they were bringing “civilization” to the natives. Here, London vents his scorn at temperance and “thrift” activists:
These people who try to help! Their college settlements, missions, charities, and what not, are failures. In the nature of things they cannot but be failures. They are wrongly, though sincerely, conceived. They approach life through a misunderstanding of life, these good folk. They do not understand the West End, yet they come down to the East End teachers and savants…As someone has said, they do everything for the poor except get off their backs. The very money they dribble out in their child’s schemes has been wrung from the poor. They come from a race of successful and predatory bipeds who stand between the worker and his wages, and they try to tell the worker what he shall do with the pitiful balance left to him. Of what use, in the name of God, is it to establish nurseries for women workers, in which, for instance, a child is taken while the mother makes violets in Islington at three farthings a gross, when more children and violet-makers than they can cope with are being born right along?…
And one and all, they join in teaching a fundamental lie. They do not know it is a lie, but their ignorance does not make it more of a truth. And the lie they preach is “thrift.” An instant will demonstrate it. In overcrowded London, the struggle for a chance to work is keen, and because of this struggle wages sink to the lowest means of subsistence. To be thrifty means for a worker to spend less than his income- in other words, to live on less. This is equivalent to a lowering of the standard of living. In the competition for a chance to work, the man with a lower standard of living will underbid the man with a higher standard. And a small group of such thrifty workers in any overcrowded industry will permanently lower the wages of that industry. And the thrifty ones will no longer be thrifty, for their income will have been reduced till it balances their expenditure. In short, thrift negates thrift.
London concludes his book with a philosophical proposition: has civilization bettered the lot of the average man? He offers the Inuit people of Alaska as a contrast to the slum-dwellers of the East End; and, using selective comparisons, has no trouble concluding that the Inuit ice-dweller is better off. Of course, Jack never bothers to test his theory by living among the Inuit. Had he done so, he might have discovered that, in their own way, they could be just as debased and primitive as the London East Ender of 1902. The life of the typical Inuit was one of unrelieved drudgery: flaying seal flesh, curing skins, squinting at the blinding snow, and the like. The books and learning of which Jack was so fond are nowhere to be found; in its place was only a brutish struggle for survival, of the type that London loved to romanticize. It is not a life I would want. It is not a life that Jack would have wanted, either. And so there you have it: every society creates its own prisons of injustice, its own individual squalors.
As I see it, there are no paradises. There is no untrammeled “freedom.” There is only this world, with its assorted warts and blemishes, and our will to shape it. To use an expression so often on London’s lips, this is the “law of life.” Of course it is easy to condemn the sort of muckraking journalism that London engages in. Critics can fault him for an alleged lack of “balance,” for cherry-picking facts, and the like. But these sorts of critics are deficient in perspective. What London did was very difficult, and was probably something only he could have done. He grew up in hardship, and knew how to handle himself; and he was a writer of unmatched talent. Concern for our fellow man should be a general concern; we are all linked in this regard. As Cicero says in On Moral Ends (III.20):
But it would be most inconsistent for us to expect the immortal gods to care for us and grant us special affections, when we ourselves are cruel and uncaring with each other. Therefore, just as we make use of our limbs before having a real understanding of their functional purpose, so have we been connected and closely bonded by Nature in a civil community. If this were not so, there would be no place for justice or mutual kindness.
We are responsible for the well-being of our fellows. We are not put on this earth to serve ourselves only. So even if we find fault in some of Jack’s ideas, this does not mean that we should not alleviate the sufferings of the poor. It does not mean that we should turn our backs on our fellow men. But it does mean that there are no perfectly just and fair societies: and Jack, like his predecessor in idealism, Herman Melville, could never quite accept this. Life ought to be hard, and full of sorrow. Our task, in this brief life, is to carve out as many little oases as we can in this vast sandy desert of Pain, both for ourselves and for others. My comments here should not be seen as criticisms of Jack. For I am talking about personal ethics, about moral issues, and he was dealing with political remedies for social problems. His book is a great account, a monument to a passionately idealistic soul. London never abandoned his idealism: he never turned his back on his fellows. He believed, and died believing. And this is what made him great, just as it made Melville great.
Jack ends his book with a rather unconvincing analysis that Britain’s leadership is headed for disaster, and that the political establishment needs to be “reorganized.” He does not say just what form this reorganization should take. He just says it, and leaves it at that:
Either the Empire is a profit to England, or it is a loss. If it is a loss, it must be done away with. If it is a profit, it must be managed so that the average man comes in for a share of the profit…In short, society must be reorganised, and a capable management put at the head. That the present management is incapable, there can be no discussion. It has drained the United Kingdom of its life-blood. It has enfeebled the stay-at-home folk till they are unable longer to struggle in the van of the competing nations.
Little could London have suspected that, within about a decade, a horrific European war would erupt that would bring down not only the British Empire, but several other continental empires as well. The People of the Abyss is a valuable document, one worth reading very carefully today. To me it seems just as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1903. It is true that great advances have been made since London’s day in public health, relief for the poor, and in child welfare. And yet there is this mantle of apathy that has descended over our social consciousness in other ways. The inequality of wealth—that is, its vast overconcentration in the hands of the few—has brought us closer and closer to that technocratic tyranny London predicted in The Iron Heel. Social reforms are not just desirable, but a matter of life and death. Either we take action to remedy problems, or history will remedy us in its own way.
Our journalists now do not bother to investigate the living and working conditions of the poor, the unemployed, or the marginalized, by living among them; they instead rush to compete for positions in corporate conglomerates, where they can establish Instagram accounts and attention-whore with celebrities. There is the blindness, this willful ignorance, that is every bit as present among the ruling classes of America in 2020 as it was in Britain in 1902. If there is some modern British version of Jack London out there somewhere, I do hope he pays us a reciprocal visit soon, and writes about what he finds here.
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