Jack London’s book The People of the Abyss, was first published in November, 1903, and, even today, separated as we are by 118 years from the pictures he portrays of East End poverty, it makes for uncomfortable reading.
Given that this is the major book that, nowadays, is quoted from and remembered with regards to East End poverty at the dawn of the 20th century.
It is often forgotten that Jack London was not producing an original tome, but was simply following a trend in poverty porn, the bandwagon of which had been rolling since 1866, when James Greenwood had disguised himself as one of the London poor to spend a “Night In the Workhouse.”
So, when Jack London spent two months undercover amongst the poor of the district, readers – in Britain at least – had long grown used to such articles, and the book was not as “acclaimed”, if that is the correct word, as it is today, when it is often quoted from in articles on the social conditions in the East End of London.
Even if you have not read the book, there is a high likelihood that you have seen inside its pages, for many of the photographs that appeared it have been used time and time again to show the streets of Jack the Ripper’s London, in particular the image of Dorset Street,
“THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS”
So, how was the book received and reviewed by the newspapers of the day.
Well, the majority of the reviewers were of the opinion that, whereas it was well-written, it really didn’t offer anything new, and it most certainly didn’t offer any solutions to the problems that it highlighted.
The Globe, for example, published the following assessment of the tome in its edition of Wednesday, 11th November 1903:-
“It is not quite clear why Mr. Jack London took the trouble to come all the way from California in order to obtain material on which to base this book.
It had not been left to that young gentleman to describe the phenomena of the East End of this metropolis. That has been done over and over again, and never more frequently or effectively than of late years, during which there has been a passionate desire on the part of Londoners to better, if they could, the condition of the outcast poor.
ACCURATE PICTURES OF POVERTY
As a literary performance, The People of the Abyss is all very well.
Mr, Jack London is a very good “special commissioner,” gifted with a discerning eye and the capacity to portray more or less vividly what he sees.
No one will challenge the accuracy of his pictures of poverty, any more than the accuracy of his photographs will be questioned. The whole thing is admitted.
The condition of the East-end of London embodies a ghastly problem, not yet solved, though sedulously mitigated as far as may be.
NO PRACTICAL SOLUTION
Mr. Jack London, amateur wastrel, is no doubt a literary success, but what is the practical outcome of his performance?
His final chapter, impeaching “The Management” (as he calls it) is only so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Mr. London has no real solution of the problem to offer us. He has made a book out of it, certainly; but that is all.”
“THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS” By Jack London.
The Sketch, again on Wednesday, 11th November, 1903, thought that it would be better received in America than in Britain:-
“The People of the Abyss” is likely to attain greater popularity and to create a deeper and more lasting impression in America than in England: to the average American the under world of the East-End and its never-ending problems will doubtless be as new as they were to Mr. Jack London; to the average Englishman they are pitifully and shamefully old.
Unlike the other works with which the name of the “American Kipling” is associated, it suggests the moderately imaginative reformer rather than the vividly imaginative novelist, but it is bitterly true.
NOT A NICE BOOK – NOT NICE PEOPLE
It is not nice reading, as the men and women and children with whom it deals are not “nice” people.
A journey further East than St. Paul’s Church yard is not calculated to display the latest toque to those able to appreciate it or envy its possessor. Even though it be but a clever and elaborate, if quite unconscious, repetition of much that has been said and thought and deplored times without number, it is well that The People of the Abyss should have been written.
The tragedy within it is the tragedy of the poor within our gates, the horror, the sordid horror of dirt and despair, rather than the horror of, say, “The Hole in the Wall,” that flashes from the blade of a bared knife, that rises with the mist of the river, that lurks in the murk of the noisome alleys of the slums, but tragedy and horror it is none the less.
AND IT’S 1903!
In his closing chapter, Mr. Jack London compares the lot of the very poor – models for a Doré or a Hogarth, born in squalor, bred in squalor, dying in squalor – with that of the Innuits of Alaska, and to, the advantage of the Innuits: the savage, at least, starves but periodically; the East Ender chronically.
And the date of the book is 1903!”
GET DRUNK AND FORGET
The Daily Telegraph & Courier (London), on Wednesday, 18th November, 1903, had this to say about the book:-
“Did Destiny today bind me down to the life of an East-end slave for the rest of my years, and did Destiny grant me but one wish, I should ask that I might forget all about the Beautiful and True sad Good; that I might forget all that I had learned from the open books, and forget the people I had known, the things I had heard, and the lands I had seen. And if Destiny didn’t grant it, I am pretty confident that I should get drunk and forget it as often as possible.”
And again, Professor Huxley’s remark: “Were the alternative presented to me, I would deliberately prefer the life of the savage to that of those people in Christian London.”
Mr. Jack London, who in the past two years has made a notable entry into the leading ranks of writers of fiction, spent two months living among the poor of the East-end. The two utterances quoted from the pages in which he narrates his experiences will show how he has been impressed.
STIRRED TO BITTERNESS
With his keen emotional sensitiveness, so fully evidenced in his fiction, it was impossible that he should not be stirred to bitterness and sickness of heart by the conditions of existence of the “People of the Abyss.”
One cannot read without a shudder some of his descriptions of the terrible lives of the population submerged beneath the dark waters of the sea of poverty.
NO NEW STORY AND NO REMEDY
It is terrible, and it is also well-known; and though there are phases of the tragedy which Mr. London’s remarkable powers of description and keen insight into human nature enable him to put before us, more poignantly and vividly perhaps than has been done before, he tells no new story.
Nor does he suggest a remedy; for to rail at civilisation, one of the failures of which the East-end undoubtedly is, does not aid to a solution of the problem.
STRONGER FORCES ARE AT WORK
Nor yet is it helpful to demand the reorganisation of society and the abolition of the drones.
Stronger forces are at work than Mr. London seems to realise in producing the present deplorable condition of affairs, and not the least of them is the disinclination of a great part of mankind to work any more than it is compelled to – a factor which must be given a foremost place in the calculations of anyone who sets out to reorganise society.
IT WILL OPEN PEOPLE’S EYES
Notwithstanding, however, that Mr. London’s book adds in reality little or nothing to the solution of the terrible problem of the eight millions of people in these islands, who live on the verge of starvation, it is a volume to be read.
It will open the eyes of many to a large number of facts which they have not formerly realised; will show them how hard it is for the man who falls into the Abyss ever to emerge from it again; and will perhaps lead to more common sense efforts to ameliorate the lot of the poverty stricken.
A STRIKING VOLUME
While one may not accept Mr. London’s views in their entirety, one cannot but recognise that he has put forward a striking volume in an earnest endeavour to direct public attention to a social blot.”