What is not good enough for you is not good enough for other men, and there’s no more to be said. — Jack London, The People of the Abyss [125]

Introduction

Jack London (1876-1916) made a significant contribution to Victorian slum literature. In the summer of 1902 he arrived in England to report the coronation of King Edward VII from the perspective of the London poorest inhabitants. Initially, he wanted to spend a few days in the slums but eventually he stayed six weeks in London’s district of Whitechapel disguised as a stranded American sailor, sleeping in cheap doss houses with the poor and destitute, and as a result of his unique investigative literary journalism he wrote the slum non-fiction novel, The People of the Abyss (1903), which was a first-hand critical account of the life of the British underclass by a foreigner. Later London said in an interview that The People of the Abyss “was of all his books, closest to his heart.” (Hedrick, 59) The book was a great success in the United States; it sold in 20,000 copies, but in England reviews were critical if not hostile. A reviewer of the London Daily News remarked sarcastically:

He has written of the East of London as he wrote about the Klondike, with the same tortured phrase, vehemence of denunciation, splashes of colour, and ferocity of epithet. He has studied it ’earnestly and dispassionately’ — in two months! It is all very pleasant, very American, and very young. [Haley, 154]

London’s account was personal and bitterly critical, but was based on official reports and his first-hand honest observations. However, unlike the British slum fiction authors, London added a more general conclusion concerning the state of the British Empire, which in his opinion was in disarray.

Urban poverty

The late Victorian debate about urban poverty was boosted by a number of studies beginning with Andrew Mearns’s pamphlet The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883), Charles Booth’s monumental Life and Labour of the People in London (1891-1902) and B. S. Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901). As Patricia Ingham has written,

First, and simply, the studies suggested that poverty was much more widespread and persistent than had hitherto been thought. Around 28-30 per cent of the population were now described as being in a state of poverty. This stood in stark contrast to the official figures for paupers, which indicated two to three per cent; and it undermined complacent contemporaries who pointed to the diminution in the numbers of people receiving poor relief since mid-century. [49]

Preconceptions

London travelled to England with a copy of George Haw’s book, No Room To Live: The Plaint of Overcrowded London (1900), which introduced him to the slum conditions he was to explore. In a letter to his close friend and socialist confidante, Anna Strunsky, London wrote about his negative preconceptions of the East End slums:

I sailed yesterday from New York, at noon. A week from today I shall be in London. I shall then have two days in which to make my arrangements and sink down out of sight in order to view the Coronation from the standpoint of the London beasts. That’s all they are — beasts — if they are anything like the slum people of New York. [Swafford, 115]

London, like George Gissing and some other slum novelists, held ambivalent views of low life. His attitude towards the underclass was equivocal. On the one hand, he felt sympathy for social outcasts, and, on the other, he was repulsed by their boorishness and mental inferiority. As a Social Darwinist, London easily perceived the degenerative influence of the slum environment on its residents, but as a socialist and a passionate champion of the working class he felt the need for an immediate and far-reaching social reform. Therefore, he looked upon slum dwellers with mixed feelings. Thanks to his disguise, a ragged suit of clothes, London could talk frankly to many slum dwellers. He worked with them, ate their meagre meals and slept in overcrowded and dirty rooming houses. Eventually, he recorded his experience of the East End slums in a book he called The People of the Abyss.

Abyss, or The Black Hole of the Empire

The metaphor “abyss” with reference to the East End slums was not invented by London. It had earlier already circulated in public discourse and literature. Benjamin Disraeli’s view of the “two-nation” divide, which alluded to the unbridgeable gap between the poor and the rich, evolved into the image of a chasm or an abyss in the final decades of the Victorian era. In his science-fiction novel, The Time Machine (1895), H. G. Wells showed the abysmal world of the subhuman Morlocks and the self-indulgent Eloi. The title of his short story, In the Abyss (1896), might have inspired London to use the metaphor of the abyss to the description of the East End slums.

The terms “abyss,” “darkest London,” and the “urban jungle” were frequently used in the final decades of the Victorian era with reference to urban slums. C. F. G. Masterman (1873-1927), a liberal politician and journalist influenced by Christian Socialism, made a first-hand study of the East End. In 1890, he moved into a tenement block in south-east London in order to observe slum life. The result of his social investigation was a collection of essays about slum residents titled From the Abyss: Of Its Inhabitants By One of Them, which was published only one year before London’s book. Masterman, as Daniel Born pointed out, “conceived the abyss as a general class marker and associated it with slum dwellers’ alleged physical characteristics as well as their living space.” (126)

The central theme of London’s investigative narrative is the abject physical and moral degradation of the residents of the East End, which is metaphorically called the “abyss”. In the preface to his book he explains that he went to explore the conditions of the East London with certain basic moral preconceptions, but he did not rely on the earlier accounts of slum life.

The experiences related in this volume fell to me in the summer of 1902. I went down into the under-world of London with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of the explorer. I was open to be convinced by the evidence of my eyes, rather than by the teachings of those who had not seen, or by the words of those who had seen and gone before. Further, I took with me certain simple criteria with which to measure the life of the under-world. 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.[5]

Unlike the middle-class slum explorers, London tries to convince the reader that he has a better empathy with the slum dwellers because he came from the working class. In his earlier life London used to live as a hobo in a degrading environment, but in the East End he saw abject poverty and human degradation far worse than that in America.

The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot. [9-10]

For London the East End slums are an immeasurably deep abyss, “a huge man-killing machine” (31), where hundreds of thousands of its residents are doomed to a life of degrading misery and suffering. London perceives the East End slums as a social abyss, the black hole of the Empire, that destroys people and turns them into beasts. Some reviewers criticised London for exaggeration of slum descriptions. However, London was truly shocked and dismayed by the appalling human misery, starvation, suffering and the lack of shelter for a great number of the slum dwellers in the period of Britain’s highest prosperity. London blamed the British social system that it remained indifferent to the continued existence of slums at the hub of the Empire where people have to live in subhuman conditions.

Slum congestion

London believed that the main cause of slum overcrowding was enforced poverty. Slum dwellers, who on average received low wages, had to pay disproportionately high rents to landlords. In the following passages London develops Haw’s observations about the shortage of affordable and adequate accommodation for the working class.

There are more people than there is room, and numbers are in the workhouse because they cannot find shelter elsewhere. Not only are houses let, but they are sublet, and sub-sublet down to the very rooms. “A part of a room to let.” This notice was posted a short while ago in a window not five minutes’ walk from St. James’s Hall. The Rev. High Price Hughes is authority for the statement that beds are let on the three-relay system — that is, three tenants to a bed, each occupying it eight hours, so that it never grows cold; while the floor space underneath the bed is likewise let on the three-relay system. Health officers are not at all unused to finding such cases as the following: in one room having a cubic capacity of 1000 feet, three adult females in the bed, and two adult females under the bed; and in one room of 1650 cubic feet, one adult male and two children in the bed, and two adult females under the bed. [127-28]

Most of the unskilled labourers in the East End did not earn enough to be able to afford non-slum housing, even the low cost ones, and were thus compelled to live in slums.

This Ghetto crowding is not through inclination, but compulsion. Nearly fifty per cent of the workers pay from one-fourth to one-half of their earnings for rent. The average rent in the larger part of the East End is from four to six shillings per week for one room, while skilled mechanics, earning thirty-five shillings per week, are forced to part with fifteen shillings of it for two or three pokey little dens, in which they strive desperately to obtain some semblance of home life. And rents are going up all the time. In one street in Stepney the increase in only two years has been from thirteen to eighteen shillings; in another street from eleven to sixteen shillings; and in another street, from eleven to fifteen shillings; while in Whitechapel, two-room houses that recently rented for ten shillings are now costing twenty-one shillings. East, west, north, and south the rents are going up. When land is worth from L20,000 to L30,000 an acre, some one must pay the landlord. [128-129]

Although the acts of Parliament, such as the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 and the Public Health Amendment Act of 1890, stipulated standards for accommodation and public hygiene, and the worst of the slums were demolished, Whitechapel with its maze of gaslit streets still remained one of the most neglected areas of London. Aside from overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the endemic poverty of its residents caused their prolonged malnutrition. London observed that squalor was much worse in England than in the United States.

As a vagrant in the “Hobo” of a California jail, I have been served better food and drink than the London workman receives in his coffee-houses; while as an American labourer I have eaten a breakfast for twelvepence such as the British labourer would not dream of eating. Of course, he will pay only three or four pence for his; which is, however, as much as I paid, for I would be earning six shillings to his two or two and a half. On the other hand, though, and in return, I would turn out an amount of work in the course of the day that would put to shame the amount he turned out. So there are two sides to it. The man with the high standard of living will always do more work and better than the man with the low standard of living. [136]

As a result, English workers, with their low standards of living, were less productive than their American counterparts who received relatively better wages and enjoyed a higher standard of living.

Slum children

Although generally child morbidity and mortality steadily declined in late Victorian England, it remained high in slum areas. London, like Arthur Morrison in his novel, A Child of the Jago, gives a poor outlook for deprived slum children.

In such conditions, the outlook for children is hopeless. They die like flies, and those that survive, survive because they possess excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation with which they are surrounded. They have no home life. In the dens and lairs in which they live they are exposed to all that is obscene and indecent. And as their minds are made rotten, so are their bodies made rotten by bad sanitation, over-crowding, and underfeeding. When a father and mother live with three or four children in a room where the children take turn about in sitting up to drive the rats away from the sleepers, when those children never have enough to eat and are preyed upon and made miserable and weak by swarming vermin, the sort of men and women the survivors will make can readily be imagined. [159-160]

In the last decades of the Victorian era, a growing concern for child welfare was heard in public discourses. Child labour was no longer in great demand as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and children were increasingly perceived in terms of a ’nation’s future’, ’natural resource’, ’national asset’, the ’citizens of tomorrow’. (Weiner, 21) This was due, amongst others, to the gradual loss of Britain’s military and economic superiority in the world. The future of the Empire depended on the young generation, but London did not record in his book any improvements in the fate of pauper children.

Mismanagement

As an ardent socialist, London puts the blame for the subhuman conditions of the Victorian underclass on unfettered industrial capitalism, which is for him an inherently exploitative system with an unfair distribution of wealth and power. He accuses the British political class of gross mismanagement and predicts the inevitable fall of the Empire.

In the final chapter London makes a comparison between the Innuits, native residents of Alaska and the inhabitants of the East End slums. He cannot understand why such an appalling misery affects so many people in the heart of the affluent capital city of the Empire. London saw the residents of the East End as social slaves doomed to a life of much greater hardship and suffering than that of the uncivilised native inhabitants of Alaska.

In Alaska, along the banks of the Yukon River, near its mouth, live the Innuit folk. They are a very primitive people, manifesting but mere glimmering adumbrations of that tremendous artifice, Civilisation. Their capital amounts possibly to £2 per head. They hunt and fish for their food with bone-headed spews and arrows. They never suffer from lack of shelter. Their clothes, largely made from the skins of animals, are warm. They always have fuel for their fires, likewise timber for their houses, which they build partly underground, and in which they lie snugly during the periods of intense cold. In the summer they live in tents, open to every breeze and cool. They are healthy, and strong, and happy. Their one problem is food. They have their times of plenty and times of famine. In good times they feast; in bad times they die of starvation. But starvation, as a chronic condition, present with a large number of them all the time, is a thing unknown. Further, they have no debts.

In the United Kingdom, on the rim of the Western Ocean, live the English folk. They are a consummately civilised people. Their capital amounts to at least £300 per head. They gain their food, not by hunting and fishing, but by toil at colossal artifices. For the most part, they suffer from lack of shelter. The greater number of them are vilely housed, do not have enough fuel to keep them warm, and are insufficiently clothed. A constant number never have any houses at all, and sleep shelterless under the stars. Many are to be found, winter and summer, shivering on the streets in their rags. They have good times and bad. In good times most of them manage to get enough to eat, in bad times they die of starvation. They are dying now, they were dying yesterday and last year, they will die to-morrow and next year, of starvation; for they, unlike the Innuit, suffer from a chronic condition of starvation. There are 40,000,000 of the English folk, and 939 out of every 1000 of them die in poverty, while a constant army of 8,000,000 struggles on the ragged edge of starvation. [179-80]

London concludes that the fate of the slum dwellers is not due to the degeneration of the British race, but to bad policies of the British ruling classes. Bad governance, greed, ineffective regulations and a fundamental lack of political will all contribute to the preservation of urban poverty and degrading slum conditions.

A Foundering Empire

On the occasion of the impressive ceremony of the coronation of Edward VII as the head of the largest empire the world had ever known, Jack London reveals that it is in fact in disarray due to government mismanagement and ineptitude.

A vast empire is foundering on the hands of this incapable management. And by empire is meant the political machinery which holds together the English-speaking people of the world outside of the United States. Nor is this charged in a pessimistic spirit. Blood empire is greater than political empire, and the English of the New World and the Antipodes are strong and vigorous as ever. But the political empire under which they are nominally assembled is perishing. The political machine known as the British Empire is running down. In the hands of its management it is losing momentum every day. [182]

Political discourses at the turn of the nineteenth century emphasised the interrelation between the possible fall of the British Empire and domestic poverty and squalor. Fear for the decline of the nation became one of the central issues during the Boer Wars, when about 80% of young Britons, mostly from the lower classes, were found to be physically unfit to military service. Jack London must have known these facts because initially, he had wanted to write a book on the Boer War. He had to change his plan when he heard that the war was over. Instead he wrote a wrote an autobiographical account about the moral and economic degradation of poor people in the East End slums.

Conclusion

The People of the Abyss is a compelling book that offers today’s readers plenty to think about the people submerged in abysmal slums, the culture of poverty and social enslavement in the late Victorian period. A strong desire to rouse the public conscience and implement urgent and effective reforms permeates London’s narrative which is both a valuable literary work and a serious sociological study. London’s slum narrative contributed to the growth of the investigative journalism of the American muckrakers in the early 20th century. It also anticipated the social writings of George Orwell, particularly Down and Out in Paris (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

References and Further Reading

Booth, William. In Darkest England and the Way Out. London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army, 1890.

Born, Daniel. The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H.G. Wells. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Haley, James L. Wolf: The Lives of Jack London. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Haw, George. No Room To Live. The Plaint of Overcrowded London. With Introduction by Sir Walter Besant. London: Wells Gardner Darton & Co., 1900.

Hedrick, Joan D. Solitary Comrade, Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Ingham, Patricia. The Language of Gender and Class: Transformation in the Victorian Novel. Routledge, 1996.

Koven, Seth. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

London, Jack. The People of the Abyss in: London: Novels and Social Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1982, also available from Project Gutenberg.

Streissguth, Thomas. Jack London. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 2001.

Swafford, Kevin. Class in Late-Victorian Britain: The Narrative Concern with Social Hierarchy and Its Representation. Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press, 2007.

Weiner, Deborah E. B. Architecture and Social Reform in Late-Victorian London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.


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Last modified 14 October 2011