The People of the Abyss (1903) is a book by Jack London about life in the East End of London in 1902. He wrote this first-hand account after living in the East End (including the Whitechapel District) for several months, sometimes staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets. The conditions he experienced and wrote about were the same as those endured by an estimated 500,000 of the contemporary London poor.
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The People of the Abyss
By Jack London
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2009 Alexander Masters
All rights reserved.
'But you can't do it, you know,' friends said, to whom I applied for assistance in the matter of sinking myself down into the East End of London. 'You had better see the police for a guide,' they added, on second thought, painfully endeavoring to adjust themselves to the psychological processes of a madman who had come to them with better credentials than brains.
'But I don't want to see the police,' I protested. 'What I wish to do is to go down into the East End and see things for myself. I wish to know how those people are living there, and why they are living there, and what they are living for. In short, I am going to live there myself.'
'You don't want to live down there!' everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces. 'Why, it is said there are places where a man's life isn't worth tu'pence.'
'The very places I wish to see,' I broke in.
'But you can't, you know,' was the unfailing rejoinder.
'Which is not what I came to see you about,' I answered brusquely, somewhat nettled by their incomprehension. 'I am a stranger here, and I want you to tell me what you know of the East End, in order that I may have something to start on.'
'But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere.' And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on rare occasions may be seen to rise.
'Then I shall go to Cook's,' I announced.
'Oh yes,' they said, with relief. 'Cook's will be sure to know.'
But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, path-finders and trail-clearers, living signposts to all the world, and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers – unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Tibet, but to the East End of London, barely a stone's throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!
'You can't do it, you know,' said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook's Cheapside branch. 'It is so – ahem – so unusual.'
'Consult the police,' he concluded authoritatively, when I persisted. 'We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.'
'Never mind that,' I interposed, to save myself from being swept out of the office by his flood of negations. 'Here's something you can do for me. I wish you to understand in advance what I intend doing, so that in case of trouble you may be able to identify me.'
'Ah, I see! Should you be murdered, we would be in position to identify the corpse.'
He said it so cheerfully and cold-bloodedly that on the instant I saw my stark and mutilated cadaver stretched upon a slab where cool waters trickle ceaselessly, and him I saw bending over and sadly and patiently identifying it as the body of the insane American who would see the East End.
'No, no,' I answered; 'merely to identify me in case I get into a scrape with the "bobbies".' This last I said with a thrill; truly, I was gripping hold of the vernacular.
'That,' he said, 'is a matter for the consideration of the Chief Office.'
'It is so unprecedented, you know,' he added apologetically.
The man at the Chief Office hemmed and hawed. 'We make it a rule,' he explained, 'to give no information concerning our clients.'
'But in this case,' I urged, 'it is the client who requests you to give the information concerning himself.'
Again he hemmed and hawed.
'Of course,' I hastily anticipated, 'I know it is unprecedented, but –'
'As I was about to remark,' he went on steadily, 'it is unprecedented, and I don't think we can do anything for you.'
However, I departed with the address of a detective who lived in the East End, and took my way to the American consul-general. And here, at last, I found a man with whom I could 'do business'. There was no hemming and hawing, no lifted brows, open incredulity, or blank amazement. In one minute I explained myself and my project, which he accepted as a matter of course. In the second minute he asked my age, height, and weight, and looked me over. And in the third minute, as we shook hands at parting, he said, 'All right, Jack. I'll remember you and keep track.'
I breathed a sigh of relief. Having built my ships behind me, 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'.
'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.
Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes' walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one unending slum. 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.
Not a hansom did I meet with in all my drive, while mine was like an apparition from another and better world, the way the children ran after it and alongside. And as far as I could see were the solid walls of brick, the slimy pavements, and the screaming streets; and for the first time in my life the fear of the crowd smote me. It was like the fear of the sea; and the miserable multitudes, street upon street, seemed so many waves of a vast and malodorous sea, lapping about me and threatening to well up and over me.
'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.
But a crowd of ragged onlookers had already gathered around the cab, and I laughed again and walked back to the old-clothes shop.
Here the chief difficulty was in making the shop man understand that I really and truly wanted old clothes. But after fruitless attempts to press upon me new and impossible coats and trousers, he began to bring to light heaps of old ones, looking mysterious the while and hinting darkly. This he did with the palpable intention of letting me know that he had 'piped my lay', in order to bulldoze me, through fear of exposure, into paying heavily for my purchases. A man in trouble, or a high-class criminal from across the water, was what he took my measure for – in either case, a person anxious to avoid the police.
But I disputed with him over the outrageous difference between prices and values, till I quite disabused him of the notion, and he settled down to drive a hard bargain with a hard customer. In the end I selected a pair of stout though well-worn trousers, a frayed jacket with one remaining button, a pair of brogans which had plainly seen service where coal was shoveled, a thin leather belt, and a very dirty cloth cap. My underclothing and socks, however, were new and warm, but of the sort that any American waif, down on his luck, could acquire in the ordinary course of events.
'I must sy yer a sharp 'un,' he said, with counterfeit admiration, as I handed over the ten shillings finally agreed upon for the outfit. 'Blimey, if you ain't ben up an' down Petticut Lane afore now. Yer trouseys is wuth five bob to hany man, an' a docker 'ud give two an' six for the shoes, to sy nothin' of the coat an' cap an' new stoker's singlet an' hother things.'
'How much will you give me for them?' I demanded suddenly. 'I paid you ten bob for the lot, and I'll sell them back to you, right now, for eight! Come, it's a go!'
But he grinned and shook his head, and though I had made a good bargain, I was unpleasantly aware that he had made a better one.
I found the cabby and a policeman with their heads together, but the latter, after looking me over sharply, and particularly scrutinizing the bundle under my arm, turned away and left the cabby to wax mutinous by himself. And not a step would he budge till I paid him the seven shillings and sixpence owing him. Whereupon he was willing to drive me to the ends of the earth, apologizing profusely for his insistence, and explaining that one ran across queer customers in London Town.
But he drove me only to Highbury Vale, in North London, where my luggage was waiting for me. Here, next day, I took off my shoes (not without regret for their lightness and comfort), and my soft, grey travelling suit, and, in fact, all my clothing; and proceeded to array myself in the clothes of the other and unimaginable men, who must have been indeed unfortunate to have had to part with such rags for the pitiable sums obtainable from a dealer.
Inside my stoker's singlet, in the armpit, I sewed a gold sovereign (an emergency sum certainly of modest proportions); and inside my stoker's singlet I put myself. And then I sat down and moralized upon the fair years and fat, which had made my skin soft and brought the nerves close to the surface; for the singlet was rough and raspy as a hair shirt, and I am confident that the most rigorous of ascetics suffer no more than I did in the ensuing twenty-four hours.
The remainder of my costume was fairly easy to put on, though the brogans, or brogues, were quite a problem. As stiff and hard as if made of wood, it was only after a prolonged pounding of the uppers with my fists that I was able to get my feet into them at all. Then, with a few shillings, a knife, a handkerchief, and some brown papers and flake tobacco stowed away in my pockets, I thumped down the stairs and said goodbye to my foreboding friends. As I passed out of the door, the 'help', a comely middle-aged woman, could not conquer a grin that twisted her lips and separated them till the throat, out of involuntary sympathy, made the uncouth animal noises we are wont to designate as 'laughter'.
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 comradeship. 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.
This brings me to a delight I experienced in my rags and tatters which is denied the average American abroad. The European traveller from the States, who is not a Croesus, speedily finds himself reduced to a chronic state of self-conscious sordidness by the hordes of cringing robbers who clutter his steps from dawn till dark, and deplete his pocket-book in a way that puts compound interest to the blush.
In my rags and tatters I escaped the pestilence of tipping, and encountered men on a basis of equality. Nay, before the day was out I turned the tables, and said, most gratefully, 'Thank you, sir,' to a gentleman whose horse I held, and who dropped a penny into my eager palm.
Other changes I discovered were wrought in my condition by my new garb. In crossing crowded thoroughfares I found I had to be, if anything, more lively in avoiding vehicles, and it was strikingly impressed upon me that my life had cheapened in direct ratio with my clothes. When before I inquired the way of a policeman, I was usually asked, 'Bus or 'ansom, sir?' But now the query became, 'Walk or ride?' Also, at the railway stations, a third-class ticket was now shoved out to me as a matter of course.
But there was compensation for it all. For the first time I met the English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they were. When loungers and workmen, on street corners and in public houses, talked with me, they talked as one man to another, and they talked as natural men should talk, without the least idea of getting anything out of me for what they talked or the way they talked.
And when at last I made into the East End, I was gratified to find that the fear of the crowd no longer haunted me. I had become a part of it. The vast and malodorous sea had welled up and over me, or I had slipped gently into it, and there was nothing fearsome about it – with the one exception of the stoker's singlet.CHAPTER 2
The people live in squalid dens, where there can be no health and no hope, but dogged discontent at their own lot, and futile discontent at the wealth which they see possessed by others.
– James Edwin Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages
I shall not give you the address of Johnny Upright. Let it suffice that he lives in the most respectable street in the East End – a street that would be considered very mean in America, but a veritable oasis in the desert of East London. It is surrounded on every side by close-packed squalor and streets jammed by a young and vile and dirty generation; but its own pavements are comparatively bare of the children who have no other place to play, while it has an air of desertion, so few are the people that come and go.
Each house in this street, as in all the streets, is shoulder to shoulder with its neighbors. To each house there is but one entrance, the front door; and each house is about eighteen feet wide, with a bit of a brick-walled yard behind, where, when it is not raining, one may look at a slate-colored sky. But it must be understood that this is East End opulence we are now considering. Some of the people in this street are even so well-to-do as to keep a 'slavey'. Johnny Upright keeps one, as I well know, she being my first acquaintance in this particular portion of the world.
Excerpted from The People of the Abyss by Jack London. Copyright © 2009 Alexander Masters. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- The Descent
- Johnny Upright
- My Lodging and Some Others
- A Man and the Abyss
- Those on the Edge
- Frying-Pan Alley and a Glimpse of Inferno
- A Winner of the Victoria Cross
- The Carter and the Carpenter
- The Spike
- Carrying the Banner
- The Peg
- Coronation Day
- Dan Cullen, Docker
- Hops and Hoppers
- The Sea Wife
- Property Versus Person
- The Ghetto
- Coffee-houses and Doss-houses
- The Precariousness of Life
- The Children
- A Vision of the Night
- The Hunger Wail
- Drink, Temperance, and Thrift
- The Management
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The premise is simple in 1902 Jack London, posing as an out of work American sailor, went undercover in the poverty stricken east of London.There are much more interesting, richer and more detailed accounts of poverty out there (Henry Meyhew springs to mind) although this still an interesting read, even whilst being a dated and extremely flawed book. It's interesting because in spite of his many flaws Jack London is an engaging writer, his passion and horror at the poverty keeps the account painfully alive whilst his socialist views and lack Victorian prudishness is, for the period, deeply refreshing.However it contains far far too much of Jack London and his giant ego. The tome veers wildly from boys own adventure (look how brave he is!) to heart wrenching accounts, to repetitive lengthy facts and figures. It can be funny but for all the wrong reasons, he seems to carefully select his interviewees and he has a bizarre superiority going on; our poor are better than your poor kind of thing.To be honest the whole thing makes me wonder what he would thought he would achieve. He may be right but alienating people who can change things never helps. I mean he even criticises the King! Yes yes I know, how cruel ;)A different and interesting account of poverty but one I would only recommend to Jack London fans.
The People of the Abyss - Jack London - published by Hesperus Press Limited."Where home is a hovel, and dull we grovel,Forgetting the World is fair." William Morris, The Voice of Toil.A quotation to the start of the Chapter on Children in this striking work by Jack London, written in 1903.If this reflection by William Morris was true in Jack London's eyes in 1903, sadly and with great shame it has to be said that nothing has changed for the many, today.Accepting that Jack London was looking for the worst situations he could find and his personal background and experiences, the comments and opinions he offers are nevertheless sound. Reading this book I found all too often quite painful. All the more so because my own father was an infant of seven when this was written, living in the suburbs of London, born into a family of fourteen living in a three bedroomed terraced house. Of the fourteen children born ten survived to adult hood. By the evidence recounted by Jack London, that so many survived was exceptional.It is impossible reading the many examples he gives, not to feel that there has been little if any improvement in the lives of those today who are existing in conditions not better than he describes. The gap between those who have plenty and those who have nothing then was great and today I fear it remains so, to an even greater extent.Any serious student of social history will easily find that his research has a bias that tends to over dramatise some situations but accepting that, the stories he tells make compelling reading and do provide a very real picture of the conditions existing at that time. It would be wrong to ignore the humanity that comes from his views. He was, as would any civilised person, deeply disturbed by his experiences.This is a well produced book and Hesperus Press have provided a clear and easily read edition that reflects well the nature of the original story. I have not seen the original edition although I have seen later editions produced in 1913. This new one is faithful in all ways to the original and makes a good addition to any library.
What Jacob Riis did for New York City with his photos of tenements, Jack London did for London with his book, The People of the Abyss. The abyss that he referred to was the squalid East End of London, where the poorest of the poor lived and died.All of the horrors are there, described not by a dispassionate historian keeping a professional distance in his reporting, but in eyewitness accounts of and interviews with people living in appalling conditions. What I found most horrifying about this book is that so many things haven¿t changed since it was written at the turn of the last century. His descriptions of homeless people forced by the police to literally walk all night due to a law which forbade sleeping in public places brought to mind the sweeps done in our own cities, forcing the homeless off the streets and out of our sight. Healthcare was an issue then just as it is now. Families were forced into poverty and sometimes starvation when the husband, the main breadwinner, was injured, became ill or died. The majority of bankruptcies in our own time are caused by overwhelming medical bills. More than a century ago when this book was written, when a man was out of work due to illness or injury, his wife was unable to adequately support the family because the only jobs open to her paid too little. Sadly, in our own time, women are still not able to adequately provide for their families on their own because they are paid, on average, 70 cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same job. A statistic that should outrage everyone (but strangely doesn¿t) is that post-divorce, children slide down the economic scale, sometimes into poverty thanks to their mothers¿ inability to earn a living comparable to their fathers who actually ascend the economic ladder post-divorce due their higher earning power.The cost of housing, rents equal to half their income, brings to mind the mortgage crisis we are suffering today. As the cost of housing during the last real estate bubble, reached stratospheric levels, families were forced to pay more and more of their income for housing, leaving little to actually live on. All it takes is a job loss or catastrophic illness for them to find themselves on the street as the banks foreclose on their homes. Their counterparts a century ago faced a similar fate for the same reasons. Job loss or illness resulted in the loss of the tiny rooms that they rented.Yet for all the similarities, there are important differences. We have laws governing the workplace and a social safety net that prevents the worst of the gruesome results of illness and unemployment described in this book. Laws about workplace safety and working hours prevent employers from exploiting their workers. Unemployment insurance replaces a portion of lost wages. Food stamps and free or reduced cost meals in schools stave off starvation. We have come a long way since 1902. After reading this book, I realized that we still have a long way to go.
The old adage, "You can't judge a book by it's cover" certainly applies in the case of this particular book. Hesperus have put together a really lovely thick cover and good quality pages. I wanted to like it, I really did, and it initially started off well, being about poverty in London in the early 1900's. I wanted to be interested because my grandparents were born around 1910, and so not so far into the future of London's study of the people of London, which was 1902. I felt that he barely touched the surface of the people of the East End's lives, he wrote about the dire circumstances in which those people lived, and although you could sense his anger, I felt that all the time he was comparing our lives to those of those living in poverty in America, who he considered to be much better off. The book ended up being a chore to read and I forced myself to finish the last quarter of it, although I'm sure I didn't take much of it in.
Jack London's The People of the Abyss is a great book. Somehow London always manages to make compelling topics I would not generally find interesting. His writing is always powerful. I can see the scenes he depicts in front of me; in fact, I feel I am in them. I find myself sympathetic to the characters. The world is a better place for having revealed itself to London and to have reflected back his interpretation of it.
First off let me say how much I like Hesperus Press editions. They are sturdy, well-made paperbacks, whose covers have been lengthened an inch or so and then turned in, like a book jacket. The paper is good and the print excellent. I have a set of their Dickens Christmas anthologies, which include the contributions by other people, and they are excellent. I have to say I didn't enjoy this one as much as those.If you've read Orwell - Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London - or Henry Meyhew - London labour and the London Poor, you'll have found the same information better presented. Jack London was a poverty tourist, he dipped his toe into the tide of human misery but made sure he could scuttle back to better living pretty sharpish. That's not to say there aren't some good things, the stories of the individuals he met, his compassion for the underworld (by which he meant the underclass rather than criminals) and his perception that, once a person began the fall from even relative prosperity, it was next to impossible to get out of the Abyss. Less successful - his quoting of more systematic researchers and a rather brash Yankee triumphalism - he is forever claiming that the American poor did much better, though it is plain by this he meant white Americans, I doubt African-, Native- and Chinese-Americans of the period would have been quite so sanguine.
This is a very interesting book set in London in the first decade of the twentieth century. You can read it as a social history as long as you remember what Alexander Masters writes in the foreword to the book; 'as an objective, trustworthy analysis, Abyss won¿t do at all'.In 1902 Jack London moves temporarily into East End, disguised as a poor inhabitant. He observes and tells us about how the poor in East End live and how they go about their daily chores.Even if not everything in the book is considered trustworthy the stories tell us a lot of the persistence of social inequality in Britain. The atmosphere is vividly described and all that happens in the book seems genuine.Besides the stories of different people there are statistics, all showing the misery the working class lived in during the first years of the twentieth century.All together the book is absolutely worth reading, especially if you are interested in the history of England.
In 1902, Jack London went to the city of London and spent a few months posing as an unemployed American sailor in the East End slums. He lived with them, on the streets and in workhouses, and in The People of the Abyss he reports back on the living conditions he found there. They are horrific. Starvation, filth, disease... people standing hours in line trying to get a spot to sleep for the night, unable to find or keep jobs. Many of the people London met were merely unlucky - an illness, a death in the family, an injury that cost them a job, the "thing that happened" - and the next thing they knew they were homeless, no longer able to make ends meet (sounds familiar, no? The more things change, the more they stay the same). It is difficult reading, and London only hints at some of the worst of the problems. As other reviewers have said, this is by no means an unbiased, just-the-facts-ma'am book. London was outraged by what he saw. In the book, he lays blame at the feet of the government, society, the lack of jobs, and even do-gooders, stopping just short of calling for class revolution. For what it is worth, an outraged Jack London is a compulsively readable Jack London, for this reviewer. So, so difficult to put down.
Historical history of the underbelly of London