December 28th, 2009

Jack London: The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss is another non-fiction piece by Jack London that I enjoyed so much, I decided to post it in the Vine Maple Studio.

Winter sunshine

Winter sunshine

Jack London was fascinating and more influential than most people realize. I am not a Jack London fan by choice. In the seventies, I went through a phase in which I collected old paperback editions of London’s books. At first, it was a sort of nostalgia for the adventures I enjoyed as a boy. But eventually, I read one too many of his worst potboilers, and decided to drop the effort.

Now, I approach Jack London warily, but I happened to read The Cruise of Snark about a year ago and enjoyed it. Later, I posted it in Vine Maple Studio. This lead me to look again at The People of the Abyss when I happened to be looking through the Jack London list on Gutenberg, although with much initial doubt.

The book Black Like Me came out while I was in high school. It was popular among the intelligentsia of Ferndale High School, but I was repulsed: the masquerade demeaned both the masquerader and the subject of the masquerade. I was equally unimpressed when fifteen years later, Jerry Brown “spent the night in the ghetto.” Anyone who ventures into an impoverished milieu with a publishing contract or an election in mind is a target for charges of insincerity or worse.

I went through my own immersion experience, made more intense by my naiveté, when I was barely eighteen. I got on a train and rode from the farm that is home to the Vine Maple Studio to the south side of Chicago, staying for seven years. I gained no profound insight into the human condition, but I endured disconnection and bewilderment that came from forced interaction with lives that were constrained and driven by poverty that I could not have imagined without direct exposure.

The People of the Abyss is an account of Jack London’s months long sojourn in the slums of London’s East End at the turn of the nineteenth century. The East End was the most infamous slum of London, the backdrop for Oliver Twist and other Dickens novels, and the location of the Jack the Ripper murders, and a wellspring of crime, vice, and degradation. If there was a worse place on earth, Jack London would have argued the assertion down.

The book was, on one level, a journalistic stunt.

But as a journalistic stunt, The People of the Abyss had good literary precedent. Mark Twain used the same stunt in The Prince and the Pauper and he was preceded by centuries in the Arabian Nights. The idea echoes through literature and folk tales.

At some point, original motivations are replaced by the demands of events. Jack London may have begun with a publishers check in mind and a smug desire to flaunt his moral superiority, but in the course of his visit to the East End, he compounded a raft of ideas in a way that contemporary journalists would do well to study carefully and modern politicians, economists and philosophers should be wary of. Within Jack London’s writing, indictments lurk that cannot be dismissed with pleasing phrases about character and initiative.

The People of the Abyss can be found many places on the Internet, but may find the choice of font and spacing on Vine Maple Studio more readable than other versions. Check it out here.

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