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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/22/10

Book Review: London on London

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When somebody says "muckraker," I recall names such as Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Izzy Stone and a few others. I never thought of Jack London in that context because books I associated with his name (White Fang, et al.) were works of adventure fiction. I was aware of London's socialist-labor sympathies having read a few of his short stories: tales such as South of the Slot come to mind. But I never knew Jack London for a muckraker.

Now I've read The People of the Abyss (London: Hesperus Press Limited; 2009), I'm willing to allow that Jack London was a muckraker. Still, I note that London's approach to muckraking was different than some. Where Ida Tarbell (for example) did years of research, gathered mountains of documented evidence and used something like 800 pages to expose the foetid monstrosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jack London did only a few weeks of leg work, composed just one airtight analogy and used only 232 pages to expose the foetid monstrosity of the British Empire and of civilization as we know it.

The People of the Abyss is Jack London's eyewitness account of what he saw when, in the summer of 1902, he went to England disguised as a merchant seaman on the beach. Arriving in England, the author dived headlong into the reeking labor ghetto in London's notorious East End.

Walking the same mean streets that Jack the Ripper had stalked just 12 years earlier, the American novelist spent several months living the life of London's poor. He wore the clothes. He ate the swill. He slept out under the weather. He visited housing in which families of six, eight, or more dwelt in single, 7-by-8-foot rooms with no heat or water. He stayed in Dickensian workhouses. He visited hospitals that made people sick and asylums that drove people crazy. He worked for pennies a day while he watched multitudes of people slog through filth, disease and starvation to achieve misery, despair and death.

In this writer's ken, Jack London never wrote a book that didn't contain a purple passage or two. No surprise, then: The People of the Abyss contains a few. But if London was a passionate writer, he was also a damned good one. He understood that rhetoric won't stand without facts to support it. He also understood that a long recitation of bald facts will alienate most readers. Accordingly, London's Abyss uses few statistics and those few statistics are shrewdly chosen. The following paragraph (p. 178) is about as thick as the narrative gets:

"The figures are appalling: 1.8 million people in London live on the poverty line and below it, and one million live with one week's wages between them and pauperism. In all England and Wales, eighteen percent of the whole population are driven to the parish for relief, and in London, according to the statistics of the London County Council, twenty-one percent of the whole population are driven to the parish for relief. Between being driven to the parish for relief and being an out-and-out pauper there is a great difference, yet London supports 123,000 paupers, quite a city of folk in themselves. One in every four in London dies on public charity, while 939 out of every 1,000 in the United Kingdom die in poverty; 8 million simply struggle on the ragged edge of starvation, and 20 million more are not comfortable in the simple and clean sense of the word."

The bulk of London's narration describes with horrid clarity what it meant to be "driven to the parish for relief" and to be "not comfortable in the simple and clean sense of the word." Here it should suffice to say that in America today, cattle and hogs are typically more "comfortable" than poor Britons of 1902.

For all it tells a depressing story, The People of the Abyss is an almighty good book that offers today's American reader plenty to think about. Tales of parents who killed themselves after murdering children for whom they could not provide ring all too familiar. Even more chilling is the idea that we today are afflicted with a crop of moronic leaders who want to do away with "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare and Food Stamps so we can enjoy the good old days that (they tell us) prevailed before such programs existed.

Jack London was a great writer who never wrote better than he reads in this swaggering reprint from Hesperus Press. The People of the Abyss will curl your hair, stiffen your spine, and stand you right up on your hind legs. The last chapter will leave you cheering.

Solomon sez: Read it. Get mad. Raise Hell!
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Deacon "Deke" Solomon did 4 years in the Marines and had a checkered, 10-year career through the blue-collar world before going to college at the age of 35. He came out of school seven years later with a Master's degree and a seemingly unquenchable (more...)
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