The People of the Abyss

Jack London

Jack London (Photo credit: ex_magician)

The People of the Abyss by Jack London. In 1902, author Jack London of Call of the Wild fame journeyed to London on assignment as a war correspondent to cover the Boer war. He was on his way to South Africa where he might have met Winston Churchill, two years his senior, also working as a correspondent. Similar professions and similar writing ability, the two men could not have been more different. Churchill was born with a whole silver service, spoon, knife and fork, in his mouth while London was born poor and remained in debt his entire life because of his generosity to friends and acquaintances. London’s assignment to South Africa was cancelled, and since he was already in London, he decided to go undercover in London’s East End to see how the poor really lived. A change of clothes was all he needed since by 1902, London had lived rough for all of his 26 years.

London was a socialist when socialism was reviled everywhere by capitalism and its minions. If you read The People of the Abyss, you will be horrified at how England treated its poor, its elderly and its sick. No Social Security, no Medicare and no Affordable Care Act. The elderly relied on their children for care in their old age. If you had no children to care for you or they predeceased you, you were out of luck. Shelters for the poor demanded work from the able-bodied, were overwhelmed by the numbers seeking shelter, and provided inadequate food. The poor were not allowed to sleep on the streets or in parks at night and must walk from shelter to shelter since they could not seek shelter in the same place for more than two nights running. Australia had a similar system during the Great Depression where state assistance could only be obtained if the applicant kept moving from one town to another. Kyle Tennant in The Battlers tells that story eloquently.

London reports what he saw in a clear, straight-forward style and what he describes is just awful, my word, not his. The residents of East London were paid a pittance for physical labor. Once past their prime, they were replaced by younger and stronger workers, frequently immigrants from a healthier lifestyle in rural areas. London blamed the fact that 25% of Londoners died destitute on the capitalist system that he saw as heartless. Workers were drained of their vitality and then discarded. Crowding, poor food, lack of shelter and disease quickly disposed of excess population. The poor lived an average of 30 years; better-off Londoners lived to age 55. It was social Darwinism at its worst. For additional information about the life of Jack London, I recommend Irving Stone’s loving biography, Jack London: Sailor on Horseback.

According to Jack London, the poor in England were worse off than the poor in the United States, but by how much, he does not say. It was the Gilded Age in the US, and the GOP are intent on maintaining the 1% during this, the second Gilded Age. The question before the American voter is, will we accept this state of affairs?