Saturday, January 12, 2008

The People of the Abyss

Jack London who was born on this day in 1876 is the subject of an article in this month's Socialist Standard. Older editions of our journal have also examined London's oeuvre, including The Iron Heel. This book was reviewed in February 1975 and from the introduction we learn that "Jack London wrote over fifty books in a short life. The majority were written in haste; they include childish trash, four or five first-rate novels, and a number of outstanding short stories. In most of his writing the chief idea in one form or another comes from a crude form of Darwinism. It is either the survival of the fittest under savage conditions, or the depiction of a physical and intellectual superman who overshadows his fellows...The place of The Iron Heel in the literature of the the working-class movement is due mainly to the early chapters in which the need to overthrow capitalism is vigorously stated and exemplified, with Everhard expounding Marx's theory of value. But in all the ensuing action, what should be understood is that London was consciously rejecting ideas of Socialism when he wrote it. Much of it was intended to express his disillusionment with political activity and his disbelief that the masses were capable of helping themselves..."
London's The People of the Abyss is perhaps one of his first-rate novels and provides a description of his seven week-long stay in the East End of London during 1902. An outline of his experiences is to be found in the Socialist Standard from August 1974:
"...He slept and ate in the spike, the casual ward ("I must beg forgiveness of my body for the vileness through which I have dragged it, and forgiveness of my stomach for the vileness which I have thrust into it"). He tramped the streets wet to the skin and went to the Salvation Army barracks, where the crowd of paupers were made to stand four hours and listen to speeches and prayers before being given a skinflint breakfast. He went to the hop-fields in Kent, and watched Edward VII's coronation Parade in Trafalgar Square. To what he saw, he added copiously from official statistics, newspaper items, trade unions' and social workers' reports. A census of the alleys in Spitalfields:
In one alley there are ten houses - fifty-one rooms, nearly all about 8 feet by 9 feet - and 254 people...In another court with six houses and twenty-two rooms were 84 people - again 6,7,8 and 9 being the number living in one room in several instances.
A report on the factory workers in "dangerous trades":
The children of the white-lead worker enter the world, as a rule, only to die from the convulsions of lead poisoning - they are either born prematurely, or die within the first year.
No wonder that Jack London wrote to Anna Strunsky: "I am made sick by this human hell-hole called the East End."..."
Interestingly, when submitting The People of the Abyss to the publishers he described it as a report "from the field of industrial war" and that it "proposed no remidies and devoted no space to theorizing - it is merely a narrative of things as they are." Furthermore, after consultation with the publishers he submitted a revised manuscript along with a letter which noted:
"I have wholly cut out the reference to the King of England in the Coronation chapter, have softened in a number of places, made it more presentable in many ways, and added a preface and concluding chapter."
Imagine that: London's powerful, provocative account of poverty " the heart of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful empire the world has ever seen" was pasteurized prior to publication! But it must not be forgotten that London was a racist nor that he supported the mass murder of our class during the First World War.

1 comment:

Frank Partisan said...

That post was a good reprieve from American elections. Fun to read.