United States author Jack London on London, England


By Iain Sinclair in Britain:

Exploring the lowest depths with Jack London

Monday 13th October 2014

The People of the Abyss, Jack London’s account of east London destitution at the turn of the last century, has just been republished. It’s a dynamic and challenging social polemic which still speaks to us today, says IAIN SINCLAIR

IN 1902, fired up by his triumphant retrievals from the wilderness of the Yukon, the author-adventurer Jack London set out, as a special kind of tourist — courtesy of Thomas Cook — to compile an impassioned despatch from London’s lower depths.

Everything about The People of the Abyss, now reissued at a moment when the metropolis is again brutally divided between quantums of wealth and indigence, is dynamic, driven, challenging.

Here is social polemic as a wolf-pack saga.

Here is a vivid text to demonstrate the fault lines of what we are presently experiencing: empty Babylonian towers of spectacular hubris overshadowing rough sleepers, who must remain invisible under foot, or find themselves banished to hobo camps under motorway spurs, treated to one-way-tickets to dying seaside resorts.

The author-as-detective presents his descent into elective poverty as a pre-Orwellian fugue, a sleepwalker’s nightmare journey through reeking underclass sets out of Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison and Blanchard Jerrold, with apocalyptic engravings by Doré: reportage as a form of science fiction.

Feisty Jack is a time traveller, a visitor from a newer, cleaner, go-getting, meat-eating civilisation.

He witnesses the pomp and ceremony of the coronation of Edward VII and is appalled.

In every way, he is the wrong kind of temporary immigrant.

The one who looks and listens and asks questions. The one with a notebook.

It is uncanny how The People of the Abyss anticipates later figures with rucksacks, writers whose reputations were made by waxing lyrical over periods of life among the “fellaheen.”

London summons Jack Kerouac, 50 years before his compatriot’s most famous book is published, by zooming in on the term used for vagabondage in the United States: “on the road.”

Wandering east through this city, as he reports in Lonesome Traveller, Kerouac gets no further than St Paul’s Cathedral.

The London under investigation is unstable.

It’s a labyrinth, a maelstrom. An abyss.

It is also a city twice divided: first by the liquid spine of the Thames and then by the terrible shadow-line between west and east, respectability and survivalism.

Those who live on their dividends in bright airy places and those who scavenge for coins to keep themselves alive, one day at a time.

The People of the Abyss is intentionally shocking: the regimented horrors of the workhouse, sickness, exploitation, overcrowding, disease, premature death.

And all of these ameliorated by the fug of drink.

Much of Jack London’s material, factored like sensational fiction, is supported by blocks of statistics, newspaper cuttings, court reports.

The man from San Francisco crosses paths with Thomas Holmes, the criminologist and missionary who compiled London’s Underworld, which was first published in 1912.

And, as with the original version of the Holmes book, early editions of The People of the Abyss, issued by Isbister and Company, came with hard evidence in the form of uncredited photographs.

Reality is pressured until it becomes fantastic, grotesque. Jack London, trusting to native guides, hardened policemen, fellow socialists, is describing a parallel world.

The people he encounters are Morlocks, creatures denied the light. They are as sullen and defeated as the deformed subterraneans depicted by HG Wells.

London is at pains to present himself as a sturdy Yankee, undeceived, physically stronger, taller, hungrier than the subdued creatures of the depths he encounters.

Along with controlled fury at the injustices of this cold and materialist gulag, there is a strain of the eugenicist in this mediated response: sweep it all away.

The sickness of defeat. The ancient races scavenging for life beyond their strength.

Our investigator speaks of “a woman, of the finest grade of the English working-class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten ride of humanity which the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town.”

The narrative power of London’s account derives from its essence as performed fiction, a documentary novel. Discrete episodes are shaped, articulated, dramatised: remembered or constructed conversations, extreme characters, the architecture of control and submission.

As a key text in London literature, The People of the Abyss hovers between the alchemical metaphors of dust and water in Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) by Charles Dickens and the neurotic shifts between pornography and paranoia, centre and suburb, in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907).

Everything Jack London achieves in his season in hell, when he is disguised in borrowed rags, moving with a sailor’s swagger, plays against the chilling witness of the photographs.

And the measure of what he leaves for contemporary readers is that the integrity of the account is not diminished by what we are shown: the people muted by the camera’s oblique interrogation, the overcrowded rooms, the Monster Doss House, the shame of the streets. “The fear of the crowd smote me. It was like the fear of the sea.”

The People of the Abysss, with original photographic plates, is published by Tangerine Press, price £15.

4 thoughts on “United States author Jack London on London, England

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  4. 100 years ago: American novelist William Dean Howells dies

    On May 11, 1920, the novelist, critic and editor William Dean Howells at the age of 83 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Howells was a member of the generation of writers that developed in the aftermath of the Civil War and made significant contributions to the realistic description of American life.

    Howells wrote over two dozen novels, as well as plays, poetry, and literary criticism. He was instrumental in developing an American literary culture that reflected the contradictions of the rise of the US as a world economic power.
    William Dean Howells

    He was born in Ohio in 1837, the son of a newspaper editor and printer. In 1856 he began his own career in journalism and wrote Abraham Lincoln’s official campaign biography in 1860. He then served as American ambassador in Venice from 1862 to 1865.

    Howells settled in Cambridge after his return to the US and began writing for Harpers Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. He became the editor of the latter in 1871 and first published Mark Twain, who became a lifelong friend.

    As a literary critic he wrote about Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen and helped to secure the place of Leo Tolstoy among readers in the United States. He introduced writers such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and Sarah Orne Jewett to the public.

    He became established as a fiction writer with his second novel, A Modern Instance (1882), one of the first works of American fiction that dealt frankly with divorce. His masterpiece is widely regarded to be the Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), about the rise and fall of an American capitalist.

    The post-Civil War period not only saw the rise of the American bourgeoisie, but also the entrance of the working class into open struggle. The great railway strikes of 1877 undoubtedly had an impact on Howells, who became sympathetic to the working-class and to the socialist movement.

    On November 6, 1886, he wrote a famous op-ed in the New York Tribune demanding freedom for the eight framed-up anarchists on trial in Chicago known as the Haymarket Martyrs. The piece elicited a letter of praise from Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx.

    This “civic murder,” as he called it, apparently had a lasting impact on the writer. Shortly after the anarchists were hanged, he wrote to his sister, “It’s all been an atrocious piece of frenzy and cruelty, for which we must stand ashamed forever before history.”

    Some of his fiction had a deeply felt critique of capitalism. A Traveler from Altruria (1894) is a utopian novel that excoriates American society from the point of view of a visitor from a newly discovered socialist continent. The novel’s sequel, Through the Eye of a Needle (1907) is a scathing report on social inequality in New York City.



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