THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 24

PeopleAgain, Jack London speaks ill of the people f the abyss. In Chapter 24, after having taken a long walk through the East End late at night without wearing his pauper’s rags, he basically called them out as monsters. He felt as if the people of the neighborhoods through which he passed—particularly the men—considered him a “mark,” one whom they would fall upon violently, perhaps even murder, before robbing him, if given the chance. He had nothing better to say of the women. Although a brave man, he clearly felt threatened and afraid.

In describing the people, he spoke in general terms. He generalized—never a good idea if you want your exact meaning and intentions toward others to be known. Today, we would call that stereotyping. One might say, he was politically incorrect.

Did he hate the English? Did he see them as subhuman? Was he damning the people themselves as morally, mentally, physically inferior? Did he believe himself superior to them? Did he blame the people of the abyss for the condition in which he found them or did he blame the society and particularly its government and ruling class for creating the mire in which the poor lived and developed?

In defense of the politically incorrect, I’d say that we must all generalize to save time and energy. We cannot endlessly qualify what we’re saying, either in writing or in conversation because whoever might be listening or reading what we have to say would become bored with the endless description. A great deal of what makes for compelling reading or conversation is making contrasts with our words. If we soften everything that’s said in order to be fair, much of the contrasts are lost. How such contrast are set up in a person’s language helps provide a sense of that person’s opinions. Those who suspect the opinions reveal bigoted feelings can ask for clarification without first accusing the person of bigotry. That said, a trend over time of such opinions in a person’s language can leave little doubt of their bigoted outlook. A defensive or even an offensive response on the part of the person asked for clarification can make denial of the suspected bigotry seem insincere.

In defense of the politically correct, I’d say that a society that wants to be careful with language so as not to continue thoughtless expressions is a good thing. Most of the issues around which questions of political correctness arise are those involving people who have suffered a history of abuse. Whether the indigenous people of North America want to be called Native Americans or Indians instead of some slur like red skin is worth considering, especially since they were subjugated by those who came from overseas to colonize and eventually claim North America as their own. In the struggle between Indians and Americans, both sides mistreated the other terribly, but today it is an easier matter for the majority to mistreat the minority. The silent conspiracies of bigotry are always more successful among the majority, those who have the preponderance of power, wealth, property, and business interests.

If there are names that African Americans would prefer to never hear again, then based on the history of abuse of that group, I think we should all consider that wish and do our best to be considerate.

If a woman doesn’t want her body to be an issue in her job, doesn’t want to be referred to in a diminutive way by being called a girl, or any of a number of other ways that are meant to diminish women in comparison to men, then based on the gigantic accumulation of historic evidence of a male dominated society treating them as inferiors, we ought to do our best to abide by and consider their wishes.

For those who relish calling people out on politically incorrect statements and behaviors, we don’t need a police force for that. One cannot fight stereotyping with stereotyping. We can ask nicely for clarification. If we become persuaded by their answers that they are indeed bigoted instead of inarticulate or ignorant, then we can condemn the bigotry with confidence.

For those who bash the politically correct—in the face of humanities long history of human abuse, it’s good to learn to be gracious and considerate, especially since we have a tendency to look for scapegoats and gang up on smaller, vulnerable groups and individuals. Surely, everybody has experienced a time in life when others ganged up on them. Was it fair? How did it feel?

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Jack London for clarification. Yet, I think the answer is in The People of the Abyss. He did not gloat over his superior clothes, richer diet, and personal wealth. He did not suggest that the people he criticized were unredeemable. Yes, he was disgusted, frightened, threatened by what he saw. He condemned the state in which he found creatures he seemed to want to respect. More than blaming them, he damned the system in which they gained their formative experiences, in which they were trapped by circumstance. He damned the system in which human beings were seen as mere commodity.

Again, he did not have to endure the experiences he sought in order to write The People of the Abyss. With his ability to spin a yarn and earn a living doing so, he might more easily have written another adventure novel.

Some of his other writing reveals clearly his racism. For that I would condemn his outlook. During his life, expressions of such prejudice were more acceptable. I don’t defend it in any way. If political correctness has made expressions of racism less acceptable, I think that’s a good thing. He was a complicated, at time troubled man with a certain amount of anger in him. Aren’t we all like that to some extent?. Yet the window his writing provides of his time, and particularly the book in question, remains valuable.

(Spoiler alert for Jack London’s The Call of the Wild) In The Call of the Wild, a novel that would be released the year after London’s stay in the East End, the domesticated dog, Buck, is stolen from his master’s ranch and sold as a sled dog to men involved in the Alaskan gold rush. Buck is beaten and driven hard, forced to fight for position among other dogs, becoming an increasingly desperate and dangerous animal. Eventually, Buck is taken by a good man named Thornton, a fellow who knows the northern wilderness well. The dog is treated well for the first time in a long while. After Thornton’s death, Buck makes his way into the wild, shedding his domesticated self, as well as the pain of his enslavement. Listening to instinct once again, he shows his strength to a pack of wolves and joins them. The novel leaves one with a clear sense that London felt the natural world, the wilderness, the instinctual nature of the dog were clean, good, and purposeful, that all that was ill in the animal’s life was driven by human greed.

I see a reflection of those same feelings in the closing of chapter 24:
The unfit and the unneeded!  Industry does not clamour for them.  There are no jobs going begging through lack of men and women.  The dockers crowd at the entrance gate, and curse and turn away when the foreman does not give them a call.  The engineers who have work pay six shillings a week to their brother engineers who can find nothing to do; 514,000 textile workers oppose a resolution condemning the employment of children under fifteen.  Women, and plenty to spare, are found to toil under the sweat-shop masters for tenpence a day of fourteen hours.  Alfred Freeman crawls to muddy death because he loses his job.  Ellen Hughes Hunt prefers Regent’s Canal to Islington Workhouse.  Frank Cavilla cuts the throats of his wife and children because he cannot find work enough to give them food and shelter.

The unfit and the unneeded!  The miserable and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles.  The progeny of prostitution—of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour.  If this is the best that civilisation can do for the human, then give us howling and naked savagery.  Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 23

PaupersThe children of the abyss is the subject of Chapter 23. Imagine growing up in a one room dwelling with your parents and siblings—no privacy, no room to accumulate possessions, to pursue interests, or even find rest unless the others were all at rest. Imagine living that way while eating poorly, little full protein like meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and few fresh green vegetables. The privy would be outside, and used by numerous others, perhaps never cleaned, its vault allowed to accumulate waste for years before being cleaned out. You are required to attend school between ages 5 and 10.

Here’s a little about the educational opportunities for children:
Compulsory education for children ages 5 to 10 began in 1870 with lots of exceptions available to parents who needed their children to work or who lived too far away from schools. Compulsory education for those ages became a much more serious effort in 1880, but the government didn’t truly fund it until 1891. In 1899 the ages for compulsory education were expanded to include children 5-12 years of age.

Just because education was compulsory, didn’t mean you actually attended school, because the financial pressures on your family might demand that you work.

Here’s a bit about the laws concerning child labor:
In 1814, compulsory apprenticeship by indenture was abolished. The first law to regulate child labor was passed in 1802 to limit the hours performed in a factory or mill to 12 per day. In 1819, a minimum age for child labor in factories was set at 9 years with a maximum of 12 hours per day. In 1847, the maximum hours were changed to 10 and that was also applied to women. Child labor was prohibited below the age of 10 in 1878.

227076If you are a child of a poor family and you do go to school, you’ll have to make up the time away from work. You’ll probably do piece work in the evenings—work for which your parents would be paid by the piece—finishing clothes or preparing goods used in garment manufacturing or making things such as boxes, brushes, and a wide array of other small objects. That’s assuming your parents can find such work and that you are fast enough at it to make the wages earned worthwhile.

Once you’re 13 years old you either find a way to earn a living in the streets or find a job. If you’re still relatively small, you have the advantage over adults looking for work when it comes to labor that must be done in tight spaces. You’ll get paid less than an adult, but at least you have a job, right? If you are sufficiently malnourished that your growth has been stunted, you are even better off. You can work in a mill, where you can access parts of the steam-powered machinery that larger human beings can’t reach. Be careful not to get any body parts caught in the machinery. You can work as a chimney sweep and crawl inside flues to clean them out. Don’t get stuck. Your livelihood depends on your ability to squirm in and out with a minimum of time and effort. You must be efficient! If the city has nothing for you, then off you go to the mines that have very tight passages.

ChildrenCottonMillUpon reflection, perhaps the streets are a better idea. You could become a shoeblack and polish the shoes of those who can pay. Perhaps you could run a coster’s barrow on the street, selling food or other items, offer shoe repair or the services of a locksmith. Still, your earnings are poor and the rents keep going up. You’ve left your family and now live with others teens in tight spaces, perhaps in an abandoned, condemned building. A life of crime is beginning to look attractive. And, of course, if all else fails, you can beg on the streets as long as the local police don’t catch you or are sufficiently compensated to look the other way. One day, a chrismatic boy joins the ranks of your friends, and shows some initiative. “Some children perform as acrobats in traffic,” he says, “risking injury to thrill audiences and perhaps earn a gratuity.”

What I’m suggesting here is an early life much like that of the character Frederick Bledsoe  in my novel The Surgeon’s Mate : A Dismemoir. Here’s an excerpt:

Simon eventually took their act to the streets around Leicester Square. Instead of scampering about in ruins, they performed in the road. Again, two boys gaped, pointed, and called attention, while their fellows dashed about among the traffic. Frederick and his pals leapt through the gap between the legs of walking and trotting horses or the wheels of carriages in motion. They capered over the backs of horses, climbed moving carriages and wagons, leapt from one vehicle to another, deftly avoiding the whips and swats of the drivers. Gripping spokes, they cartwheeled down the road attached to hansoms and growlers. If those driving or riding the conveyances became upset, or if a constable got involved, so much the better. The two boys calling attention to their fellow’s feats also solicited donations. During times when crowds made their way to various performances at the square, the earnings doubled.

Among the Regal Rats, Simon’s greatest competition for the boldest, most daring feats had always been Frederick. The two worked out increasingly dangerous street antics. With a sense that the larger society had tossed him away and preferred to ignore him, Frederick continued to feed on the attention he got. His goal was to shock audiences into remembering him. His craving for the attention grew so strong that he pushed Simon for more.

“Let’s set up for the crowds leaving the halls as well,” Frederick said.

“Too dangerous after dark,” Simon said. “Not enough light, and you know how the pavers sweat once the sun goes down.”

“We’ll be more careful.” Frederick turned to the other boys to make an appeal. “We can do it for the money, can’t we, Rats?”

He’d touched upon a motivating force. The boys were doing better than ever keeping themselves housed and fed, but they wanted more comfort. Currently, they sat around an abandoned saw mill where they slept at night. The business had closed down after a fire burned half the structure.

“Bertram and I found lodgings in Great Windmill Street as might take us all,” Alex said. “We just need enough chink.”

“Winter is coming,” Quint said. “Would be nice to have a warm place.”

Several of the others nodded hopefully.

“Squint, he always complains when the weather turns cold,” Simon said. He waved his hand in the air as if he could dismiss the idea entirely with one gesture. A long silence followed while the Regal Rats continued to gaze at their leader. Simon clearly became uncomfortable. “We’d be too tired out to do another show so late,” he protested. “That and the dark—I won’t lead you boys into harm.”

“Well,” Frederick said, “if you’re frightened…”

Finn poked at Simon with a look of challenge.

“Come on,” Alex said. “Like Freddy says, we can do it.”

Simon glared at Frederick, yet reluctantly agreed to do a street performance the evening of the following Saturday.

When the day came, the chill fall weather had left moisture on the paving stones. The air had become still. A haze of coal smoke hung over the Leicester Square area. As the audiences attending performances exited the theaters and music halls, the pall of smoke seemed to dampen their mood. The Regal Rats’ antics in the road were largely ignored.

“Walk the wheel,” Frederick said to Simon. “That always gets the crowd excited.”

Simon frowned. The leader of the Regal Rats was the only one among the group who could balance on the moving wheel of a hansom cab. The feat required a carriage moving at just the right pace, and a confederate to draw the driver’s attention to the right side of the vehicle, while Simon mounted the left wheel and took rapid steps on top of the turning rim. He dropped off the wheel onto the pavement as soon as the driver noticed him. Although the action didn’t last long, those watching loved the feat, and it always increased their earnings.

Simon shook his head. “Too dangerous.”

“Is that all you have for us tonight,” Frederick asked, “cowardice?”

Several of the boys watched to see what Simon would do. Their leader looked up and down the lane. His eyes fixed on a hansom cab approaching from the south. “Squint,” he said, “you catch the driver’s eye.”

Simon spit on the pavement at Frederick’s feet, then scampered with Quint into the road to meet up with the cab. As the carriage came close, Finn and Alex did their best to draw the attention of the crowd moving along the footway to the action in the street. Frederick saw the head of the hansom driver turn toward the right. Simon made his move, grabbing spokes near the rim and allowing their movement to pull him up onto the wheel. In a fluid motion Frederick had never been able to get right, Simon found his feet on the wheel rim, facing the direction the carriage traveled, and began walking backwards in rapid, mincing steps. Gasps, oohs, and aahs from the crowd on the footway drew the driver’s attention back to the left.

The man was quick. Seeing Simon, he struck him with his whip.

Frederick had seen Simon dodge whips many times, and didn’t want to believe his eyes as he watched his friend stumble. Simon’s face reflected confusion and frustration. His arms pinwheeled briefly as he fell in front of the wheel. The rim passed over Simon’s neck, and the carriage kept going. Those watching on the footway flooded into the road, surrounding the broken boy, and obscuring Frederick’s view. That was the last he saw of Simon.

Frederick experienced a pang of loss that reminded him so much of what he’d known when his mother died that he immediately pushed the feeling aside, and walked away.

~ ~ ~

In the days that followed, the Regal Rats looked at him with scorn. Even so, he tried to lead them. Their performances lacked a certain vitality. They had lost their spirit. None of them had the charisma to gather much of an audience. Frederick told himself that Simon’s death wasn’t his fault, but fearing that he deserved to be the next to fall maimed or dead, he quit the street company.

He returned to scavenging for a living. Trying to find a position in industry at age fifteen, he found that he’d become too large to perform most child labor, and wasn’t considered mature and trustworthy enough for an adult job. He worked as a pure finder, selling dog shit to tanneries, and tried his hand as a tosher in the sewers beneath the city. Once he’d had enough of going hungry, he lied about his age and joined the Royal Navy.

Cover_TheSurgeonsMate_ADismemoir_smallestThe excerpt above is from a part of The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir that takes place in the 1870s when childhood for the poor in London was certainly fraught with dangers, pains, and difficulties. By 1902, the likelihood of good in a pauper’s childhood had not become better, and was probably most often much worse.

At the end of the chapter 23 in The People of the Abyss, Jack London reveals his bigotry when he writes:

In London the slaughter of the innocents goes on on a scale more stupendous than any before in the history of the world.  And equally stupendous is the callousness of the people who believe in Christ, acknowledge God, and go to church regularly on Sunday.  For the rest of the week they riot about on the rents and profits which come to them from the East End stained with the blood of the children.  Also, at times, so peculiarly are they made, they will take half a million of these rents and profits and send it away to educate the black boys of the Soudan.

I’m not suggesting that he’s not right to point out the odd priority of helping people on the other side of the world before helping those who suffered at home, but by pointing out that those of Soudan are black he leaves a clear impression that he believes they are less worthy. Other bigoted statements the author made in his writing during his lifetime make it clear that he indeed was a racist.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 22

Suicide2

“Found Drowned” by George Frederic Watts OM RA—1867

Chapter 22 is about the prevalence of suicide among the poor of the East End. When the act was unsuccessful, the person involved was brought before the police court for punishment.

Jack London cited specific cases he witnessed in the Thames Police Court as examples. A teen boy who had lost everything including his job was remanded for trial after failing to drown himself. One woman was berated by the magistrate for not succeeding and causing the court so much bother. Apparently she was of no worth. Another young woman, destitute, tried to kill herself and her infant. The child died, but she recovered in hospital and was sent to prison.

Suicide

Hablôt Knight Browne’s illustration for DAVID COPPERFIELD shows Martha contemplating suicide—1850

At an inquest for the successful suicide of a woman, the finding was “Suicide during temporary insanity.” Jack London was outraged by this common verdict for suicide cases because those who failed to kill themselves were not generally considered insane, and were jailed or given hard labor.

He gives statistics concerning insanity: about .3% of men go insane. About .4% of women go insane. Among soldiers, there are less than .2%. Among those involved in agriculture, about .05%.

Jack London says that he would choose drowning over the prospect of a life in the workhouse.

Without commenting on the man’s sanity, he gave the account of a man who stood trial for murder. He was a house decorator whose boss was killed in a carriage accident. The man strove to find work for 18 months, at first doing any work that came along, yet it was never enough. He and his wife and children were going hungry, and within a short time he could not work. Instead of watching his family starve to death, he killed them all.

This is from the Author’s Note from my two novel volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event, which holds both Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride:

My goal is to provide a glimpse into a time when the industrial revolution had created not only prosperity, but also unimaginable suffering in what was the greatest city in the richest country in the world. Apparently it was a society in which the impoverished, and especially poor, single, middle-aged women were considered by many to have little worth. The murders of the five canonical victims of the Ripper in the autumn of 1888 were only symptoms of the social ills in London.
[…]
I see a modern reflection of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the homeless of twenty-first century America. Much of the cause of that homelessness went unseen in Victorian times, as it does now. With the rise in the numbers of the homeless, then as now, people had a tendency to shy away from the problem.

My natural inclination is to avoid knowing why so many people are hungry and without shelter. I want to look away, and I don’t want to look away. My experience is that many people are just as ambivalent. Many of the homeless are intoxicated much of the time or begging for the means to become intoxicated. I can easily become disgusted with the endless need of the addicts among the homeless. I could justify my righteousness by blaming their lack of hygiene, and their crimes of desperation. However, I am a sober alcoholic and expect myself to have compassion for them, even when it doesn’t come naturally. There, but for providence, go I.

Although I avoid those who are clearly intoxicated, on occasion I’ve asked someone begging on the street for their story. Most aren’t good at telling a story, perhaps because they are rarely asked for one. Even so, from what they say, I’ve always gotten the sense that they have had happier times, that they have capabilities, and that they have aspirations involving their own personal interests and those whom they love.

Worse than the surface irritation of having to deal with a person who might be slovenly, dirty, inconvenient, or in-my-face is the emotional stress of considering the plight of an unfortunate person. My immediate response is to want look away. I speak of my experience to take responsibility for my reactions, yet I’m not alone. We find it easy to scorn the beggars on the streets and then project that disdain on all homeless people, further isolating them. As a result, the down and out are less likely to find help when in danger. If they are seriously harmed or killed, fewer people step forward to try to find out what happened. Those who prey upon the homeless more easily get away with their crimes. The same was true for the down and out of Victorian London.

NewCover_TheDoubleEvent_Text_FlatPart of the reason I’ve been writing the Jack the Ripper Victims Series is that I wanted to know how walking the streets of London in that time, especially after the whitechapel murderer had begun his killings, had become reasonable for the women who were his victims. Surely after the second murder, that of Annie Chapman, the three that followed her fate knew of the dangers, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. To understand, I had to look no further than the environment that those in power in England at the time allowed to exist. The answer was simply desperation, a need to get on in life despite the dangers or end it; the same as what drove so many to commit suicide or even murder/suicide.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 21

miasma

“The Silent Highwayman: Your Money or your Life,” Cartoon from Punch Magazine 35, 1858

In Chapter 21, Jack London falls prey to beliefs of the time that were on their way out. One in particular was that somehow bad smells carried disease. Miasma (bad smells) was still feared as the bearer of disease when in fact unpleasant odors are often merely a product of active bacteria. Still, where the smells occurred often disease soon followed. The diseases and the bacteria that caused it was real, but one could not become ill merely from the smell. Although our understanding of microbes was growing, much advice about staying healthy came from obsolete assumptions.

Curiously, I have family members who insist that one can catch a cold by becoming cold.

Because the people of the abyss were exposed to so much bacteria, their immune systems were probably in much better shape than what many of us have today. Still, imagine a time when receiving a deep cut to the skin was perhaps a real source of fear. Infected cuts in 1902 frequently killed.

Life and death for each of us is an affair of chance. For most in London of 1902 it was one with poor odds. The British people then were much like they are today: strong, capable, imaginative, intelligent, and enterprising, but for the poor, much stood in their way. The frequency of childhood illnesses that killed or crippled was much greater. Malnutrition that could inhibit one’s physical and mental development was a real possibility. Living in an unclean environment brought with it the risks of countless illnesses. Those illnesses or environmental poisoning could leave one permanently damaged and frail. Labor often consisted of such long hours and such repetitive movement that bodies and minds were worn down, contributing to the frequency of accidents in industry.

Here are statistics that Jack London provided of deaths and injuries on the job in Great Britain of the time:
1 of every 1400 workmen is killed annually.
1 of every 2500 workmen is totally disabled.
1 of every 300 workmen is permanently partially disabled.
1 of every 8 workmen is temporarily disabled 3 or 4 weeks.

from The Illustrated London News, 1845

“Newgate Market” From The Illustrated London News, 1845

Almost 2 million people in London were one week’s wages away from destitution. The loss of one bread winner could throw an entire family into the streets as paupers within a few short weeks. In the middle Victorian period, the quality of food in Great Britain was actually quite good, it’s nutritional value greater than what most of us enjoy today. The trick in the East End of London would have been to consistently acquire the variety of nutrition available and to eat that food before it rotted away. The effort to gain at least a portion of that every day must have been very difficult.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 20

Riot2While the Gilded Age occurred in America in the late 19th century, and the Belle Époque in France, England experienced a similar technological boom. The American expression comes from The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner and is meant to be sarcasm contrasted with the expression “Golden Age.” The term “gilded” suggests that the American era was a thin veneer of prosperity over a rotten social structure. Conditions in Great Britain and many other nations were much the same. Tsarist Russia, an authoritarian state lagging behind in technological and economic development, and with an oppressed people recently emancipated from serfdom, was increasingly in turmoil.

The rich got richer, more powerful. The poor got poorer, and political philosophies arose to address the grievances of the powerless. Is it any wonder? Over the course of the 15 years following Jack London’s stay in the East End of London, the Bolsheviks, Russian socialists, would take power in Russia. They intended to bring power back to the majority of the people. I am not one who believes in communist ideals, and I am also merely moderately socialistic in my beliefs, but I certainly understand and sympathize in part with the communists and socialists. I do not demonize them. With the world as it was, and perhaps as it is increasingly becoming again today, such ideals become attractive to otherwise powerless people. Fights, including political fights, always have two side, both having a role in instigating the conflict. Those with power as the 19th turned into the 20th century had a leading role in creating the conflicts that followed, their callous disregard for the average man the major fuel for the fire.

Power is power, whether it is wielded by nobles born into their role and wealth, wealthy industrialists who started out as self-made men, or socialist organizers who take the reigns of government to right the wrongs inherent in a class system meant to protect wealth and power from the hoi polloi. And of course power corrupts, as it did even perhaps the initially well-intentioned latter group.

I have no answers or suggestions. Human beings are complex, so I’m always suspicious of those who present pat answer, especially those that seem to emerge from hardened political or religious ideals.

I don’t agree with some of Jack London’s opinions in The People of the Abyss. He did not foresee how tough, resilient, and creative the British people are. Yet his eye-witness account, if only half true, would be a powerful indictment of any government. It is a wonder to me that the people of England did not rise up against their government. After reading Chapter 20, I have to wonder if they had had better nutrition and rest, and therefore more energy, if the people might have done so.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 19

RookeryChapter 19 is about overcrowding and the growing sprawl of the London ghetto in the East End. The housing was increasingly owned by what we would call euphemistically “slum lords,” but would more appropriately be called heartless, unprincipled criminals. With the overcrowding in the East End, the situation was a seller’s market for landlords, and the price to let a room went up, just as wages went down. Renters were paying 1/4 to 1/2 their earnings on housing while sharing one room with several others. Rooms were sublet and sub-sublet. One with a night shift at a job shared a room with one who had a day shift, and possession of the room was handed off between shifts. Space under beds was rented as a place to sleep. Jack London cites numerous heartbreaking cases of human neglect and degradation.

Rookery1Toward the end of the chapter, Jack London said that the incidences of husbands beating their wives was quite high, that while men should have been committing the violence toward their employers, they instead took their frustrations out on women. I know that the laws protecting married women in England improved over the course of the 19th century.

Here’s a scene from A Brutal Chill in August. In it Polly Nichols has been severely beaten by her husband, then taken in by neighbors, Susan and Paul Heryford, for her protection. Polly’s husband, Bill, comes to collect her. The year is 1878.

“We fear for your safety,” Paul said to Polly. “You don’t have to go with him tonight. You can stay here.”

“I don’t have to listen to this,” Bill said. He grabbed Polly by the arm and turned toward the door.

“You would do well to listen,” Susan said. “What we have to say involves legal proceedings.”

Bill blustered, his brows knitting furiously and his mouth working to make the cruelest arching scowl, yet a shade of concern trembled in his eyes.

“I learned something of the law today,” Susan said. She stood and walked to a cabinet, opened a drawer, and pulled out leaves of paper folded together. “It so happens that Parliament amended the Matrimonial Causes Act earlier this year. If Paul and I provided testimony that you severely beat your wife, you might be convicted of the crime. If that came to pass, Polly would be within her rights to leave you, and you’d be required to provide a monetary maintenance to her for the rest of her life. The new law also allows for her to take the children.”

Bill’s eyes had become great angry orbs bulging from his red face. “You learned nothing of the kind! You are a wretched, meddling hay—” He glanced at Paul uneasily as the man took a step toward him. Mr. Heryford’s face became as hard and determined as any Polly had ever seen.

He’s looking for an excuse to strike Bill, Polly thought. While excited to have champions defending her, she feared further reprisals for her husband’s shaming.

“The company what employs you,” Paul said, “was among those the House of Commons tasked with printing and distributing the amendment.”

Susan held forth the publication.

Bill approached her slowly, then snatched the pages from her hand and tore them up.

“You might tear the paper, Mr. Nichols,” Susan said, maintaining her calm, “but the law remains, and now you cannot claim ignorance of it.”

“Now, as your boys are gone,” Bill said, sneering, “leading your husband around by the nose isn’t good enough? You’ve got to mind somebody else’s business. There’s little more despicable than a neighbor who listens through the walls for advantage.”

“There’s no call for you to mistreat my wife too,” Paul said. “You are no great specimen, sir. I could easily defend both women.”

“I can see you’d like to try.”

“Yes, sir, I would.”

Bill spun on his heels to face his wife. “Come, Polly, we’ll go home.”

“Take great care in how you treat your wife, Mr. Nichols,” Susan said.

Polly didn’t want to go with him. She was afraid. But she’d only delay the inevitable if she stayed, and to go seemed the best way to reduce his anger at the moment. He had been shamed and threatened. Although she found that satisfying, she feared that the Heryfords had fed his anger.

Polly Nichols and her family at the time were not among the wretched poor, so she had an advantage that allowed her to accept help from the neighbors. In a poverty stricken household, if the one dolling out the beatings was the major bread-winner, the family would go hungry if he were jailed, so most violence of that type went unpunished.
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Jack London makes dire predictions for Great Britain’s future at the end of the chapter. History proved him wrong in many cases, but I can certainly see why he feared the worst based on what he witnessed.

Why didn’t the people of the abyss flee, travel to live in another city or even another country? For one, they hadn’t the means to flee. Sure one could up and leave town, but there remained the question of how to get by as a stranger elsewhere. And such downtrodden people frequently don’t have the imagination required for hope.

In my last post I referred to “magical bootstraps.” That is in reference to the expression “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” meaning to better oneself by ones own efforts, yet the expression points to an impossible feat—to lift oneself into the air by pulling up on the straps attached to boots.

If such a thing is possible at all, either lifting oneself into the air by pulling up on the straps attached to boots or bettering oneself against difficult, perhaps prohibitive or forbidding odds, it will be done in the imagination. Once conceived in the imagination, the former remains impossible due to gravity, but the latter does become more possible. That’s assuming one has confidence in the use of imagination, a sense that once a course of action toward a goal is “seen” within the mind’s eye, hope and perseverance will carry one forward to the objective.

“Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” was originally an ironical statement meant to indicate the impossible or nearly impossible, but in modern times the sense of that irony seems to have become lost. Those who feel they have succeeded in life and resent having to share what they’ve accumulated are sometimes heard to complain of the needy that they should “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” as if doing so were an easy thing.

MagicalBootstrapsYet, again, gravity in a symbolic sense often holds the needy down; the gravity of their situation. Can anyone actually pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” literally or figuratively without help from someone else? Perhaps, but it can seem in the face of steep odds a nearly impossible task. If you were malnourished, had few means, and were kept from opportunity by suspicion, disgust, and disdain for your class, how likely would be your success at bettering yourself and your situation?

While imagination is powerful, like any trait, it varies from person to person. Some have it, some don’t. Whether one has it or not says nothing about the worth of the person. How many of our family and friends have the imagination to lift themselves into a better life without the help of others either more fortunate or more imaginative?

Magical bootstraps equals imagination plus hope.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 18

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Breaking stones for roads—Illustrated London News, 1868

In chapter 18, Jack London addressed wages. Most of the chapter deals with comparing the wages received by individuals for certain labor with the cost of living: food, shelter, heating, etc. Without going into the detail he did, I cannot give a good sense of his discovery beyond saying what so much of these posts have established: Many Londoners of the period were dirt poor. He cites a statistic that claims that 1,292,737 people supporting families in London in 1902 did so on 21 shillings or less per week?

The basic problem was too many people and too few jobs. The buyer’s market for labor drove down wages.

So, one might say to the unskilled laborer, “Gain a skill.” Many did, and still had so much competition that they could not find work. One might then say to that person, “Become an entrepreneur and invent something, create a product, or offer a service that’s new and different.”

One of the reasons that some people are unskilled laborers is that they don’t have the imagination to create and invent, nor do we expect that everyone should be an entrepreneur. Would that even be possible for the roughly 1.3 million people supporting a family in London in 1902 on 21 shillings per week or less?

1.3 million entrepreneurs?

Well, many were entrepreneurs to some extent or another. Many scavenged, which helped keep the city from falling into a ruin of refuse and raw sewage. But most people were not going to invent anything worthwhile, or think up a service not already in existence. Gaining a skill and joining the ranks of those employed using such a skill or offering services that countless others already offered, an individual would still be entering a market in which the pay for the skill or service had already been whittled extremely low by the heavy competition for jobs.

The class system in existence also helped to keep the poor in place. Manner of speech and vernacular marked the lower classes in a way that made climbing the rungs of financial success more difficult. A pauper’s invention might more likely be stolen than find investors. Higher class individuals were accustomed to purchasing the services of lower class individuals for menial tasks only. The lower class person offering a service that required substantial pay was looked upon suspiciously as one trying to engage in commerce above their station.

In America, during the middle to late Victorian period, we’d had tracts of land that were not owned and where an enterprising person might stake a claim and make a run at success. Virtually all land in England had been long since claimed. If one wanted to start a business or a farm, one would have to rent the land and what structures were needed, and then compete in a market, the profit margins of which had been whittled down by intense competition.

None of these things are absolutes. The class system was fraying at the edges. And of course a clever person, assuming one had an excellent education and good social skills could find ways around these difficulties. That wasn’t going to happen for all 1.3 million of the people supporting their families on 21 shillings a week in London of 1902. There just weren’t enough magical bootstraps to go around.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

MagicalBootstraps

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

Preorder A Brutal Chill in August ABrutalChillInAugust_cover
Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com