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

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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

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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.
wifebeater
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

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 18

BreakingStones1

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

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 17

factoryIn chapter 17, entitled “Efficiency,” Jack London spoke of those who had employment as if they were mechanisms—gears perhaps— within the great machine of the British economy. He pointed out the obvious about employment; that those who were not designed well enough to perform the functions of their jobs were quickly demoted to labor more appropriate for their abilities. This was worth pointing out because the process was accelerated and the expectations placed on the employee were so much greater in London of a time when so many were looking for work. Such high unemployment and such deep poverty existed that many would willingly make sacrifices to their own happiness to gain employment, perhaps by taking less pay, working longer hours, taking on extra duty, or even compromising their principles. Like gears within a machine, the working man had to keep his sprockets (the numerous engaging projections on a gear) perfectly shaped and spaced or he would be replaced. Worse yet, in the buyer’s market of employment at the time, the human mechanisms within the greater machine had to find a way to do their work with increasing efficiency for the employer or they’d be considered obsolete. Then the question for the gears was, “How can I prevent my sprockets from becoming worn down?”

All hope was lost for workers who grew ill or became physically or mentally handicapped in any way. Because the relief system in England at the time provided so little, such severe privation would follow loss of employment that death would not come soon enough to be merciful. Instead, a lingering descent awaited the infirm pauper. Statistics of the time told Jack London that 1 out of every 4 people in England died on what little public charity provided in either the workhouse, hospital, or asylum.

factory3Jack London also speaks of workers in very human terms, telling of the plights of several individuals who were harmed on the job or some other way and lost everything. Employers frequently provided next to nothing to help out those injured on the job. One man lost both legs in an accident at work due to negligence on the part of his employer. In compensation, the man was given 25£, which is equivalent to about 12 weeks wages for a low-skilled laborer. He spent 9£ on a wheelchair. If the burden of care wasn’t assumed by family or friends, the injured person withered away and died, whether in or out of the workhouse, hospital, or asylum. That is exactly the sort of end that faced many who could not find steady work, especially the old or sick.

I believe in having a social safety net. When I hear conservatives in the United States talking about doing away with it, I think of the plight of the poor during the Industrial revolution, and the old throughout history. When I hear conservatives talking about privatizing the safety net—because they believe that industry manages efficiency better than does government—I have to wonder if they’ve thought much about the fact that those setting up the system would keep at least one eye on making a profit.

How are we doing in the U.S. with privatized prisons? Some of the contracts private companies have with states like Arizona require a 100% occupancy or compensation must be paid for unused beds. I don’t truly know if the compensation represents enough of an incentive to the state to fill the beds through the process of arrest and conviction, but it remains an inefficiency that the company running the prison wants addressed to their benefit. What does that suggest about the priorities of private companies doing public work? I’m not suggesting that wanting to make a profit is evil. I’m saying that it doesn’t necessarily dovetail with keeping the best interests of human beings in mind.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 16

PoliceCourt

Cartoon from PUNCH 1861

In chapter 16, titled “Property Versus Person,” Jack London explored how the courts provided stiffer punishments for offenses involving damage or theft to property than they did for offenses against human beings, including violence. He gave examples of both types of cases from different English police courts, and placed them side by side for comparison. Consistently, one can see that the penalties were worse for crimes involving property, while man’s brutality to man got a comparatively light punishment.

A man caught sleeping rough got 14 days hard labor, while one who beat his wife severely was fined 1£, 8 shillings, which at the time amounted to about a week and a half of wages for a poor, low-skilled worker. A coal miner attacked a man, knocked him down, beat him about the head and body, then picked up a pit prop (a wooden beam used to prop up a mine ceiling) and continued the beating with that. He was fined 1£, while a 62 year old man was sentenced to 4 months hard labor for poaching rabbits. Poaching of this type was usually hunting for food on large tracts of land owned by a wealthy, often titled individual.

Jack London’s opinion was that the sentences chosen by the magistrates involved in the cases indicated that the wealthy had representation in local government and law enforcement, but the poor largely did not. He wasn’t alone in those sentiments. The gap between the haves and have-nots in Great Britain fed a growing resentment among ordinary human beings, just as we see happening today in the United States. Would it take throwing much of a generation of young Englishmen on the fire of WWI to relieve the pressure in England? I’m not suggesting that was the plan, but the war took so many men off the streets of Great Britain—just under a million Englishmen lost their lives—and innumerable jobs were created to support the war effort. Did it alleviate to some extent the problems of poverty and homelessness?

What does it take here in the U.S. to relieve the pressure we experience when there are too many people looking for work and too few jobs? During the Great Depression, the federal government poured money back into the pockets of the people by funding work projects, most of them needed infrastructure improvements. Laws were passed to place regulations on financial institutions to help avoid the problems that led to the depression.

Many of those regulations were weakened in the 1990s. During the Great Recession of 2008, the congress had a tug of war between austerity and liberal spending policy. I believe the austerity measures that prevailed slowed the recovery.

Many Americans were angry after the crash of the U.S. economy with the Great Recession  when none of the major players in the credit default swaps debacle went to prison. Instead, some of the financial institutions involved were bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars at the tax-payers’ expense during a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown into a gulf. The banks got bailed out, but the little guy, hurt by the financial institution that gambled and lost, did not. Again, we seem to have much better representation in government for the haves than the have-nots.  For the gamble taken by financial firms, many people world-wide suffered tremendously.

The anger and resentment have not gone away.

In the United States today, we have Presidential election coming soon. One of the candidates, of a nationalistic bent, preys upon that resentment to gain power. He uses illegal immigrants and a particular religious group as scapegoats, and lies about the dangers in the world to increase fear as he works to divide and conquer the American electorate.

I see very creepy parallels with the time of terrible depression in Europe following WWI when several dangerous nationalists used similar tactics to seize power. We, in America, have not just gone through a blood bath like that of WWI. Our economy is slowly recovering. I have hope that we are smart enough to not buy what our nationalistic candidate is selling.

—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 15

11026

The sinking of the Spanish armada.

In chapter 15, after his adventure hopping, Jack London stayed with a husband and wife in a poor section of Maidstone. He described the woman as The Sea Wife, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem by that name, and suggested that she and her husband were perfect examples of the hearty stock of human beings—the English—that had colonized territories the world over. Some interpret the metaphor of The Sea Wife established in Kipling’s poem as being specifically Queen Victoria, but since she wasn’t the only queen to oversee the expansion of the empire, I interpret The Sea Wife as being England herself.

Strangely, though Jack London told us the man’s name, Thomas Mugridge, he never gave us the woman’s name. She represented for him a reflection of England, the mother of a great sea-going people. He learned that, indeed, Mrs. Thomas Mugridge had children in different parts of the world, some in service to Great Britain. In 1902 the British Empire was referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets.”  That had previously been said of the Spanish Empire. But the loss of the Spanish Armada in 1588 during an attempted invasion of England was such a set-back in Spain’s efforts toward global expansion that they never regained their former glory, and Great Britain became the dominant naval force in the world.

Jack London spoke of The Sea Wife’s offspring—the English people—as stern, capable, indefatigable, creative, and good, and he lamented the condition in which he found them. He wondered if they would go on as a great people or if they were ultimately doomed to failure and the abyss.

I find the author’s view of the poor of London as expressed in the book complicated, but perhaps only because I am used to people holding back their opinions for fear that others will come down on them for being unkind or unthinking. In earlier chapters, he had said, “And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it is criminal for the people of the abyss to marry.” Now this is in a context of his describing that most had no hope of anything better in a time when too many human being vied for too few jobs and resources. With the horrors he’d seen in the East End he was of the opinion that no child should be born into such conditions.  I believe that is why he made the statement, though that isn’t exactly clear from the writing.

In chapter 14, in reference to the vagrants who traveled by the thousands to pick crops in Kent, he referred to the poor in this way: “And out they come, obedient to the call, which is the call of their bellies and of the lingering dregs of the adventure-lust still in them. Slums, stews, and the ghetto pour them forth, and the festering contents of slum, stews, and ghetto are diminished. Yet they overrun the country like an army of ghouls, and the country does not want them. They are out of place, as they drag their squat, misshapen bodies along the highways and byways, they resemble some vile spawn from underground. Their very presence, the fact of their existence, is an outrage to the fresh, bright sun and the green and growing things. The clean, upstanding trees cry shame upon them and their withered crookedness, and their rottenness is a slimy desecration of the sweetness and purity of nature.”

PaupersThat’s certainly not nice. But was it true?  It was what Jack London saw. Did it mean that he had revulsion and contempt for them, that he thought of them as malevolent and unredeemable, or did it mean that he was horrified by what had become of human beings, creatures he held in high regard? Throughout the narrative, I’ve found expressions of his outrage at what he’s found, but I’ve also found great compassion. Just because I might walk across the street to avoid a filthy street person who is ranting at passersby, doesn’t mean I hate that person and wish harm upon them.

In the last few stanza of  Kipling’s “The Sea Wife” I find a bitter tone.

Her hearth is wide to every wind
That makes the white ash spin;
And tide and tide and ‘tween the tides
Her sons go out and in;

(Out with great mirth that do desire
Hazard of trackless ways,
In with content to wait their watch
And warm before the blaze);

And some return by failing light,
And some in waking dream,
For she hears the heels of the dripping ghosts
That ride the rough roof-beam.

Home, they come home from all the ports,
The living and the dead;
The good wife’s sons come home again
For her blessing on their head!

Of course interpretations of the poem will and should vary. I hear the poet suggesting the English people have been mere fodder for the building of the British Empire, and that the good and noble men who went forth into the world to do England’s work remained stalwart to a fault.

—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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