Again, 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
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