Jack London’s (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916) non-fiction work The People of the Abyss was written in 1902, and first serialized in the socialist-oriented Wilshire’s Magazine, followed by a book version in 1903 by the publishing house The Macmillan Company, i.e. today’s Macmillan Publishers.
The subject of the book is the condition in which the working class was in the capital of England, at the time of the coronation of another king of Great Britain and Ireland and also Emperor of the Indies, Edward VII.
Jack London was born in San Francisco to music teacher and spiritualist Flora Wellman and alleged father, astrologer William Chaney, who refused to legally acknowledge him as his son. He owes his surname to his stepfather John London, but not his first name, since when he became an adult he changed "baptismal" name John to Jack.
His family was poor, and by age 13, London was working 12 to 18 hour a day to make ends meet. Being fifteen years old, he started the great adventure of his life. He was an oyster pirate, a sailor, a tramp, an adventurer, a coastguard, a miner, an undergraduate, a politically and socially active citizen, a husband and father, a journalist and a writer. In 1893 his first work, the short story Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan, was printed. From then on, he graced literature with a multitude of works, of which perhaps the most important are:
The end of his short life found him an alcoholic, a socialist and a millionaire. Since then – drinking and writing – he has joined the Pantheon of the Classics of universal literature.
The word Abyss comes from the compound Greek word άβυσσος which consists by the negatory prefix α and the Ancient Greek word βυσσός. Βυσσός is the poetic version of the word βυθός (the bottom of the sea), which probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰewb-, which is interpreted as hazy, unclear, dark and deep.
Apart from an oceanographic term (Abyssal zone), at the time when London’s book was written, the phrase The Abyss meant in English the hell on earth in which the urban poor lived.
And since neither the members of the aristocracy nor those of the bourgeoisie were poor, the hell on earth was lived by overwhelmingly large percentages of the working class as well as the (… pardon the expression) sub-proletariat.
The phrases "the abyss" and "people of the abyss" probably appeared for the first time in literature, in the 1901 non-fiction book of the English, mainly science fiction, writer Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) Anticipations.
As for the poor, from then until today – given (… pardon the expression) and the abolition (?!) of the class struggle – their condition remains satisfactorily miserable, since:
The book would never have been written if the large army of the then mighty British Empire had not launched the Second War (1899 – 1902) against a handful of Boers in South Africa (some of whom would later rally around the so-called National Party, which a few years later would establish the philanthropic regime that would become more widely known as Apartheid, proving once again that yesterday’s victims can very well turn into tomorrow’s most inventive perpetrators).
For journalistic coverage of the war, in 1902 the American Press Association chose Jack London as its correspondent. The mission was eventually aborted, but London, who was already in New York with a ticket to London, proposed to cover the condition of the slums of the East End during the national celebrations of the coronation of Edward VII, on August 9, 1902.
Indeed, the author traveled early that month to London where he stayed for about 7 weeks. There he saw and experienced first-hand the plight of the Humiliated and Insulted of the working class, becoming one of them many times – having played the homeless, the unemployed, the poor.
The fruit of this shocking experience was the book The People of the Abyss, from which a characteristic excerpt, which is included in the chapter entitled Coronation Day, is quoted a little below.
To talk in depth about Jack London and his work is a very serious matter, which exceeds the space available here. On the contrary, to speak of the Institution of Monarchy is an infinitely less serious business, and the space available here is sufficient.
The Monarchical Institution:
Where, unfortunately, the monarchical institution still exists, it still, unfortunately, appeals to a small or larger social group – the majority of which is made up of really hard-working people
[…] I saw it at Trafalgar Square, “the most splendid site in Europe,” and the very innermost heart of the empire. There were many thousands of us, all checked and held in order by a superb display of armed power. The line of march was double- walled with soldiers. The base of the Nelson Column was triple-fringed with bluejackets.
Eastward, at the entrance to the square, stood the Royal Marine Artillery. In the triangle of Pall Mall and Cockspur Street, the statue of George III. was buttressed on either side by the Lancers and Hussars. To the west were the red- coats of the Royal Marines, and from the Union Club to the embouchure of Whitehall swept the glittering, massive curve of the 1st Life Guards—gigantic men mounted on gigantic chargers, steel-breastplated, steel-helmeted, steel-caparisoned, a great war- sword of steel ready to the hand of the powers that be.
And further, throughout the crowd, were flung long lines of the Metropolitan Constabulary, while in the rear were the reserves—tall, well-fed men, with weapons to wield and muscles to wield them in ease of need.
And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march—force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the “East End” of all England, toils and rots and dies.
There is a Chinese proverb that if one man lives in laziness another will die of hunger; and Montesquieu has said, “The fact that many men are occupied in making clothes for one individual is the cause of there being many people without clothes.”
So one explains the other. We cannot understand the starved and runty2 toiler of the East End (living with his family in a one-room den, and letting out the floor space for lodgings to other starved and runty toilers) till we look at the strapping Life Guardsmen of the West End, and come to know that the one must feed and clothe and groom the other.
And while in Westminster Abbey the people were taking unto themselves a king, I, jammed between the Life Guards and Constabulary of Trafalgar Square, was dwelling upon the time when the people of Israel first took unto themselves a king.
You all know how it runs.
The elders came to the prophet Samuel, and said: “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
And the Lord said unto Samuel: Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit thou shalt show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king, and he said: This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you; he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen, and they shall run before his chariots.
And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he will set some to plough his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots.
And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
And he will take your fields and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
And he will take a tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
He will take a tenth of your flocks; and ye shall be his servants.
And ye shall call out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not answer you in that day.
All of which came to pass in that ancient day, and they did cry out to Samuel, saying: “Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die not; for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king.”
And after Saul, David, and Solomon, came Rehoboam, who “answered the people roughly, saying: My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”
And in these latter days, five hundred hereditary peers own one-fifth of England; and they, and the officers and servants under the King, and those who go to compose the powers that be, yearly spend in wasteful luxury $1,850,000,000, or £370,000,000, which is thirty-two per cent of the total wealth produced by all the toilers of the country. […]
Jack London, Coronation Day Chapter (from The People of the Abyss – 1903)
Cecelia Tichi, professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University, gives a guest lecture at Claremont Graduate University on "Jack London: The Tough, the Tender, and the Captain (of Industry)." Tichi is the author, Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) (North Carolina, 2009).
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