Book Review: "The People of the Abyss" by Jack London
Reading this book reinforced my admiration for anyone who has ever escaped poverty in some form: homelessness, the projects (council flats in the UK), rough parts of town like some of inner city Chicago, the way of life passed on from generation to generation, the drug dealing life, former incarceration, all of this.
I was pretty much aware before the book how hard it is to escape that life. The book really pounded it into me.
As with my first ever book review for my diary on James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, I will have a summary of each chapter followed by my first reaction to it written live(!), as reading the book without skipping ahead.
Chapter by Chapter
The book opens with a poem I shall include for you, friends. “The Parable,” by James Russell Lowell.
Next, the publisher’s note. We learn when the book was first printed in the early 1900’s, people were warned: British readers might dislike what the author has to say. Of course, we today like pretending everything is going well. Time hasn’t changed much.
In the preface, Jack London reveals this is his story, an American going undercover within London poverty during 1902. And, he puts it in his quotes, financially, these were “considered ‘good times’ in England.”
Jack’s friends didn’t want him to do this. He shouldn’t do it. Period. Yet, he takes a taxi (horse and buggy?) into the poverty. He writes how largely ignored it is when poverty is a five minute walk from anywhere in London. A confused shop owner sells Jack worn out clothes so he may disguise himself as London’s impoverished. Now outside, Jack doesn’t get called “sir” but a friendly “mate.” He doesn’t get polite treatment anymore; people offer him third class tickets.
I’ve long said how people treat you goes along with how you are dressed. Clothing sends a subconscious message to people surrounding you. Generally, I speak out about my belief that uncomfortably designed, always sexualized women’s clothing worn in conjunction with the overall US/UK standard ladies’ look (coiffed stiff hair with unnatural “natural” highlights done, loads of makeup, jewelry...) leads to unnecessary discrimination and wasting time, and how I refuse much of the time to participate in looking that way.
In modern times, we have workout clothes as everyday wear. You see someone in a nice coat going down to a stare in jeans underneath. Class visually isn’t a distinctive difference anymore as it was in the early 1900’s. Where I grew up, with exceptions of troublemaking youth who want to speak like the “Cash Me Ousside” girl, an unnatural accent itself, nobody in Illinois sounds “rich” or “poor.” Everyone more or less speaks like one of three picks: Brad Pitt, Vince Vaughn, or Kathy Griffin. When I was young, plenty of elderly had the Mid-Continental American accent you hear in old movies woven into the Midwestern accent. A few people now and then tell me the UK today has class barriers starting with your regional dialect. I wonder how that will change as more people become the new rich in the UK.
Of course, thanks to social media, we today have young people mistakenly believing owning lots of handbags or obviously designer clothes means better treatment. I’d ask, “Who from?” Because the wealthiest people aren’t about that. The truly rich, billionaires themselves and near billionaires I’ve met, own some expensive things but don’t make their entire lives about acquiring luxury items. You’d never know someone is a billionaire by his appearance. I say his because right now, finding female billionaires is pretty rare. I’ve never met one.
I’ve gone out dressed up and dressed down in athleisure and find I don’t get treated any differently by store employees. Was that distrust towards dressed down individuals an old London cultural moment, one long passed?
Johnny Upright is an anonymous man living well by poverty standards and “mean” by American standards. He, like the richest of the poor in his area, has a “slavey.” A female general servant, according to the dictionary. When I first read that, I thought literally a slave, someone held against her will. No. Servant. Johnny is married. Johnny helps him find a place to stay in a home identical to his for the time being.
People from Latin America, when we’ve met, tell me how people who aren’t wealthy one bit like having maids. In America, big city people like bragging they have a personal chef drop off food for the week, or a maid swing by. Nobody likes actually cooking for themselves. The few who do cook, or faux cook, believe it, for posting on Instagram or their mommy blogger diaries. Haha, yeah, I’ve seen many a mommy blogger pop into a restaurant talking with someone, “I’ll make it look like my own cooking, doing __________.”
The group of people we call millennials, and I hate getting lumped into that category because I don’t relate to millennial culture’s stereotypes, is said to spend time with curated social media feeds about travel, beauty, fashion, and living well. Really, parentheses need to go there. Living well (beyond their means to look cool).
Johnny Upright seems like he could be living today, trying to impress others on social media. Human nature doesn’t change. If you ask me, it recycles itself. We go through periods of less is more; pre-recession, it’s always about living lavishly. Before the 2008 financial crisis, we had Hollywood popular girls having handbags like the Spy bag and no actual careers outside of tabloids, shows like MTV’s Sweet Sixteen, the new Playboy 2.0 LA life that wasn’t about Hugh Hefner’s girl next door sex fantasy anymore but women who molded themselves into wannabe Barbies, everyone walking out with these orange spray tans, and, OK, read up on aughts culture. The stock market that fall went King Kong on us, falling off a skyscraper. People were broke.
The same thing is happening again a decade later. We’ve gone through some years of people wanting to have luxury anything, and the funny thing is an overindulgence in luxury head to toe clothes and changing your appearance into a prematurely aged cat woman winds up looking vulgar. We’re about to hit another money hole. People never learn. Wait for it. A decade or two after this next crash, people will live well beyond their means again until another crash.
Entire families with children cram themselves into one room apartments. Some are lucky enough to have a whole house. Many homes don’t have bathtubs.
I’m reminded of Manhattan. In NYC, a number of people willingly live in apartments without personal wash machines, good wall soundproofing, safety standards as some are in dangerous blocks but “hipster-trendy” areas of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, windows that don’t face interior brick walls, or cleanliness standards. People live in two floor apartments where the walkway to another story is a flimsy ladder. You’ll find plenty of quality apartments in NYC. Many. However, because so many agree to an inferior quality of life, who knows why, maybe to look edgy, you run into snobbish apartment sellers and landlords acting like they’re granting you a magic wish potentially renting you an overpriced junky apartment.
Things improve when people band together and say, “We’re not agreeing to this anymore.” NYC needs wash machines. And old London needed bathtubs. Because people readily agreed to rent places without bathtubs, landlords didn’t offer them. Simple as that.
What I often explain to people about trendy cities like Brooklyn and Austin, Texas is a place we in the Midwest would say looks like a really rough part of town a lot of people work hard to escape, because of hipster culture, is now overpriced and “cool.” Brooklyn, Austin, and California DO have nice places. I’m referring to the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome “contemporary” properties popping up in rough parts of town for up to quadruple the actual home/apartment value.
Like when I the other day asked a realtor raving away about a popular hipster neighborhood , “If the properties are so family friendly, and this is a great family block with a school district, why are they practically next to a porn shop?” In Illinois, your home is worth far less if beside businesses like a tattoo parlor or porn shop. I’m not judging those who go in. I’m stating the obvious. Nobody wants to pay millions of dollars living beside businesses attracting a bad ratio of nice people who want to get their kicks to far more oddball scary characters day and night. Those properties may be promoted as cool but good luck to you reselling them.
People’s acceptance of poor living standards allows the quality of life bar to go lower. Until the standards get so low, life is horrible.
Having secured a place to stay, Jack meets an illiterate boozy firefighter whose father was a boozy firefighter.
We hear about this problem within people of color here in America. Someone is told from the beginning, “You can’t do ____________. You’re not a child of privilege. You’re brown/black,” or a person whose parents were broke immigrants. You grow up thinking you are inadequate because the world, after your owkn family, tells you. “Black students don’t test well.” You’re discriminated against because idiots believe because children of color don’t learn well, you shouldn’t teach them, or like a teacher I had once to the very smart black girl in my class, always accuse a student of having fellow students help her cheat whenever she gets A’s on tests. I myself was one day called in by the dumb teacher, asked why I helped my classmate cheat on a test. I didn’t. She was good at school! And to no one’s surprise, people of color here grow up thinking they are best suited for mopping floors forever.
Or, yard people have kids who could do anything with modern advancements and the disappearing classism. Their children, and grandchildren, cut lawns and blow leaves forever. They’re given opportunities to succeed and shut the doors of opportunity because they worry about failure.
Jack’s book writes about this hard to break mentality in British working class life.
Jack rants on two topics: the factory filth dropping onto the area and how nobody is genuinely happy but mildly satisfied with their lack of leaving poverty, what he calls The Abyss. He meets a seamstress with two children, a husband, and no personal stove. She works from 4:30 am into the beginning of night. Her older daughter was fired for being late to a bicycle shop job she walked to daily two miles away. Drunk women are fighting.
My view on mental illness, and addiction as well, is it can often be hereditary, but it is mainly environmental. Someone’s mother might be an abusive drug addict hitting her children. When her children become miserable teens, they become drug addicts themselves to escape and ruin their brains’ natural chemistry through drugs. Taking pills might help but never cure them of it. Their trauma, and many kids like this experience sex abuse because nobody notices it, doesn’t help their existing mental health issues. Someone with hereditary tendency towards mild mental illness will have it become far gone with a poor mental health environment. We wouldn’t have rehab facilities everywhere if substance abuse were a happy thing; substance abuse causes mental illness.
The people in Jack’s book sound like they’re caught in the substance abuse lineage thing I’m talking about.
A house exists in Frying-Pan Alley with about 20 people in 6 rooms, although some are eating and cooking as they own stoves. Their meat is inferior. In the back yard, people live in shacks with actual garbage thrown on top from neighbors in taller buildings. An acquaintance takes him to a park where the homeless sleep during the day because it is illegal for homeless people to sleep nocturnally. When there, he tells Jack the women at the park will be prostitutes for low pay or old bread.
Once again, I’m reminded of how commonplace and “nice!” the sugar baby trade, which by my definition is actually prostitution, is in American big cities and how our media tries to normalize it. I’m sorry. Anyone doing this, please stop. You deserve better.
Do what you want with your body. Make a sex tape in which you have control over the production. I won’t judge that because while it’s not something I would do, porn is a business, one looked down on by modern society, but a business. I will though judge any gig with the words “sugar baby” or “sugar daddy” and how it is now normalized as a natural career progression for young people. What the heck are you marketing!? Nothing, therefore, it’s not a business. Replace “stale bread” in this book with “Dior makeup, sandwiches, a Louis Vuitton bag, and the month’s rent,” and you have a sizable number of young women in any major US city raising their hands like it’s normal, they whose day jobs might be office assistants and night jobs “sugaring.”
You wonder as a reader with this passage why these women resorted to doing that versus working in a factory. Sex labor is as physical, repulsive if you dislike a client, aging on your face with the harsh lifestyle because please don’t tell me career hookers look forever young, and far riskier. You can get any round of STDs and/or AIDS. A small bit of change could mean contracting a major STD that in old London, would have been life threatening. Surely they could’ve done better. And if not, why stay in London? Like “sugar babies,” cough, big city prostitutes in denial of their actual jobs, how is a big city lifestyle worth it if you sacrifice your body and own way of life to fake it?
At a ward (homeless shelter of its day?), Jack meets an elderly former Navy seaman who wishes he had drowned many years ago.
Yikes. The guy probably meant it.
We today have plenty of homeless veterans around us. California is said to be the worst place in America for the huge number of homeless veterans. I don’t know the answer to this problem. Nobody does.
Jack’s investigation goes awry when he reveals himself. People address him differently. Some coaxing and food later, people tell him about suicidal thoughts, diseases, poverty, and pretty much the book’s theme up to now.
People discriminate against underserved communities. Fact. They also discriminate against the wealthy. When someone is perceived to have money of any kind, he or she is questioned as to why he or she wants to work. Stupid really, because people’s parents are not them. Your kids and grandkids have nothing to do with your wealth. If they get it, and if because someone can choose to disinherit someone, it’s a long time from now. Jack experienced reverse discrimination when the poor learned he was not of their class, or “kind,” he says.
A big marketing ploy discussed with me from others. When we study some cultural phenomenons of “how on earth did so and so make it!?!” types like the Kardashians, or hey Brits, your girl Katie Price, it’s because all these people do is try to be relatable to the lesser well off via faux and real tales. Oh, someone is struggling to get pregnant. Has a kid! Getting in shape after a kid! Had a fake fight on her TV show with her cousin! All of this is very staged and people might know it’s staged but halfway like it, believe it, relate to it.
Meanwhile, the people faking it who don’t sing, act, direct films, perform ballet, or have any actual skill set are selling products to “the dumb masses” buying their personas. Dr. Stephen Hawking never had ombré pink hair and faux TV fights. He never got Botox on TV. Look at his book sales versus any product sales by tabloid personalities. Who is more deserving to be a billionaire: Kylie Jenner stamping her name on products as she says “I want something, like, pinker than this like pink but not so pink, in my like, lip liners?” with no knowledge of chemistry nor true artistry on how makeup is applied? Or Dr. Hawking when he was alive, whose brilliance changed modern scientific thinking? Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had to sit down and write all that music? Misty Copeland, the first ever black female lead dancer in the American Ballet Theater who seriously injured herself a while back and returned, she who constantly risks injury on a regular basis? NASA people? Tom Cruise doing his own stunts and gathering financing for his own films, in which he is the blockbuster star? Or, name me 100 people now. Any of them are far worthier of billionaire statuses.
The marketing style gets used up well in political campaigns. Someone is relatable revealing something. A Chicago big business candidate rolling up his plaid shirt and riding a tractor in downstate Illinois. Oh yeah. So believable. People fall for it! Like my kitten with string under the bed whenever I wanted to catch her who, as an adult cat, chases her tail thinking it’s furry string. Cute on her. Not so on humans.
Wow, the times remain the same. Again. And again.
More on smallpox. Another shelter, another passage on poor living conditions there.
Shelters nowadays can’t be all that great. The food served for homeless youth, if they get enough, must be inferior. Teens need to grow and get healthy. You’re developing. Surely many homeless youth aren’t getting their proper nutrition at shelters.
When theater fans leave, the police force goes away for the most part. Homeless people, mostly men, try to sleep outside on doorsteps. And, well, everywhere. Police officers kick them out with flashlights. The author, along with homeless men, sleeps on the grass during the daytime, explaining homeless people aren’t lazy. They sleep outside in the day because at night, you spend the whole time moving around looking busy.
Hmmm. I don’t know much about local city ordinances everywhere. Are homeless people allowed to sleep at night here in the USA? Has the UK changed its policy at all? The common American response is, “He or she needs to go to a homeless shelter.” As if that solves everything. Life in a homeless shelter can’t be very good.
After waiting ages in line since the early morning, Jack eats an 11 am Salvation Army breakfast. Isn’t that lunch now? The group tells the approximately 700 people how they may be starving now but won’t be in the afterlife. Sounds an awful lot like the divine pizza boxes scene from The Invention or Lying. “Breakfast” for the old Salvation Army was a few slices of bread, one piece of cheese, and dirty water. Jack gets shamed for not attending services because he tells someone he is looking for work. He will have a later start if he goes to the Salvation Army’s church gathering. The man responds to him, more or less, since you’re a businessman, you stole a poor man’s meal today. Ouch. Oh, wait for it. The man says downright, “Don’t you know you have to attend services?” Have to. Not a choice.
Ugh, nothing in life is obnoxious like people misusing religion. It’s easy for someone to look at Jack as a carefree homeless man, ungrateful for religion. OK, fine. The Salvation Army could have served the food earlier were they so concerned about people missing services. Why must someone attend Christian services anyway? Isn’t your religion, or lack thereof, your own choice? Nothing comes for free. The old era Salvation Army expected church service attendance as payment for your meal. They could have offered Jack religious toned help if ever he wanted it after his job hunt. When you’re filthy, tired, and hungry, you probably don’t care about religious brainwashing. You want, you know, a real wash. Running water. I say brainwashing because anything deemed mandatory doesn’t come from a good heart.
The king’s coronation at Trafalgar Square! How appropriate given Jack’s undercover investigation into British poverty! It’s said only nations without royals are hardcore fans of the British monarchy. You mean, oh, Americans? Yes, I apologize on behalf of America for worshipping people living off British taxpayers. Were I Adele, I would be pretty unhappy a sizable chunk of my money earned with my beautiful voice post-injury and hard work went to Meghan Markle’s wedding. And finances them yearly. We’re not talking about a one time thing. Probably the only unappealing thing about the idea of living in the UK for me. Locals and tourists pass by the bench without ever once offering to help the homeless on the benches near Jack. Or Jack. Remember, he’s pretending to be impoverished. He notes this in his journal. The coronation onlookers care about the motorcade, and the many fancy carriages at the coronation with VIP guests inside.
Pretty typical. Modern day people like talking about how much they care about causes. To me, it’s about how you react when placed in specific moments. I did an interview this year where I was asked about how I wish I could change the world. My answer included a lot on how youth homelessness impacted me much more meeting a homeless teen. I’m used to seeing it in the news. When you meet an actual homeless youth asking for lunch who looks like any of your junior high classmates, you freeze and don’t know how to react. I did help the girl get some pizza. Like I said in the article, she was clean, wearing regular athleisure clothes young people wear. She complimented my shoes and politely asked for food. I realized the only thing causing me to be me and not a homeless youth was circumstance. Luck. She was trans, and maybe that had to do with it? Maybe she came from poverty and running away was her answer that failed her. Other than being trans, because when I was in junior high nobody was out as trans if they were trans, she could’ve been any of my friends.
Had she not told me she was in her situation, I wouldn’t have known; that point brings us back to the beginning. Today, people don’t have a “homeless look.” Yeah, we have the stereotypical homeless veteran look. A lot of homeless youth don’t look like beggars. They shower and dress well. This girl had her hair done up nicely in braids and lip gloss. Her teeth looked straight and pretty. Blemish free skin. Nothing like turn of the century missing teeth stereotypes.
All around me were people acting like she was invisible. I know they heard her ask me for lunch. I couldn’t have been the first person she asked for lunch. No way. You wonder about these things. In my own life, people are quick to get nosy. Creepy. Offer to help me tidy up my double layered skirts so the second skirt won’t show. How thoughtful, lady perv. This, a lot. Nobody ever stops someone injuring you, robbing someone, killing someone. They stand still like the people walking by the homeless at the coronation. Why? Jack estimated thousands of people went by them.
A self educated man living in squalor dies.
His education never helped him. I disagree with “it’s not what you know but who you know.” No. It’s “it’s not what or who you know but who you date or are related to.” This man didn’t have anyone helping him. He died. A good mind was lost. Jack seems to be saying, we shall never know what good things can come out of brilliant people trapped in poverty.
Jack picks city trash to earn some money. He gets counted as one person. A woman with children gets counted as one picker. And, lots of women pick garbage. You get paid by the amount you pick. Jack doesn’t pick up as much as the women and gets paid less, as he notes it’s the one chore in which women have an unfair advantage.
I never think about how our streets and highways stay clean. Guess I’m like the people Jack talks about at the start of this chapter.
Another impoverished couple.
People in this book are so accepting of their destinies. I understand it, sort of. But free will! What stopped these people from talking to the newspaper? Going in a bundle to Parliament protesting, “Please do something!?” Strength in numbers? They’ve resigned themselves to this lifestyle. America at the moment has this and more of, “We wont tolerate this anymore.” People speak against immorality. Poverty. Injustice. Wrongdoings. What stopped people of this time period? Substance abuse? Every few chapters, we hear about a reliance on alcohol.
A list of real crimes and the unfair punishment comparisons. Sexual assault and domestic abuse crimes get minor fines. A man stealing pears goes to jail for two(!) weeks. Read all of them yourself in this chapter. Possession of rabbits meant one month in jail!
The fines given some of the assaulters are pennies for their wealth. Stealing fruit isn’t right. Nonetheless, where is the jail time for the assault crimes? Here we go. A chapter on this written a little over a century pre-#metoo.
A man’s poverty worsens losing both legs in a workplace accident. The company paid him £25. His wheelchair cost £9.
Little if any has moved forward. People with disabilities in America and the UK get discriminated against looking for employment. You either have to luck out with family and/or friends helping you out financially or be on disability paychecks. For every exception we read about, surely many more are unemployed. Don’t say you have a disability? The employer finds out anyway somehow. It’ll come out. Or, they won’t hire you anyway. Say you have a disability? They most likely won’t hire you. You can’t win if you have a physical disability. Mental disabilities, and I’m talking here about the type like veterans suffering from mental health issues without getting into stuff like Down’s syndrome, face more discrimination.
Poverty statistics you can read.
I was unaware that people of non-Jewish ancestry were too tossed into ghettos. Jack writes about the huge, overcrowded London ghetto nobody sees as a tourist nor wealthy Londoner. People spend large portions of their paychecks on rent incomparable to the income-to-housing ratio the wealthy have.
Although not ghettos in the old European sense, New York and the Midwest are guilty of shoving poverty under a Band-aid: elsewhere. Manhattan labor workers live shoved outside in rough areas within the boroughs, for you in the UK, meaning the Bronx, Queens, so forth. In the Midwest, we had the poorer part of St. Louis shoved in my home state: East St. Louis, Illinois. Chicago has parts I’ve never visited, if I’m going to be 100 percent honest, because people say not to go there, much like Jack’s buddies did when he told them he was going undercover.
Jack recalls having better food in a California jail than a British working class coffee house. In the book, you’ll see the coffee house pictured has Hebrew (Yiddish?) characters on the shop window. Something about that felt really sad because you know it was done in discrimination versus celebrating the language. Jack describes the doss houses. In America, we call them the projects. In the UK, council flats. Doss houses seem like the ancestors of council flats. He claims middle income upwards people pretend to understand them and don’t really nor care to.
The projects are projects. Past or present. Nobody who grows up in the projects wants to stay in the projects. Anyone thinking people are cool with living like that is crazy.
More statistics. Now, about causes of death within poverty.
Poor people’s suicides and suicide attempts are so common, nobody thinks twice about reading another suicide newspaper headline. He investigates hearings regarding failed suicide attempts. The chapter ends with a starving man who murdered his entire family showing up at court.
Naive as I am, when I was younger, I learned the phrase “committing suicide” was born because suicide used to be an actual crime. Failing to kill yourself? The horror. Because nobody talks about suicide, understandably, I thought it was a conversational phrase like “catch my drift.”
The murderer at the end shouldn’t have assumed his family wanted to die. Children are optimistic people.
Children’s innocence is robbed from them, inside and outside, if they live past childhood at all. In a brief sentence at the end, Jack remarks how British taxpayers send money to educating African children when they have their own problems at home. People keep having lots of children, generally four per household minimum, crammed into one room.
The conditions are bleak. Anyone born into poverty is likely to die young. These kids weren’t going to school, really. Their destiny then was to be the next workforce. What chance did anyone have? None.
Ranting on how the wealthy ignore the immense poverty nearby.
Won’t this always be the case?
A young man’s personal story, statistics on children’s hunger, and general facts around children’s malnourished bodies.
You think this has gone away? Hardly. America has free school breakfast and lunch programs because some kids don’t get any food at home either from poverty, ignorance, or both. I knew a girl at school back in the day whose parents left a can of sealed green beans out for her dinner regularly as they spent their income going on a cruise. Thoughtful! And without getting into people whose parents are so poor, they really cannot provide any food at all nor basic children’s needs. American and British children’s hunger isn’t going away because we have modern technology.
I can’t get over how much of this book’s discussion remains unchanged.
Children are born in substance abuse, pick up substance abuse, and die from substance abuse. Their surrounds are horrible; the substance abuse only worsens it.
Precisely what I was thinking halfway through the book. Substance abuse is a major problem so intertwined into poverty, I can’t decide which came first. Do people drink too much because they are poor, or did an alcohol problem harm someone’s life forcing him or her into poverty?
Jack concludes poverty exists because nobody cares to stop it. Everyone is self centered. Innuit people, Alaska’s Natives, live better than people going about as they did eons ago with then-1902-modern technology in the UK. The chapter finishes with a poem by Longfellow.
People in this time period didn’t have warm water, or running water of any kind. They did not own bathtubs! Scarce food. Little going on. They aged prematurely and died, forgotten. Many were homeless.
You know in school when teachers talk about this kind of stuff? Nobody cares. People kind of care. Not really. They forget the next week when the Holocaust/slavery/old Chicago Irish poverty/Native American murdering as homework moves on. Like, “Oh, for the test, let’s remember this. What are you wearing to prom?”
And it’s real. Kids at every school live in the projects, either a few who go to a “good” school or a lot, at a “bad” school. Or, people you think are headed off to better things end up in poverty with unemployment. LGBT youth become homeless because people at home don’t accept them.
Today’s youth will be the people helping end poverty if they can. Every other generation has their minds made up. I don’t know how to make poverty relatable to young people. If you know of any way, share it with the world.