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The People of the Abyss (1903)

por Jack London

Outros autores: Ver a secção outros autores.

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The People of the Abyss is a classic work about poverty and recounts the time the author spent in London. Born in San Francisco, he became a political activist and socialist at an early age. Written after posing as an American sailor stranded in the East End of London during 1902 - sleeping in doss houses, living with the destitute and starving - this is perhaps Jack London's most important work.As well as being a literary masterpiece, The People of the Abyss stands as a major sociological study. While other American writers were blindly celebrating the glories of the British Empire at its peak, Jack London was asking why such misery was to be found in the heart of a capital city of immense wealth.This is a work of reportage - London lets his observations speak for themselves. A precursor to the writings of George Orwell, this book remains a standard-bearer critique of capitalism, as powerful today as it was then.… (mais)
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This is a very interesting, enlightening and informative account of the author's firsthand experience of life in the east end of 1902 London.

Each chapter provided wonderful insights into the lives of the various poverty-stricken residents- their abodes, work, diet, workhouse experiences, interaction with local authorities, etc.

The book is well written and flows smoothly despite the fact that it is also imparting purportedly factual information. While I have no doubt that many accounts were substantially accurate, it is also clear that the author used hyperbole to make his ideological points.

My only mild complaint is that the author's conclusory ideological statements are not only wrong but off putting. Thankfully, despite good intentions his socialist outlook never took hold in society. ( )
  la2bkk | May 15, 2023 |
Jack London

The People of the Abyss

Thomas Nelson, Hardback, n.d. [c. 1916]

12mo. ix+366+[18] pp. Preface by the author [vii-ix].

First published, 1903.
This edition, c. 1916.


I. The Descent
II. Johnny Upright
III. My Lodging and Some Others
IV. A Man and the Abyss
V. Those on the Edge
VI. Frying-pan Alley and a Glimpse of Inferno
VII. A Winner of the Victoria Cross
VIII. The Carter and the Carpenter
IX. The Spike
X. Carrying the Banner
XI. The Peg
XII. Coronation Day
XIII. Dan Cullen, Docker
XIV. Hops and Hoppers
XV. The Sea Wife
XVI. Property v. Person
XVII. Inefficiency
XVIII. Wages
XIX. The Ghetto
XX. Coffee-houses and Doss-houses
XXI. The Precariousness of Life
XXII. Suicide
XXIII. The Children
XXIV. A Vision of the Night
XXV. The Hunger Wail
XXVI. Drink, Temperance, and Thrift
XXVII. The Management


Between early August and late September 1902, his assignment as war correspondent in South Africa having been cancelled, the 26-year-old Jack London went slumming in the notorious East End of the city whose name he bore. He didn’t rough it more than necessary: he had comfortable quarters on the best street where he could rest, read and write; and he had a gold sovereign sewn in his singlet for emergencies. This wise precaution against the degrading influence of “the Abyss”, together with the short duration of his field research, has led quite a few people to dismiss the book as the irrelevant rambling of a slum tourist. This sad tradition began with the British critics of the first edition who were outraged that a foreigner, and an American at that, should have the guts to criticise the British way of handling the poor:

[Jack London] has written of the East End of London as he wrote of the Klondike, with the same tortured phrase, vehemence of denunciation, splashes of colour, and ferocity of epithet. He has studied it “earnestly and dispassionately” – in two months! It is all very pleasant, very American, and very young.[1]

This is the classic British arrogance raised to another level. As a matter of fact, the book is anything but pleasant, deeply human rather than merely American, and thoroughly belies the author’s age.

The fact remains that Jack did go there, did sleep in a workhouse (“the spike”), did eat bread like brick, did drink “skilly” (“a fluid concoction of three quarts of oatmeal stirred into three buckets and a half of hot water”), did “carry the banner (i.e. walked the streets all night) and, above all, did use his magnificent powers of observation and description. He was no armchair sociologist. The fact that he didn’t endanger his life more than necessary or didn’t spend years in the slums is no argument against the book. The fact that he very likely dramatised most of his adventures is no valid criticism, either. This is expected from a writer of fiction and, more importantly, it doesn’t necessarily interfere with essential truth. As a matter of fact, though he never died of cold or hunger, Jack London still managed to write the finest stories on the subject; “To Build a Fire” and “Love of Life” have never been surpassed, nor is it likely that they will ever be. Same deal with the East End, I suspect.

Irving Stone in 1938 called the book “fresh and vigorous and true today, one of the world’s classics about the underprivileged.”[2] This remains true 85 years later. Alex Kershaw went as far as Jack London’s “most affecting non-fiction work” and “a triumph of impassioned reporting. Outrage underscored every one of its sixty-three thousand words.”[3] Both claims are all too true. Jack himself apparently thought very highly of his exercise in slum reportage. “Of all my books”, he wrote to Leon Weilskov on 16 October 1916 (a little more than a month before his death), “I love most The People of the Abyss. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor.”[4]

Somerset Maugham’s first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), was set in the London slums but five years before Jack London went there. Maugham found the poor mostly contented with their lot, indulging in all sorts of fun and even enjoying the bliss of romance. Jack saw almost exclusively destitution and degradation, with but very occasional “little spots where a fair measure of happiness reigned [...] But at the best, it is a dull, animal happiness, the content of the full belly.” Nor was this the worst, Jack continued. He saw those people as already dead spiritually. They lacked religion, in the broadest sense of the word, “the Unseen” hold neither terrors nor delights for them. They suffered from “satisfied torpor” and “deadly inertia” that was to be the undoing of them and their children. And these were the happy ones!

(There is another Maughamian connection. Dr Barnardo, the “child-catcher” praised by Jack as one of the very few who make a difference for the better, was father of Maugham’s notorious wife, Syrie.)

The vast majority of people Jack met in the Abyss were, as he was quick to recognise, neither criminals nor morons. They were decent, normal, average people; relatively hard-working at that. They had just been struck by accident or disease – or simply old age – and suddenly found themselves on the street, jobless, penniless, hopeless. When he went to sleep in a “doss-house”, the so-called “hotels for the poor”, a vast improvement on the workhouse, Jack looked at the sleepers – huddled in tiny cubicles with thin walls, no doors and no ceiling – and noted they were young men (old men couldn’t afford such comforts and went to “the spike”), lovable and capable of love, with faces made for women’s kisses and necks made for women’s arms: “A woman’s touch redeems and softens, and they needed such redemption and softening instead of each day growing harsh and harsher.” But the only female influence these young fellows ever felt was the “harlot’s ginny laugh” and what good could ever come of that?

Another searing encounter was with a fellow sailor, a lad of 22, handsome to look at and pleasant to talk to. He was “an unconscious hedonist, utterly unmoral and materialistic,” yet by no means with anything like a criminal mentality or any inherent viciousness. A connoisseur of male beauty, Jack notes the young man’s fine head and, when he strips for bed, the beauty of his body. But all that beauty and power and promise were destined to be drowned in drink. When he asked the mate what he lived for, he got a straight answer all right: “Booze.” Women, children, home, not to mention adventure on the high seas, held no attraction for this young man whatsoever. Jack is honest to admit such life philosophy was “ugly and repulsive”, yet from the young Englishman’s point of view “a very logical and sensible one”. The man was a product of his environment. He was given very few chances in life and no opportunity to escape from its sordidness.

Steady work was no guarantee of improvement. In fact, it was almost the other way round. All things considered, the jobless vagabonds on the streets and in the workhouses might have been happier. Jack talked with one “’earty man” by his own admission (“body gnarled and twisted out of all decency, contracted chest, shoulders bent prodigiously from long hours of toil”, as described by the author) and visited a “shop” in the Frying-pan Alley where this fellow and four others “sweated” to make shoes. The room was tiny, cluttered with materials and poorly ventilated. The best of these shoemakers at the best of times could make up to “thirty bob a week” (i.e. 30 shillings, one pound and a half). For this fortune the man had to sweat – “An’ you should see us sweat! Just running from us!” – for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours. And he had to furnish his own tools and materials, so “it was plain that his thirty bob was a diminishing quantity”.

Such powerful portraits, personal or collective but either way drawn straight from life in the raw, have been eclipsed by the purple passages, of which the book contains a fair share. Some of these are promiscuously quoted by biographers[5], for example this conflation from Chapters IV and XIX:

In short, the London Abyss is a vast shambles. Year by year, and decade after decade, rural England pours in a flood of vigorous strong life, that not only does not renew itself, but perishes by the third generation. Competent authorities aver that the London workman whose parents and grand-parents were born in London is so remarkable a specimen that he is rarely found.


The colour of life is grey and drab. Everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty. Bath tubs are a thing totally unknown, as mythical as the ambrosia of the gods. The people themselves are dirty, while any attempt at cleanliness becomes howling farce, when it is not pitiful and tragic. Strange, vagrant odours come drifting along the greasy wind, and the rain, when it falls, is more like grease than water from heaven. The very cobblestones are scummed with grease.

Such passages might have been a one-sided picture of the East End. Indeed, one hopes they were! But they are not out of joint with the rest of the book, and, alas, they are very likely to have been true. Partial truth, perhaps, but still truth.

One paragraph even appears in italics by way of emphasis. This seems too obvious, even tacky, but the situation is more complex than it seems. The passage is a perfect example of rhetorical flourish married to storytelling that tells so much more than a story. While he roamed the streets with “The Carter and the Carpenter”, Jack was surprised to note that both men regularly stooped and picked up something from the ground, hardly breaking their stride. When he finally saw what it was, he was profoundly disturbed – and well he might have been! Judge for yourself how much, if at all, is this dramatised for effect:

From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them. The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o’clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.

The Londonian rhetoric reaches its purest, angriest and most scorching heights in “A Vision of the Night”, a chapter towards the end that will leave you scarred. This is a dystopian vision of “a new species, a breed of city savages [...] The slum is their jungle, and they live and prey in the jungle.” There is nothing wrong and much right with this type of writing if you can do it that well:

It was a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts, and to complete the picture, brass-buttoned keepers kept order among them when they snarled too fiercely.


At times, between keepers, these males looked at me sharply, hungrily, gutter-wolves that they were, and I was afraid of their hands, of their naked hands, as one may be afraid of the paws of a gorilla. They reminded me of gorillas. Their bodies were small, ill-shaped, and squat. There were no swelling muscles, no abundant thews and wide-spreading shoulders. They exhibited, rather, an elemental economy of nature, such as the cave-men must have exhibited. But there was strength in those meagre bodies, the ferocious, primordial strength to clutch and gripe and tear and rend. When they spring upon their human prey they are known even to bend the victim backward and double its body till the back is broken. They possess neither conscience nor sentiment, and they will kill for a half-sovereign, without fear or favour, if they are given but half a chance. They are a new species, a breed of city savages. The streets and houses, alleys and courts, are their hunting grounds. As valley and mountain are to the natural savage, street and building are valley and mountain to them. The slum is their jungle, and they live and prey in the jungle.


But they were not the only beasts that ranged the menagerie. They were only here and there, lurking in dark courts and passing like grey shadows along the walls; but the women from whose rotten loins they spring were everywhere. They whined insolently, and in maudlin tones begged me for pennies, and worse. They held carouse in every boozing ken, slatternly, unkempt, bleary-eyed, and towsled, leering and gibbering, overspilling with foulness and corruption, and, gone in debauch, sprawling across benches and bars, unspeakably repulsive, fearful to look upon.

And there were others, strange, weird faces and forms and twisted monstrosities that shouldered me on every side, inconceivable types of sodden ugliness, the wrecks of society, the perambulating carcasses, the living deaths – women, blasted by disease and drink till their shame brought not tuppence in the open mart; and men, in fantastic rags, wrenched by hardship and exposure out of all semblance of men, their faces in a perpetual writhe of pain, grinning idiotically, shambling like apes, dying with every step they took and each breath they drew. And there were young girls, of eighteen and twenty, with trim bodies and faces yet untouched with twist and bloat, who had fetched the bottom of the Abyss plump, in one swift fall. And I remember a lad of fourteen, and one of six or seven, white-faced and sickly, homeless, the pair of them, who sat upon the pavement with their backs against a railing and watched it all.


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.

Jack London was far too smart not to know that rhetoric alone can never be enough. Neither can personal experience, never mind how studiously gathered and vividly described.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, roughly speaking from Chapters XIII and XIV onward although there is a good deal of overlapping, personal observation becomes less frequent and printed sources more prominent. Anything from newspapers to sociological studies, including plenty of tables with prices and incomes, crowd the pages. Figures are less affecting than memories, and less revealing too, but they are most useful anchor for reality. Jack is the first to recognise and admit that:

Sometimes I become afraid of my own generalizations upon the massed misery of this Ghetto life, and feel that my impressions are exaggerated, that I am too close to the picture and lack perspective. At such moments I find it well to turn to the testimony of other men to prove to myself that I am not becoming over-wrought and addle-pated.

If this was a pose, it was a consistent one. Jack is always ready to question his conclusions. “Is the picture overdrawn?”, he exclaims at one place, having just described (XIV) in bright rhetorical colours the dystopia to end all dystopias, the English countryside swarmed by pickers from the slums: “an army of ghouls [who] drag their squat, misshapen bodies along the highways and byways [and] resemble some vile spawn from underground.” The style may be rhetorical, wildly so indeed, but the question is not. It is answered immediately from two points of view. For those who think of life “in terms of shares and coupons”, why, the picture is indeed overdrawn. But for those who consider it “in terms of manhood and womanhood, it cannot be overdrawn.” Jack does have a point there.

So far as the figures are concerned, they are somewhat repetitious and confused. I didn’t get a very clear idea about the population of East End, its income and its expenses, or its economic relationship with the rest of London and England. Twice is repeated that 939 of 1000 people in the United Kingdom die in poverty, but only once is it made clear, more or less, that this figure refers only to those suffering from chronic starvation. Several times we hear that one in four Londoners die on public charity, “either in the workhouse, the infirmary, or the asylum”, but once this is rather breezily amended to one in three “adult workers”. Other figures are even vaguer and more contradictory.

“1,800,000 people in London live on the poverty line and below it, and 1,000,000 live with one week’s wages between them and pauperism” is vague enough. You might think it is made more specific by those “1,800,000 London workers who are divided into families which have a total income of less than 21s. per week, one quarter to one half of which must be paid for rent.” But at another place you’re told that those “who received twenty-one shillings or less a week per family” were 1,292,737 – some half a million fewer souls! And “one quarter to one half” for rent does not correspond too well with the claim that “the average rent in the larger part of the East End is from four to six shillings per week for one room, while skilled mechanics, earning thirty-five shillings per week, are forced to part with fifteen shillings of it for two or three pokey little dens, in which they strive desperately to obtain some semblance of home life.” It seems that 43 percent (15/35s) was just about as much from the weekly income that a rent could cost, and considering most families lived in single rooms it was probably less than one third (6/21s) usually.

Even so, these are startling numerical revelations. Far from limiting himself to general figures, Jack goes into considerable detail about what could actually be purchased with that money: 21 shillings, remember (i.e. one pound and one shilling, or one guinea; 1 shilling was 12 pence, usually written 1/- or 1/0). Nearly half of them could easily be spent on rent (6/0) and bread (4/0); the rest just as easily went for meat, vegetables, coal, tea, oil, sugar, milk, soap, butter and firewood. No extravagance whatsoever was permitted, not even a glass of beer or some tobacco, not to mention bus rides, going even to the cheapest vaudeville, books, newspapers or sweetmeats. These things were so unattainable that they were almost unimaginable. What if a member of the family needed a pair of new shoes? That’s simple. He or she went barefooted. But what if the father broke his leg or neck? Well, that’s simple, too. The mother and the children went on the streets and starved.

These figures and calculations, Jack brutally reminds, are about a family of five on 21s a week. There were many larger families who had to survive (live?) on smaller incomes. The question is obvious and the only possible answer is not pleasant:

The question naturally arises, How do they live? The answer is that they do not live. They do not know what life is. They drag out a subterbestial existence until mercifully released by death.

Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion is that “in the Ghetto the houses of the poor are greater profit earners than the mansions of the rich”. If it wasn’t bad enough that the poor worker had to live like a beast, he also had to pay proportionately more for his quarters than the rich. Living space was used with extreme parsimony. “A part of a room to let” was not unknown notice. Some rooms were let to two or even three people working on shifts. Jack doesn’t tell us who collected all those rents, but we can surmise these mighty landowners were not East End residents. I don’t want to even mention how cramped most quarters were. Four or five people living in the same room was something common. Some were sleeping under the beds...

Never one to mince words, Jack London is generous with his criticism of the British ways. The Salvation Army or the Coronation, everything is grist to Jack’s critical mill; with subtle irony or deadly sarcasm, with his tongue clearly in his cheek or with earnest passion, he makes it perfectly clear what he thinks. He has no patience with all “college settlements, missions, charities, and what not”. All these were “failures”. Lacking the wisdom and foresight of Dr Barnardo, they achieved nothing “beyond relieving an infinitesimal fraction of misery and collecting a certain amount of data which might otherwise have been more scientifically and less expensively collected, they have achieved nothing.” No wonder the book ruffled plenty of British feathers at the time. The English, smitten with royalty like no other nation on earth, must have been dismayed to read something like that about the coronation of Edward whatever-his-number-was:

And I check myself with a rush, striving to convince myself that it is all real and rational, and not some glimpse of fairyland. This I cannot succeed in doing, and it is better so. I much prefer to believe that all this pomp, and vanity, and show, and mumbo-jumbo foolery has come from fairyland, than to believe it the performance of sane and sensible people who have mastered matter and solved the secrets of the stars.

Jack is most appalled by the indifference of those in charge, their utter unwillingness to change things. “The starvation and lack of shelter I encountered”, he notes in the preface, “constituted a chronic condition of misery which is never wiped out, even in the periods of greatest prosperity.” He reminds us, in his own quotation marks, that those were considered “good times” in England. Much later (in Chapter XXV), Jack returns to that paradox to end all paradoxes: “no special distress” and yet “55,000 children in a state of hunger, which makes it useless to attempt to teach them”. And that is according to the London County school board. “Chronic starvation is looked upon as a matter of course”, Jack notes with brutal accuracy, and adds even more mercilessly, but just as accurately, that “chronic semi-starvation kills not, but stunts”.

Perhaps there was more than just indifference among the ruling classes, or even among the middle ones. Perhaps there was some secret guilt on their part, maybe even desire, conscious or not, to exonerate themselves. Jack notes some subtle things a less perceptive person could have missed. He quotes from a newspaper the announcement that an old woman in the East End has died from “self-neglect and filthy surroundings”, and then adds sarcastically: “It was the old dead woman’s fault that she died, and having located the responsibility, society goes contentedly on about its own affairs.” Does he make too much of too little? I don’t think so. “Self-neglect”, indeed!

In the final chapter, Jack tackles the big questions with gusto. He asks two of them, both very simple – and both unambiguously answered. Has Civilisation increased the producing power of the average man? Obviously, yes. Has Civilisation bettered the lot of the average man? Obviously, no. The reason is obvious as well, and Jack is courageous enough to state it bluntly: mismanagement. He leaves the reader to decide how much of this was deliberate exploitation and how much sheer incompetence[6]. “And who dares to say that it is not criminally mismanaged, this big house, when five men can produce bread for a thousand, and yet millions have not enough to eat?” Jack rightly predicted the fall of the British Empire, something that in 1903 must have required some foresight, but he was careful to distinguish between the people who really did the job and (what he called “political machinery”) the people who mismanaged that labour and the wealth it produced. It’s a theme that runs through the whole of his book, from the preface and to the last chapter:

For the English, so far as manhood and womanhood and health and happiness go, I see a broad and smiling future. But for a great deal of the political machinery, which at present mismanages for them, I see nothing else than the scrap heap.


A vast empire is foundering on the hands of this incapable management. And by empire is meant the political machinery which holds together the English-speaking people of the world outside of the United States. Nor is this charged in a pessimistic spirit. Blood empire is greater than political empire, and the English of the New World and the Antipodes are strong and vigorous as ever. But the political empire under which they are nominally assembled is perishing. The political machine known as the British Empire is running down. In the hands of its management it is losing momentum every day.

The People of the Abyss is shamelessly readable, yet a very hard read. No doubt 120 years later things in the East End have improved considerably; I guess they have in most of Europe and North America as well. But speaking globally, and in the 21st century a question like this must be discussed globally or not at all, the situation is by no means better and, in vast portions of Africa, Asia and even South America, it may even be worse. Jack’s noble appeal remains as relevant as, perhaps more so than, ever before. It amounts to no more than that: every person who does their job in this world to have enough to eat, decent clothes to wear, some money to spare for recreation, and a place to live where some privacy and a sort of home life are possible. Most people don’t really need anything more than that, and is that so much to ask for the human civilisation globally speaking?

Note on the Edition

It’s a nice little hardback, cheaply printed on low-quality paper, but pleasant to hold and read. The one serious defect concerns the text. Of the 27 chapter epigraphs, all but three (XII, XXIII, XXIV) are omitted. They are reprinted in the Library of America volume titled Novels and Social Writings (1982), so I assume they were part from the first Macmillan edition from 1903. I give here as an appendix all epigraphs as I consider them an important part of the book. Even the LoA edition doesn’t source, or even identify, all of them, although I have occasionally found their notes helpful. Most of the text in square brackets, however, comes from my online research. The epigraphs themselves are taken from the book as reprinted in the LoA edition.

Christ look upon us in this city,
And keep our sympathy and pity
Fresh, and our faces heavenward;
Lest we grow hard.
Thomas Ashe [(1836–1889)?]

The people live in squalid dens, where there can be no health and no hope, but dogged discontent at their own lot, and futile discontent at the wealth which they see possessed by others.
Thorold Rogers [(1823–1890), English economist, historian and politician]

The poor, the poor, the poor, they stand,
Wedged by the pressing of Trade’s hand,
Against an inward-looking door
That pressure tightens evermore;
They sigh a monstrous, foul-air sigh
For the outside leagues of liberty,
Where art, sweet lark, translates the sky
Into a heavenly melody.
Sidney Lanier [(1842–1881), “The Symphony” (1875), 21-28]

After a momentary silence spake
Some vessel of a more ungainly make;
They sneer at me for leaning all awry:
What! did the hand then of the Potter shake?
Omar Khayyam [(1048–1131), Verse 43 from FitzGerald’s translation (1859) of Rubáiyát]

I assure you I found nothing worse, nothing more degrading, nothing so hopeless, nothing nearly so intolerably dull and miserable as the life I left behind me in the East End of London.
[Thomas Henry] Huxley [(1825–1895), c. 1844]

The beasts they hunger, and eat, and die,
And so do we, and the world’s a sty.
“Swinehood hath no remedy,”
Say many men, and hasten by.
Sidney Lanier [“The Symphony” (1875), 35-38]

From out of the populous city men groan, and the soul of the wounded crieth out.
Job [24:12, American Standard Version (1901)]

It is not to die, nor even to die of hunger, that makes a man wretched. Many men have died; all men must die. But it is to live miserable, we know not why; to work sore, and yet gain nothing; to be heart-worn, weary, yet isolated, unrelated, girt in with a cold, universal Laissez-faire.
[Thomas] Carlyle [(1795–1881), Past and Present (1843)]

The old Spartans had a wiser method; and went out and hunted down their Helots, and speared and spitted them, when they grew too numerous. With our improved fashions of hunting, now after the invention of firearms and standing armies, how much easier were such a hunt! Perhaps in the most thickly peopled country, some three days annually might suffice to shoot all the able-bodied paupers that had accumulated within the year.
Carlyle [Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Book III, Chapter 4]

I would not have the laborer sacrificed to the result. I would not have the laborer sacrificed to my convenience and pride, nor to that of a great class of such as me. Let there be worse cotton and better men. The weaver should not be bereaved of his superiority to his work.
[Ralph Waldo] Emerson [(1803–1882), “The Method of Nature”, Delivered before the Society of the Adelphi in Waterville College, Maine, 11 August 1841]

And I believe that this claim for a healthy body for all of us carries with it all other due claims; for who knows where the seeds of disease, which even rich people suffer from, were first sown? From the luxury of an ancestor, perhaps; yet often, I suspect, from his poverty.
William Morris [(1834–1896), “How We Live and How We Might Live”]

O thou that sea-walls sever
From lands unwalled by seas!
Wilt thou endure forever,
O Milton’s England, these?
Thou that was his Republic,
Wilt thou clasp their knees?
These royalties rust-eaten,
These worm-corroded lies,
That keep thy head storm-beaten,
And sun-like strength of eyes
From the open air and heaven
Of intercepted skies!
[Algernon Charles] Swinburne [(1837–1909), “A Marching Song”]

Life can scarce read majestically
Foul court and fever-stricken alley.
Thomas Ashe [(1836–1889)?]

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade,
A breath can make them, as a breath is made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
[Oliver] Goldsmith [(1728–1774), “The Deserted Village” (1770), 51-56]

These stupid peasants, who, throughout the world, hold potentates on their thrones, make statesmen illustrious, provide generals with lasting victories, all with ignorance, indifference, or half-witted hatred, moving the world with the strength of their arms, and getting their heads knocked together in the name of God, the king, or the stock exchange – immortal, dreaming, hopeless asses, who surrender their reason to the care of a shining puppet, and persuade some toy to carry their lives in his purse.
Stephen Crane [(1871–1900), “Death and the Child” (1898)]

The rights of property have been so much extended that the rights of the community have almost altogether disappeared, and it is hardly too much to say that the prosperity and the comfort and the liberties of a great proportion of the population has been laid at the feet of a small number of proprietors, who neither toil nor spin.
Joseph Chamberlain [(1836–1914), speech at Hull, August 1885]

I’d rather die on the high road under the open blue. I’d rather starve to death in the sweet air, or drown in the brave, salt sea, or have one fierce glad hour of battle, and then a bullet, than lead the life of a brute in a stinking hell, and gasp out my broken breath at last on a pauper’s pallet.
Robert Blatchford [(1851–1943), socialist journalist]


Some sell their lives for bread;
Some sell their souls for gold;
Some seek the river bed;
Some seek the workhouse mold.

Such is proud England’s sway,
Where wealth may work its will;
White flesh is cheap to-day,
White souls are cheaper still.

Fantasias [???]


Is it well that while we range with Science, glorying in the time,
City children soak and blacken soul and sense in city slime?
There among the gloomy alleys Progress hats on palsied feet,
Crime and hunger cast our maidens by the thousand on the street;

There the master scrimps his haggard seamstress of her daily bread;
There a single sordid attic holds the living and the dead;
There the smouldering fire of fever creeps across the rotted floor,
And the crowded couch of incest, in the warren of the poor.

[Alfred] Tennyson [(1809–1892), “The Ghetto”]

Why should we be packed, head and tail, like canned sardines?
Robert Blatchford


What do you work at? You look ill.
It’s me lungs. I make sulphuric acid.

You are a salt-cake man?
Is it hard work?
It is damned hard work.

Why do you work at such a slavish trade?
I am married. I have children. Am I to starve and let them?

Why do you lead this life?
My work. You come and heave them three-hundredweight lumps with a fifty-pound bar, in that heat at the furnace door, and try it.
I will not. I am a philosopher.
Oh! Well, thee stick to t’ job. Ours is t’ vary devil.

From interviews with workers by Robert Blatchford

England is the paradise of the rich, the purgatory of the wise, and the hell of the poor.
Theodore Parker [(1810–1860), American minister]

Where home is a hovel, and dull we grovel,
Forgetting the world is fair.
[William Morris, “The Voice of Toil” (1884)]

All these were years ago little red-colored, pulpy infants, capable of being kneaded, baked, into any social form you chose.

I hold, if the Almighty had ever made a set of men to do all of the eating and none of the work, he would have made them with mouths only, and no hands; and if he had ever made another set that he had intended should do all the work and none of the eating, he would have made them without mouths and with all hands.
Abraham Lincoln [(1809–1865), speech at Cincinnati, Ohio, 17 September 1859]

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country laborer to practice thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.
Oscar Wilde [The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891)]

Seven men working sixteen hours could produce food by best improved machinery to support one thousand men.
Edward Atkinson [(1827–1905), American industrialist and economist]

[1] As quoted unsourced by Alex Kershaw in Jack London: A Life [1997], St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999, p. 120.
[2] Irving Stone, Sailor on Horseback [1938], Consul, 1966, p. 146.
[3] Alex Kershaw, op. cit., pp. 119-20.
[4] Alex Kershaw, op. cit., pp. 119 & 311.
[5] Both Mr Stone (op. cit., p. 147) and Mr Kershaw (op. cit., p. 116) quote a similar passage mangled from both chapters. Mr Stone, quite imaginatively, adds a few sentences from Chapter V, one of them paraphrased rather than quoted.
[6] He does imply the former though, for instance in Chapter XIV: “And, after all, it is finer to kill a strong man with a clean-slicing blow of singing steel than to make a beast of him, and of his seed through the generations, by the artful and spidery manipulation of industry and politics.” ( )
  Waldstein | Mar 24, 2023 |
En 1902, Jack London llegó a Londres con la intención de escribir un reportaje sobre el East End, la zona este de la ciudad, donde pasó varios meses disfrazado de vagbundo, con el fin de poder penetrar en el Abismo, tal como él lo llamaba. Su curiosidad le llevó a recorrer los barrios pobres, en donde se hacinaban cientos de personas en condiciones infrahumanas, mientras que las clases acomodadas se bneficiaban de la política colonial que el Imperio llevaba a cabo en sus colonias.
  Natt90 | Jan 27, 2023 |
Jack London’s memoir about the time he spent in London’s East End in 1902. It is a piece of immersive journalist in which he poses as an American sailor temporarily out of work. He describes his first-hand experiences of walking the streets at night, attempting to obtain menial work, and enduring many travails. The author observes the lives of many people, including singles, families, and children, describing overcrowded housing, comparatively high rental fees, rampant illnesses, and lack of job opportunities. He takes British society to task for not doing enough to keep these people from starvation and death.

He cites many statistics of the time as to how much people made and the costs of obtaining the merest basics to eke out a living, often throwing individuals into debt and a massive downward spiral. It brings to light the full impact of industrialization, and the resulting gaps between the fortunate and the unfortunate. These true stories are heartbreaking. I am always interested in reading about the past, especially when written by those who lived in the time period. This is one of Jack London’s first works, before he became an acclaimed author. It illuminates a period in history, but also offers lessons for our own time. Though the depths of deprivation may not be quite the same, many of these issues are still with us.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
I'm an American. I'm middle class and in my neighborhood there are people who are not. It helps to remind me just how lucky I am. It's not always fun or safe. However, there isn't a sense that I'm not awake to what is happening to people in my country who aren't me.

Jack London has made a dramatic call to arms in this book. It's an emotional tale and he doesn't always hold to the same standards that I would expect from a modern day journalist. Still, this book is a keen reminder of how the British Empire ended. It was largely due to how it treated its losers. The UK is awake to this now and what a painful past. Unfortunately, history is repeating itself here in the US of A. We do better to offer support that is meaningful and timely. It's still too little, the gap is too large. It was difficult for me to read this book without recalling those down the street and those across the country. ( )
  ednasilrak | Jun 17, 2021 |
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Informação do Conhecimento Comum em inglês. Edite para a localizar na sua língua.
The chief priests and rulers cry:- /

“O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt, /
We build but as our fathers built; /
Behold thine images how they stand /
Sovereign and sole through all our land. /

“Our task is hard—with sword and flame, /
To hold thine earth forever the same, /
And with sharp crooks of steel to keep, / Still as thou leftest them, thy sheep.” /

Then Christ sought out an artisan, /
A low-browed, stunted, haggard man, /
And a motherless girl whose fingers thin /
Crushed from her faintly want and sin. /

These set he in the midst of them, /
And as they drew back their garment hem /
For fear of defilement, “Lo, here,” said he, /
“The images ye have made of me.”

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Informação do Conhecimento Comum em inglês. Edite para a localizar na sua língua.
The experiences related in this volume fell to me in the summer of 1902. I went down into the under-world of London with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of the explorer.
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The People of the Abyss is a classic work about poverty and recounts the time the author spent in London. Born in San Francisco, he became a political activist and socialist at an early age. Written after posing as an American sailor stranded in the East End of London during 1902 - sleeping in doss houses, living with the destitute and starving - this is perhaps Jack London's most important work.As well as being a literary masterpiece, The People of the Abyss stands as a major sociological study. While other American writers were blindly celebrating the glories of the British Empire at its peak, Jack London was asking why such misery was to be found in the heart of a capital city of immense wealth.This is a work of reportage - London lets his observations speak for themselves. A precursor to the writings of George Orwell, this book remains a standard-bearer critique of capitalism, as powerful today as it was then.

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