A vision of dreadful degradation: Jack London's depiction of the East End

Essay, 2007

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I Introduction

II.a Why did Jack London write this book?
II.b A vision of Dreadful Degradation: Jack London’s depiction of the East End

III The situation of the East Enders a century ago and nowadays

IV Conclusion

I Introduction

“What is not good enough for you is not good enough for other men, and there’s no more to be said”, states the American writer Jack London in his book “The People Of The Abyss”. His work is a documentary account of the living and working conditions in the East End of London in 1902. In a sweeping style, the author presents the misery of the slums in the then worst areas. Being accused by many of sensationality, the book refers to the author’s own experiences as well as other accounts and statistics. “The People Of The Abyss” certainly is a piece of documentary literature in terms of a sociological study. Nevertheless, the author uses several literary tricks to attract the reader’s attention. By many critics, his picture of the East End of London has been called overdrawn. In this essay, this image of the East End in Jack London’s account will be sketched out. Beforehand, a short summary of his biography will be given in order to find out what caused him to write such a book. In the end, the former situation will be briefly compared to the East End of today.

II.a Why did Jack London write this book?

In order to find out what drove a young American of 26 years to dive into the very misery of the British Empire, a glimpse of his biography is crucial. Jack London himself was born into poverty: “I had never had toys nor plaything like other children”, he says (London 1903: 3). Certainly, this was one of the reasons why he aspired to a fair share of the enjoyments offered by the modern world for himself as well as for others. However, this “dual impulse” (ibid.) to rise from poverty on the one hand and to help oppressed people on the other hand, tormented him all his life. Jack London’s youth in the United States was not easy at all; he left school at thirteen, after which he took every job possible in order to make ends meet. By winning a newspaper prize he was encouraged to quit his current job and started living as a hobo. As several Americans at that time, he became a socialist speaker after having studied Karl Marx. Interestingly enough, in spite of his socialist views, he was an advocate of the supremacy of the white race as well as the supremacy of men over women. Again, the duality of his attitudes and aspirations is to be noticed. Not until he had suceeded in publishing his first story, he ceased taking hard casual jobs. To make the long story short, he wrote a canon of books inspired by his experiences as a vagrant and member of the working-class. Jack Lindsay calls his work “an enduring monument of working-class struggle at a crucial moment of world development” (ibid.). Yet, the “almost unbelievable contradictions in his mind” (London 1903: 5) became more and more serious. After he had claimed the abolition of the army as a “killing institution” (ibid.) in 1913, he supported the Allies against Germany in 1914. Finally, in November 1916, he committed suicide.

“The People Of The Abyss” is one of the books uncovering Jack London’s socialist faith. This account of the poorest of the poor in London, however, was an accident. At that time, he was married to a woman called Bess while having an affair with Anna Strunk. To her, while being in a melancholy mood, he wrote: “Just when freedom seems opening up to me, I feel the bands tightening and the riveting of the gyves. I remember, now, when I was free.” (Sinclair 1978: 84). His family life as well as the scandal affair toiled him and restricted his freedom so important to him. In 1902, the American Press Association mandated Jack London to sail to South Africa and write about the aftermath of the Boer War. During his way to South Africa, he planned to have a break of two days in England in order to see the coronation of Edward VII and write about it. This break turned into a seven-week sojourn after the Boer War issue had been cancelled unexpectedly. Whether it was for the sake of his freedom or not, one can merely speculate. In any case, Jack London decided to stay in London and go into the slums, whereupon Anna Strunsky ended their relationship. Before leaving the States, he had talked about a book on the London slums with George Brett. Thus, the writer knew what he was ought to expect ‘down there’: “He meant to expose the underside of imperialism, the degradation of the workers… “ (Sinclair 1978: 87). The “evolutionary Socialist” wanted to find “the Black Hole of capitalism” (ibid.). With this preconceived vision in his mind, he disguised himself as an American sailor who had lost his ship and went into the East End. To be more precise, he wandered about Whitechapel, Hoxton, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and Wapping to the East India Docks.

II.b A vision of Dreadful Degradation: Jack London’s depiction of the East End

Knowing about Jack London’s aim and about what he wanted to show with his experiment in London’s East End, it is not surprising that he deliberately chose the “worst areas of poverty” (Sinclair 1978: 88). He disguised as one of the working-class poor and pretended to be one of them, which made it easier for him to get to know the conditions of their every-day life. One of his worst experiences he makes is in a workhouse, i. e. a house in which people who are unable to support themselves could sleep, eat and work. The conditions in these institutions were abominably humiliating and the diet was terrible. Apart from the homeless, he particularly depicts the old people and those suffering from disease or any disability. These people are devoid of any chance for a job. Thus, more often than not, the only thing left for them is a life in the streets and starvation.


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A vision of dreadful degradation: Jack London's depiction of the East End
King`s College London
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ISBN (eBook)
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Jack, London, East
Quote paper
Daria Eva Stanco (Author), 2007, A vision of dreadful degradation: Jack London's depiction of the East End, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/88423


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