Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Into the Abyss

Memoirs written by authors posing as someone they were not form a small, but fascinating, subgenre in literature. I think of George Plimpton pretending to be professional football player and writing Paper Lion and John Howard Griffin artificially coloring his skin, living as a black man and writing Black Like Me.

About 110 years ago, Jack London posed as a poor, out-of-work laborer on the East End of London and wrote The People of the Abyss, a stirring indictment of the way the British government and the people of the upper and middle classes took advantage of and otherwise ignored the poor of that day. I had been looking for a copy of London's book, and when I got a new iPad recently, I chose to make The People of the Abyss the first book I would read on it. I was not disappointed.

The worst of the problems London describes so vividly may have been corrected in the past century, yet the book remains shocking. So many people went to bed hungry every night. So many others didn't even have a bed. Others shared a bed in shifts. So many died young. Even those who had jobs could not make enough money to get ahead.

Here is how London describes his first impression as he takes a hansom cab into the East End for the first time: "The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot."

"The Abyss" was, at the time London wrote his book, a popular slang term for the very bottom of society. The image it suggests is of sliding down into a a great, bottomless pit, from which there is no escape. London builds on this image. "The work of the world goes on above them, and they do not care to take part in it, nor are they able," he writes. "Moreover, the work of the world does not need them. There are plenty, far fitter than they, clinging to the steep slope above, and struggling frantically to slide no more."

We may have "safety nets" of various kinds to try to save today's homeless, impoverished, jobless, disabled and elderly people, yet sadly The Abyss, or what today we might call The Black Hole, remains to swallow up any who fall through the cracks.

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