Oct 14, 2007

The People of the Abyss

by Jack London

In 1903 Jack London went to live in a slum in the worst area in London's East End, known as "the Abyss." For several months he explored the maze of slums, rubbing shoulders with the masses of poverty-stricken people, learning firsthand what it was like to live literally hand to mouth. His documentary book graphically depicts the suffering, disease, starvation and horrible conditions the poor lived in. Low wages, inadequate housing, serious lack of healthcare and illiteracy were rampant. Over 50% of children died before the age of 5. Any small event could plunge a person into a downward spiral that inevitably lead to death: illness, injury, loss of a job or lodgings. London spent time living in small rooms, staying in workhouses and sleeping on the streets. The People of the Abyss was a plea for assistance and humane treatment of the poor to people in power. It can be very political at times, but is mostly thorough journalism colored with firsthand experiences.

The powerfully detailed descriptions of abject poverty really brought home to me how horrible and inescapable their conditions were. When I was younger, I used to see homeless people on the street and think they had brought that situation upon themselves, they could get a job if they wanted to. But after reading a book like this, it makes you realize they often have little ability to escape their condition. The oppression they live under and lack of skills makes it near impossible for them to get ahead.

People of the Abyss inspired George Orwell to live as a tramp in England in the 1930's, resulting in his semi-documentary book Down and Out in Paris and London. It has a similar feel as well to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, both great works on social inequality and the conditions of the poor.

Rating: 4/5                388 pages, 1903


  1. have you read 'A fine balance' by Rohinton Mistry? very similar in that it describes the daily lives of those living in the most destitute of conditions on the streets of Calcutta. Made me more sympathetic, but less vulernable to the scams of the homeless when I was in Calcutta.

  2. No; never heard of it. Sounds good, I think I'll try it out!

  3. we should set up a cross country book trade. I have lots of books you want to read, and I am interested in some of these books that you are writing about. Ask Kristen is she has a copy of A Fine Balance, I think I gave her one years ago.

  4. Actually, most of the books I write about here I don't own, but have borrowed from the public library to read. So they're not really available for private lending.


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