Saturday, September 29, 2012

Jack London and the people of the abyss

From the slimy sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and they were eating them. The pips of green gage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked up stray crumbs 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.
Jack London’s The People of the Abyss – an equal-parts wry and harrowing journalistic account of the time he spent living in the most poverty-stricken areas of London’s East End in 1902 – has been one of my favourite reads in the past few months. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while but haven’t had the time, so I’m taking the lazier option of just pointing you to it. The full text of the book can be accessed here. (I have a hard-copy myself and prefer reading that way, but it’s always good to have the other option.) You’ll find most of London’s other writings on that site too.

Incidentally I first learnt about this book from a reference in the footnotes of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s magnificent graphic novel From Hell (which is not just one of my favourite pieces of literature but – ponderous though this might sound – one of my most cherished works of art; a book I turn to again and again for affirmation of what the human mind can achieve, individually and in collaboration). Two short posts with artwork from From Hell (and links to Eddie Campbell’s blog) are here and here.

Also, here’s a post on Katherine Boo and her book about Mumbai’s Annawadi slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which represented a journalistic project not too dissimilar to the one London had embarked on more than a century earlier.


  1. Here is Katherine Boo's interview in the online mag, Guernica:

  2. Sounds like an interesting read - but I bet it'll be a little depressing too :(

  3. Got to get my hands on Katherine Boo's book. Almost everyone recommends it, and curiously, it seems like the whole world has written about it. Reviews popped up just about everywhere.

  4. The People of the Abyss was also one of George Orwell's favourite books, often referred to by him in essays and journalistic writings. It may well have been the inspiration for his own first book, the non-fiction work "Down and Out in Paris and London"