Jack London’s personal investigation of London’s East End in 1902, achieved by living there for several months, has surprising relevance today, probably because so little has changed. It is a repudiation of the “trickle-down” theory and denounces governments that fail to take responsibility for the needs of a nation’s poorest people.
London was a social activist as well as a novelist, and it follows that he would deliver a brutal rendering of the stark divisions he found between the haves and have-nots, and the system designed to keep it that way.
He describes one-story hovels—cow sheds, really—where people lived. “The roofs of these hovels were covered with deposits of filth, in some places a couple of feet deep, the contributions from the back windows of the second and third stories. I could make out fish and meat bones, garbage, pestilential rags, old boots, broken earthenware, and all the general refuse of a human sty.”
In another instance, he recounts the example of a woman supporting four children by making matchboxes. She was paid 2.25 pence for every twelve dozen matchboxes, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, all of her life. Her 98-hour week brought her roughly a dollar.
When a coroner investigated the death of a 77-year-old woman, he concluded that “’Death was due to blood poisoning from bed sores, due to self-neglect and filthy surroundings…’ It was the old dead woman’s fault that she died, and having located the responsibility, society goes contentedly on about its own affairs.”
The poor of 1902 even blame their poverty on immigrants (sound familiar?), in this case Polish and Russian Jews, who do the same work for less money.
London was an angry young man, and his anger builds as the book progresses. He was also a journalist, and the accusations become more and more detailed with each chapter. The experience never left him. His friend Upton Sinclair said that "for years afterwards, the memories of this stunted and depraved population haunted him beyond all peace."
Since Jack London was an American, born in San Francisco, the choice of a very proper British narrator is an odd one. Nonetheless, John Stanbridge does a fine job of communicating the author’s passion, outrage, and horror over the conditions he found and the societal cruelty he sought to expose.