Friday, August 13, 2010

On "People of the Abyss" by Jack London ****

A few years ago, I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, her attempt to live on a minimum wage and among minimum-wage workers. I found it a bit forced, its solutions a bit too easy (raise the minimum wage: I've been part of that class, and raising the wage doesn't work if it's followed--as it was--by a raise in all of the prices, which I suppose beats being laid off). Nevertheless, the work highlighted many of the problems that exist among those who aren't well off.

In response to Ehrenreich's book, another writer wrote a book titled Scratch Beginnings, which I haven't yet gotten to but hope to soon. In that book, the author gave up his education and his home and started from scratch, as a un-college-educated vagrant on the street. His purpose was to show that Ehrenreich was wrong, that anyone, if the mind is set properly, can make it--and that he apparently did, at least in the NPR interview I heard.

Between these two extreme camps, one begging for more government help and the other saying that the poor need to help themselves, there's a middle ground. Just what that middle is is difficult to know, since at any given time the left and right argues over the fact the country is pulled too far one way or the other. I tend to have views closer to the Ehrenreich camp, believing that the system is fundamentally flawed and that society needs to be changed as a whole to give poorer people a chance before we can go about blaming the less-well-off for their own plight. I mean, who really wants to be poor? Are people really so lazy that poverty comes upon them solely because of their own indigence? Maybe some, but such a mindset is hard for me to fathom. Rather, I think of people I know who look and look and look for work and cannot find it--or can't find work appropriate for them (sure, it's easy to say a person should just get a job, but if there are children to support and no mate, a night job, a minimum wage job, isn't going to supply the needs).

So enters Jack London, into early 1900s London. Were this written today, he'd be accused of bleeding heart liberalism. And I suppose, given that he had certain socialist leanings, such accusations would be fair. London, like the aforementioned authors, dons the garb of the British poor and goes to live among them on the East End. He stays in poorhouses, sleeps on the streets, works the low-end jobs he can glean, eats at the charity soup kitchens. And he complains, over and over and over. Life is horrible for these people, and how do we expect them to amount to anything when they're struggling just to have enough to eat, when they share a room with ten other people or sleep in beds in shifts. One might point to the drinking that some engage in as part of the problem--London tends to dismiss that as a fair action among such blight (but how, one might ask could one afford a drink and not food or housing?). As such London's agenda and sympathies are clear. But it's hard not to sympathize, for most of the people do not seem to be drunkards but simply people whose luck ran out and who have no way out of the hole, who lost a job to sickness and now have bills to pay but no means to pay them and who then run into the street.

Amusing anecdotes include London's account of going to eat breakfast at the Salvation Army, where he then has to endure a sermon into the afternoon to "earn" his food, even though it's going to keep him from looking for a job; and a story about a boy caught for stealing whose excuse to the judge, when asked why he didn't just ask the woman for some money for food was that he'd have then gotten arrested for begging. Indeed, the latter shows the catch-22 that many of these people are in.

Where are all these nameless people now? Dead and long gone. And so too to our day people come and go, living in states we care not to imagine, all the poverty-stricken masses. Change is needed. But unlike Ehrenreich, London doesn't propose solutions--he simply notes that the whole structure of society needs redoing, and in that, I'd agree, right down to the structure of each of our greedy self-loving/self-preserving human brains. You can download the book here.

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