Author: Jack London
Book: The People of the Abyss
Publisher: London, Macmillan & Co., LTD. 1904
While Jack London is well know for his famous fiction works, “The Call of the Wild“, “Children of the Frost” and “White Fang“, he has also published several works as a journalist. His non-fiction book The People of the Abbyss is his first-hand account of living in the East End of London in 1902.
As we move into reading literary journalism from the Gilded Age versus our earlier readings of Klarwill and Addison and Steele, we find that the modern literary journalism is much more engaging. London’s short paragraph structure, ethical standpoint, use of dialogue, chronological narrative and attributions are all essential elements that make his writing so captivating.
Through our class discussion of the very first chapter in this book, we perceived that London takes on the role of a literary journalist by revealing the world of the unknown. We equated this to the study of Anthropology in that this lifestyle of the urban poor in the East End may be right under our noses, but nobody truly discovers it until they put themselves in a role such as London does.
The most evident difference between London and say Charles Dickens or Michael Chevalier is differing length of paragraphs in their writing. London embodies a short paragraph structure intermixed with dialogue, and scene descriptions which we see in Chapter I: The Descent, Chapter II: Johnny Upright and Chapter IV: A Man and the Abyss. We believe that this structure engages the reader by making it more story-like versus Dickens’ style and Chevalier’s style which both embody a longer paragraph format (ex. American Notes for General Circulation).
Dialogue is an essential element to London’s narrative structure. He does not alter the original language of the urban poor rather implements their slang and contrasts it with his own American language. This allows the dialogue to indicate what the urban poor’s philosophy of life is and it characterizes the people of London as almost wild-like or animal -like. For example, London states, “But women…” (36) upon which the man responds in his own language, “Wimmen is a thing my edication ‘as learnt me t’ let alone . . .” (36).
In the above example as well as on page 37, London embodies two important literary techniques: repetition and reinforcement. London implements his standpoint on having a wife and children by saying, “Think of it, back from a voyage, little children climbing on your knee, and the wife happy and smiling, and a kiss for you when she lays the table . . .” (37). In response, the man repeats and reinforces his own personal philosophy on children (Fig.1) and women when he says, “A missus kissin’, an’ kids clim’in’, an’ kettle singin’ all on four poun’ ten a month w’en you ‘ave a ship, an’ four nothin’ w’en you ‘aven’t . . . A missus! Wot for? T’ make you mis’rable?” (37). This brings a level of comparison to London’s journalistic style, similar to the comparison element between the American and French culture that Chevalier embodies in his book Society Manners and Politics in the United States.
London’s account of London in 1902 is displayed through a chronological structure. There is little evidence of inventive structure or thought. For example, Chapter 1: The Descent follows a chronological style by beginning with his trip to Cook’s (1-3), then his departure to East End (5-7), Petticoat Lane (11), Highbury Vale (12) and so on.
Lastly, London’s distinct attributions are key to the effectiveness of his dialogue. They set the mood as well as display actions that are happening simultaneously throughout the dialogue. For example, we read, “‘Drive me down to the EastEnd,’ I ordered, taking my seat. ‘Where, sir?’ he demanded with frank surprise'” (5). Another example displays London’s sophisticated language when attributing dialogue: “‘Hello, mate,’ I greeted him, sparring for a beginning. ‘Can you tell me the way to Wapping?’ ‘Worked yer way over on a cattle boat?’ he countered, fixing my nationality on the instant” (33). It is evident that London’s attributes are much more detailed than Dickens who implements very little dialogue and writes in American Notes for General Circulation, “I observed that one of our friends . . . smote his forehead involuntarily, and said, below his breath, ‘Impossible! It cannot be!'” (4).
Overall, London employs many modern elements of literary journalism such as dialogue, detailed attribution, pictures with captions, and a chronological structure which all contribute to an enjoyable and easier read.