Monday, October 18, 2010

Blog 13: Journalistic Immersion

Jack London's People of the Abyss includes little of what I remember of The Call of the Wild in elementary school.  Stark weather and forest descriptions have been replaced by bleak city and people.  Instead of talking about wolves trying to survive the wilderness, London focuses on people trying to survive their surroundings.

Part of London's interest in this subject and motivation for writing this piece seems to be if he can accomplish it or not.  A large bit of writing in the beginning shows that he has trouble even finding the East End; when he is successful, he almost seems to take it as a sign that he should continue.  He is out to conquer other people's 'you-can't-find-it' mentality as well as prove to himself that this is entirely possible.  Once he actually finds the location of his choice, he takes the pains to transform himself into a local because London also wants to see how the East End inhabitants dwell and function.  But he seems unaccustomed to the slum conditions of that part of the city and the people and wants to see and experience what it takes to survive in the squalor.  His tone shows that while he has become a part of them, he is still a little awed at their manner of living.

The plot line in this short excerpt is 3/4 seeking and 1/4 finding and adjusting.  London details his search for the East End like a pirate searching for treasure; he has to ask, pay people off and hire a guide of sorts before he finally comes to the East End.  The search for the people is nearly more invigorating than actually finding them.  London almost seems smug about being able to hold his driver until he has discovered where he wants to be.  Then the last few paragraphs show London's realization that he has indeed found what he was looking for and through his transformation, has become a person of the abyss as well as dispensable.  Interestingly, London cannot seem to be a part of the East End and accepted by them until he has relinquished the things that tie him to his (relatively) upper class situation.  He feels like he could be in danger there until he becomes a slummer; when his transformation is made, he feels cheapened by the upper class and accepted by the East End.

London uses status details as well as concrete details most strongly from the list of elements.  He vividly describes the slums and how difficult it is to find them.  Page 86 is a great example of showing, not telling as he paints a picture of the streets and market place (nowhere in the streets...devoured on the spot).  He could not have told his readers better than his descriptions explain his surroundings.  His status details help paint the people (especially the way things change when he himself changes his clothes) and his descriptions paint the scenes.

Dialogue also is a strong suit in this excerpt.  London's exchanges with cab drivers and policemen show the incredulity of his observers.  This also becomes an example of showing rather than telling.  Instead of saying what they will, people "urge" or "order" or "demand" or "spluttered unintelligibly."  I wish I could come up with such attribution for my magazine and feature writing class.  E

ach conversation is lit with vernacular and descriptive attributions that prove people's skepticism of London's travels.

London's own exploration of how this makes him feel is portrayed powerfully in this piece.  He searches and searches to find these East End people and to become one of them, yet when he has accomplished this feat he becomes introspective and shows surprise that he no longer truly means anything to anyone around him because of the quality of his clothes and the way he appears.  He is invagorated about that because he has fulfilled his transformation but at the same time is saddened that life can become so inconsequential.

After glancing through London's biography, this work appears to be one of the few that was set in a city scape.  His most famous other works include animal subjects but mostly take place in jungles, wilderness, or on the sea.  People of the Abyss does adhere to his Darwinism tendencies.  London was the child of an unwed mother and grew up in the lower middle class.  He worked many 'hard labor' jobs that took him around the country, into the Yukon and across the sea and neglected his schoolwork and any writing until he was 19.  He became known as a socialist in his community and even ran for mayor on that ticket.  He was never successful in the political realm.

To write this book, London went and lived in the 'under world' of the East End for 7 weeks.  He wanted to see first-hand the experiences of the people:  "I was open to be convinced by the evidence of my eyes, rather than by the teachings of those who had not seen, or by the words of those who had seen and gone before." (  As the writings show, London became an East End inhabitant and learned what he could of the people and environment around him.

Question: I am bothered by the last few sentences in this selection: "I had become a part of it.  The vast and malodorous sea had welled up and over me, or I had slipped gently into it, and there was nothing fearsome about it-with the one exception of the stoker's singlet" (89).  London has thrown off every constraint and made it seem that he is indeed a slummer.  But yet he holds onto this money even though he is afraid.  Does this cheapen his immersion to anyone else?  Was it really necessary to hold onto this money 'just in case?'


  1. London's holding on to money "just in case" reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich and her "just in case" money stash during her immersive experience as a minimum wage worker in "Nickel and Dimed." I feel that in order to truly be an immersive work, one must throw off the "chains" of their real, normal life and fully dive into the life about which they are writing. Knowing that he always had a "safety stash" never allowed London to feel the panic and worry his subjects felt when they knew that the dollar they were spending on food was the very last one to their name. I think London realized it would be worse to know you had no money at all than to be robbed of the little money you did have. I think this emergency stash provided him with a comfort and calm that his subjects never had, and thus, made it impossible for him to truly immerse himself in the abyss.

  2. I agree with Sadie's comments, though he's clearly not hiding the fact that he has the money. In fact, he went into great detail about its location/description/etc. Perhaps he's making a comment on the polarization between himself and his subjects - "the exception of the stoker's singlet." It also appears to serve as a kind of reality safety net (telling him who he really is) as he immerses himself in such a startling different environment.

  3. It does cheapen the immersion a bit. It's like a shark diver in a cage - sure, he's in the water with sharks, but he's not facing the same problem as someone free diving.

    With that being said, I would probably want to hold on to some money as well. Changing perspective can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous proposition. Keeping the money allows him to be a little more adventurous, take chances that he other wise wouldn't, which could make for a more exciting story. Unfortunately, it also strips away a little of the reality of the immersive experience.