CALIFORNIA LETTERS : The New People of the Abyss

Homeless people in London at the turn of the century. From Jack London, "People of the Abyss" (J. Simon: 29500 Heathercliff Road, Malibu, Calif. 90265: $24.95).

Americans have developed a fascination with the homeless. A while back, The Times View section ran a story about a homeless man, neither the stereotyped beggar nor the a cappella crazy talking to himself but a scholar without a university position or research grant out on the street. Forty-seven-year-old Irvin Matus was researching a book at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, without a place to live.

Matus was not the first of the celebrity homeless. Billy Boggs, a New York City bag woman appropriated the name of a local male television personality and first refused Mayor Koch's invitation and then resisted his coercion to enter a shelter. Briefly famous after an article in People, she appeared on the "Donahue" show and was asked to lecture at Harvard on her street experiences. Film offers followed until she was discovered back on the street cursing at passers-by.

In a March 1, 1989, editorial, the New York Times described a surreal interaction at Grand Central Station between homeless people and some realistic sculptures made to look like homeless people by artists like George Segal and Duane Hansen. Complete, for the moment, with its own aesthetic, homelessness has found its way out of the shadows and into a half-way zone between frustrated social concern and spectacle. The aesthetic is indispensable.

Although more visible during the Reagan years, homelessness is not a phenomenon of the '80s but the stubborn underside of the modern dream of steady uninterrupted progress. In the summer of 1902, Jack London observed and wrote about similar conditions in England. London's model for his study, which he entitled "People of the Abyss," was W. T. Stead's best-selling expose, "If Christ Came to Chicago" (1894). An Englishman, Stead had come to America during the Columbian Exposition, a celebration of technology and American power, and had walked along the edge of the great fair to report mass homelessness and urban dislocation. So great was the problem of housing that thousands were compelled to sleep each night in Chicago's elaborate new city hall. Returning the favor, London wrote about his experiences among the English poor in "People of the Abyss," republished in a handsome, edition by Joseph Simon.

London's work is a classic literary treatment of the underside of urban life, the nightmare that continues to disturb our glamour-fantasies of leveraged buyouts and endless nights on the town. For London, an American pragmatist in the rigorous sense of the word that his contemporary William James employed, "theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest." London neither moralizes about poverty nor generalizes his feelings but dresses, instead, in the old clothes of a common sailor and lives on the street in order to report an alien condition. He makes sharp distinctions, distinguishing between working poor and indigent, between the tramp perpetually looking for work and the bum hopeless of ever finding it.

For London, the homeless are not a people apart, a roving army assaulting us alternately for charity or for pity. No, they are unadorned versions of ourselves driven to extremes. Neither contemptuous nor sentimental, London's letters from this time (Stanford University Press, 1988) reveal a man struggling to face the facts about something that he once arrogantly thought he knew. Initiated as a quick project to publish a new book, to get away from a bad marriage and make some money, "People of the Abyss" begins to claim him. Posing as an East London local (anticipating the antics of Dan Rather costumed as an Afghan freedom fighter or Geraldo Rivera on a drug bust), Jack London, already famous as a legitimate adventurer and radical, finds when out on the street himself that "the human soul is a lonely thing." Even with some gold coins sewn into the lining of his coat, he imagines the terror of unrelieved poverty. London describes for Anna Strunsky, a former lover back home, what has been happening to him. He writes, "You can live by theory, and therein you approach perfection. I blunder at living by theory. At first I did too much living by practice. They failed to catch me when I was young. . . . I have seen men's eyes here, & women's, that I was almost afraid to look in--not because of the viciousness therein, nor the sensuality, or anything of the sort, but because of the utter lack of all these, because of the supreme bestiality or unhumanness."

In the current period of transition between the years of greed that characterized the '80s and the advertised new gentleness of the Bush '90s, reading "People of the Abyss" is not a bad exercise. Jack London provides a way to examine our own motives. In a letter to some friends, he hints at a method for understanding what surrounds us today. He writes: "I've read of misery, and seen a bit; but this beats anything I could even have imagined. Actually, I have seen things, & looked the second time in order to convince myself that it was really so."

Looking the second time is critical. Seeing twice within the same short moment forces us out of our habitual stances of piety, sentimentality or annoyance. When we keep our eyes fixed until we see , we risk reconsidering some seemingly fixed notions of family life and the moral causes of poverty.

What London saw was the flower of the English countryside blighted by life in the city. He reports, "Year by year, and decade after decade, rural England pours in a flood of vigorous strong life." But that vigor "not only does not renew itself, but perishes by the third generation." Stripping himself of his own sentimentality, London sees beyond the feelings he wants to entertain. The people he interviews and spends time with are lost. He reports the toll of having to live off handouts and unreliable public charity. Herded about day after day, denied adequate shelter but forbidden to sleep in the parks, "the dominant note of their lives is materialistic. They are stupid and heavy without imagination." The Abyss becomes a "huge killing machine."

Written at the beginning of the century, London's work still carries the passion of a man unafraid to question his own assumptions. The twin addictions of our culture to irony and narcissism make it difficult to match him in confronting something as refractory and unpleasant as homelessness. In one mode, we tend to affect a sophisticated note of knowing unconcern, while in the other, we tell each other how bad the last unpleasant street encounter made us feel. London's work remains valuable because it forces us to re-imagine homelessness as more than a social problem for the few unfortunates. In demythologizing progress, or its New World variant the "American Dream," he allows us to see ourselves as part of a problem and not apart from it. By dressing up and voyaging down, he explores the depressive side of a society, like ours, always looking for a quick fix or release from the terror of the soul.

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