Here, London describes the Whitechapel district, where he lived for several weeks in 1902. London attempted to understand the working-class of this deprived area of his namesake city. To this end, he slept in workhouses or on the streets. He stayed as a lodger with a poor family. The conditions he experienced and wrote about were the same as those endured by an estimated 500,000 of the contemporary London poor.
There had been several previous accounts of slum conditions in England, most notably The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) by Friedrich Engels. The majority of these, however, were based on secondhand sources. London’s account was based on the experience of the writer, and proved to be more popular.
Jacob Riis‘s sensational How the Other Half Lives (1890) has been suggested as a source of inspiration for The People of the Abyss. A contemporary advertisement for Jack London’s book said that it “tingles” with the “directness only possible from a man who knows London as Jacob Riis knows New York,” suggesting that his publisher, at least, perceived a resemblance.
When London wrote The People of the Abyss, the phrase “the Abyss,” with its hellish connotation, was in wide use to refer to the life of the urban poor. H. G. Wells‘s popular 1901 book Anticipations uses the expression in this sense some twenty-five times, and uses the phrase “the People of the Abyss” eight times. One writer, analyzing The Iron Heel, refers to “the People of the Abyss” as “H. G. Wells’ phrase.”
George Orwell was inspired by The People of the Abyss, which he had read in his teens. In the 1930s, he began disguising himself as a derelict and made tramping expeditions into the poor section of London. The influence of The People of the Abyss can be seen in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.
The British newspaper journalist and editor Bertram Fletcher Robinson wrote a review of The People of the Abyss for the London Daily Express newspaper. In this piece, Fletcher Robinson states that it would be “difficult to find a more depressing volume.”