Monday, March 28, 2016

Classic #8

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

London Labour and the London Poor - Henry Mayhew

Mayhew was a pioneering investigative reporter. His articles narrated the lives of homeless vagrants, street sellers and laborers who did the dirty, dangerous, disgusting jobs in 19th century London. Mayhew interviewed his subjects about their lives and thus was one of the first to conduct ethnography. He has been respected as an early sociologist (he loved statistics), anthropologist and oral historian a la Studs Terkel.

Mayhew’s lively exposition has a vital, energetic tone that is quite engaging. He doesn’t allow his own opinions to intrude except parenthetically but sometimes he tells us that even he, a guy who has seen everything, can be surprised. He interviews a maker of false eyes:
He then took the lids off a couple of boxes that stood on the table; they each contained 190 different eyes, and so like nature that the effect produced upon a person unaccustomed to the sight was most peculiar and far from pleasant. They all seemed to be staring directly at the spectator, and occasioned a feeling somewhat similar to the bewilderment one experiences on suddenly becoming an object of general notice. The eyes of the whole world literally appeared to be fixed upon you, and it was almost impossible for the spectator at first to look at them without instinctively averting his head. The hundred eyes of Argus were positively insignificant in comparison with the 380 belonging to the human eye maker.
More typically, he steps aside and gives us the interviewees’ words, in this case those of an 18-year-old woman who sold fruits and vegetables on the street:
Only last night father was talking about religion. We often talks about religion. Father has told me that God made the world, and I've heerd him talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived -- it must be more than a hundred years ago -- but I don't like to speak on what I don't know. Father, too, has told me about our Saviour what was nailed on a cross to suffer for such poor people as we is. Father has told us, too, about his giving a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. The Ten Commandments was made by him, I've heerd say, and he performed them too among other miracles. Yes! this is part of what our Saviour tells us. We are to forgive everybody, and do nobody no injury. I don't think I could forgive an enemy if she injured me very much; I'm sure I don't know why I couldn't, unless it is that I'm poor, and never learnt to do it. If a gal stole my shawl and didn't return it back or give me the value on it, I couldn't forgive her; but if she told me she lost it off her back, I shouldn't be so hard on her. We poor gals ain't very religious, but we are better than the men.
As a collection of sketches topically arranged, it is not a book that one reads through. Any serious reader who wants background information to enjoy more deeply The  Big Three - Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray – should at least dip into this book, which is available on the web here and there.

Even reading gluttons – like me, who can read anything – probably ought to read it for 40 or 50 minutes and then go do something else. Like contemplate a society in which there is no social safety net, where government counts on four ends for the poor: the grave, the prison and scaffold, the armed services, and emigration.

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