Submerged tenth

Submerged tenth

In Brief

Sitting in a cabman's shelter where a seedy cast of characters has replaced the middle-class bustle of daytime Dublin, Bloom mulls the fact that "the lives of the submerged tenth, viz., coalminers, divers, scavengers, etc., were very much under the microscope lately." In the 1840s, Henry Mayhew's newspaper articles (collected and published as London Labour and the London Poor in 1851) had generated great interest in the urban underclass, and half a century later two more books by pioneering social reformers revived this interest. Bloom's "submerged tenth" alludes to an influential work by English social worker William Booth, and it seems likely that another influential book by American journalist Jacob Riis figures in his thoughts. Circe alludes to a third book whose title Booth savagely parodied. 

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Throughout the 19th century London teemed with unfathomable numbers of unemployed or underemployed people living in grinding, nearly inescapable poverty. William Booth (1829-1912) began life as Charles Dickens had, in a family slipping from prosperity into want. After completing the apprenticeship into which his father placed him, and moving to London to find work, he became an evangelist preaching the Methodist doctrine: seek salvation by repenting one's sins and practicing love for God and mankind. In 1865 he and his wife Catherine founded a missionary and charitable organization which in 1878 became known as the Salvation Army, led by Booth as its "General." The Army brought three S's to the poor: soup, soap, and salvation. In the 1880s it expanded from England into Ireland, the United States, and Australia, and in 1890 Booth produced a hard-hitting book, In Darkest England, to inform people about the sufferings and trials of the wretched souls in their midst.

The title was provocative: it tweaked the English imperial appetite for adventure narratives fed by books like Henry Morton Stanley's In Darkest Africa. Stanley was the British-American journalist who in 1871 had famously found the missing Scottish explorer David Livingstone ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"). In 1890 he published In Darkest Africa, the story of his final exploration of the continent. Later in the same year Booth published In Darkest England; and the Way Out, implying that the industrial revolution had made England an uncivilized place, as full of hardship and indifference as the darkest of continents. Bloom seems to be aware of both books. In Circe, recalling a cycling tour that went amiss in the Irish village of Stepaside (west of Killiney, a little beyond Dublin's southernmost suburbs), he jokingly makes himself a Stanley-like explorer and reporter: "I who lost my way and contributed to the columns of the Irish Cyclist the letter headed In darkest Stepaside."

As for Booth's book, it is evoked by "the submerged tenth," a phrase that Booth uses several times to argue that one in ten English people are trapped in unconscionable poverty. The second chapter, which takes the phrase as its title, is one of several in which Booth quantifies his claims with hard numbers, following Mayhew's practice of providing detailed numerical estimates. The chapter also makes a more metaphorical call to action that seems likely to have interested Joyce, though he does not allude to it in Ulysses: the "Cab Horse Standard" for economic assistance. Booth observes that "every Cab Horse in London has three things; a shelter for the night, food for its stomach, and work allotted to it by which it can earn its corn." Millions of London's human inhabitants, he notes, are not afforded those minimal dignities or helped to their feet when they collapse. Deploying Booth's phrase in a chapter set in a cabman's shelter, Joyce may well have been thinking of the Cab Horse Standard, but if so he did nothing to call attention to it.

The word "submerged," however, meshes intriguingly with another element of the chapter's artifice. Eumaeus is filled with subtle, easily missed echoes of the 1912 Titanic disaster, the great majority of them centered on evocations of icebergs or on the likenesses between the ship and a streetsweeper's horse. Might not "the submerged tenth" figure in this design? More than 1,500 people died when the great ship sank, many of them steerage passengers trapped behind steel gates that sealed off their lower-level accommodations (C through G decks) from those of the first- and second-class passengers. These poor emigrants berthed below the waterline might well be styled a submerged underclass, and when the ship went down they were truly and permanently submerged.

Bloom's words about Dublin's poor may also recall the work of the Danish-American muckraking journalist Jacob Riis (1849-1914). Like Booth, Riis experienced poverty as a young man. He lived a hard life after emigrating to New York City, working in many dead-end jobs and sleeping in horrific flophouses before beginning a successful climb in the newspaper business. As a reporter he turned his attention to the squalor and crime of the city's slums, and in 1887, when he learned of the invention of flash photography, he began supplementing his writing with vivid images. He also took up lecturing on the theme "The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York." In 1890 he published a book, How the Other Half Lives. Like Booth's In Darkest England, the book sold well and inspired hopes of social reform. In 1892 a sequel followed: Children of the Poor.

One reason to suppose that Riis may be part of the picture is the strange observation that denizens of the underclass "were very much under the microscope lately." Studied like bacteria? Not exactly, but if one strips away the obscuring mist of cliché and inept characterization that pervades Eumaeus, it seems that this could refer to the visual medium of photography through which Riis hammered home his message.

Another hint of his presence may be found in the enumeration of groups: "coalminers, divers, scavengers, etc." Booth's book is filled with affecting accounts of unfortunate individuals, and he often refers to their occupations, but he does not display a penchant for group labels. Riis does, following a different precedent from Mayhew's work. His pages teem with cigarmakers, shoemakers, ragpickers, pedlars, beggars, tramps, thieves, toughs, firebugs, working girls, wives, mothers. He also happily traffics in ethnic stereotypes as he describes the Italians, the Irish, Russian and Polish Jews, Chinamen, Negroes, Bohemians, Germans. It is easy to imagine Bloom applying such language to his experience of the Dublin streets: he has passed two "scavengers" at the beginning of Lotus Eaters, in an urban wasteland much like those depicted in Riis's photos. The first Riis photo displayed here and the first shot of Brady's Cottages show a striking resemblance. (Incidentally, Mayhew took great interest in scavengers, studying the "pure-finders" who collected dog droppings for use in tanneries and the "mudlarks" who dug in the slimy banks of the Thames for things that could be sold.)

Many thanks to Vincent Van Wyk for the Titanic observation, for a suggestion that Riis may occupy space with Booth in Bloom's thoughts, and for a follow-up reflection––explored below––that the motives of both Riis and Bloom may not be entirely pure. Riis did aspire to promote social change, and he worked with Theodore Roosevelt and others to achieve it, but his detractors saw him as sensationalizing the lives of the poor for personal gain. The term "muckraking," coined by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress and popularized in the Progressive Era that started in the 1890s, carried some negative connotations. (Roosevelt held that "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.") The comparably unsavory term "slumming" dates to the same era. In both London and New York in the final decades of the 19th century, wealthy people frequently visited blighted ghettoes as a form of well-intentioned but sensationalistic tourism. Bloom thinks that Molly wishes to make such a tour of the red-light district.

Bloom is more charitable than most Dubliners, both emotionally and in terms of his willingness to provide financial assistance to the needy, but he is neither an evangelist nor a friend of the underclass. By virtue of hard work he, like his father, has become a prosperous middle-class citizen with dreams of joining the property-owning elite, and the neighborhoods he visits in Circe and Eumaeus are foreign territory to him. Rather than feeling one with the people in the cabman's shelter and aspiring to improve their wretched condition, as Booth did, he sees them as materials for Riis-like reportage. Just as a wrong turn in darkest Stepaside encouraged him to become a Stanley-like reporter and write a letter for a cycling magazine, the people in the shelter present him with "a miniature cameo of the world we live in," inspiring him to write something like "My Experiences, let us say, in a Cabman's Shelter."

Such a piece of reportage might well do some good: since the enactment of Union in 1800 Dublin had become more and more blighted by poverty. But Joyce allows no doubt about Bloom's primary motive for writing such a piece: "Suppose he were to pen something out of the common groove (as he fully intended doing) at the rate of one guinea per column." These people, he reasons, have been very much under the microscope in America lately. Perhaps an Irish version would also sell....

JH 2023
1912 photographic portrait of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, held in the Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1906 photographic portrait of journalist Jacob Riis, held in the Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Bandits' Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Street, 1888 gelatin silver print by Jacob Riis held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons.