Monday, December 6, 2010

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

Relentless. That's the word that kept coming to me as I was reading this.

The book follows the life of Juris Rudkus, who arrives full of hope from Lithuania as a young man in the early 1900s, and who finds himself in "Packingtown", the edge of Chicago where the stockyards existed. He enthusiastically takes on one job after another, gets ground down by it, underpaid and overworked, and subject to a wide range of dangers, until his enthusiasm is dampened and almost dead.

He has a wife and child to support and his wife's family emigrated with him, so he has a house full. Every person in the house who can work does work, including the children, yet they cannot stay ahead of the bills.

In fact, throughout the book there is no light, no relief from the suffering, nothing but pain, suffering, death. As I said, relentless. Until the end, when socialism catches Jurgis's fancy and he believes that at long last he has found salvation.

The book reads rather like a tract, a lengthy tract spelling out the abuses in the stockyards and in capitalism in general, and then defining just how socialism will make it all better. The characters are loosely developed, described well physically but not particularly otherwise. They serve as the engine that drives the train of the message. Sinclair can write but he spends too much time driving home his point again and again and not allowing us to see any complexity in the situation or the people.

Because Sinclair was an excellent investigative journalist, he writes with great detail of the abuses of the people who work in the stockyards, and in a few pages outlines the abuses to the animals themselves as well. What was taken away from the novel when it was first published was the lack of proper safety measures in the production of meat, so that much was contaminated, and there was an outcry about food safety that led to government inspection systems and greater regulation of the industry.

It is unfortunate that conditions are not much better now, and in some cases they are worse. There are regulations in place but there are few inspectors and often they are paid for by the company. Often the solution to contamination is to accept it and cook everything until any disease microorganisms are dead. The treatment of the animals is certainly no better and in many cases far worse than it was a century ago. The intense confinement of animals had hardly begun then.

The Jungle was a wake-up call for many. Sinclair had hoped it would be a call for socialism but that did not happen. In spite of his efforts to separate truth from fact about socialism the idea simply did not take sufficient hold, especially given that it was outranked by communism for a while, and that fell into deep disfavor. Unfortunately many think the two are the same.

I was horrified to read of the conditions the workers endured, and of the horrors for the animals, knowing almost everything in the book was documented. I am glad that others are now writing books about current conditions. I hope a decent fiction book will get written now that will finally grab the attention of the majority of people, who will then demand an end to the miseries suffered by so many. 

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