Friday, June 8, 2007

The Jungle

Title: The Jungle (1906) (I read the Enriched Classic edition by Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster, pub. 2004)

Author: Upton Sinclair, who was only 28 when this book was published. He had spent two months in Packingtown in Chicago doing research, in 1904 (citation). The book was turned down by five different publishers before finding one willing to commit. The success of The Jungle was career-establishing for him, but no other book that he wrote gained equal popular success. He did win a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Dragon's Teeth, about the Fascist takeover of Germany, in 1943.

Sinclair was a politician as well as an author, running for several offices on Socialist tickets, finally almost winning the governor's office in California in 1934 while running on the "EPIC" ticket ("End Poverty in California").

Some random facts: Sinclair was, perhaps not unexpectedly, friends with Jack London. His 1927 book Oil!, about the effects of an oil strike on a small Texas town, is being made into a movie filmed partially in Marfa, dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson and due out at the end of this year. Sinclair is also the source of the bon mot "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it".

Plot: Jurgus Rudkis, an optimistic young Lithuanian, emigrates to Chicago with his fiancee Ona and a large number of her extended family members. The book chronicles his systematic degradation at the hands of the Chicago stockyard system, and later rebirth as a member of the Socialist party.

The degradation, or, as Jurgus finally realizes, "soul-death" of immigrant workers (375), could be illustrated by the fates of Jurgus' various family members. Ona expires in childbirth, after the family cannot afford a proper doctor (and after she has worked herself into "womb troubles" by not taking enough time off after a previous birth [134]). Jurgus' elderly father Antanas dies after he takes a job in a dark basement, standing in acidic effluvia from the production of meat products (this is the only job he can get, as a less-than-perfect physical specimen). Jurgus and Ona's son Antanas drowns when he falls into a cesspool on the street (the sidewalk is elevated above the water-filled, potholed thoroughfare, which was supposed to be paved over, but wasn't, due to the corruption of public officials), but not before he's suffered from an untreated bout of measles, allowed to run its course for lack of money to buy a doctor's visit (171). Stanislovas, one of Ona's half-siblings, is literally eaten to death by rats after he is shut in to the factory where he works overnight (354). Ona's other half-siblings, unnamed in the narrative, take jobs as newsboys/girls, trying to make money for the family, but living on the street renders them intractable and corrupted. Ona's cousin Marija, originally a strong and unbreakable woman, becomes a prostitute in order to support the family, and develops a morphine addiction in order to deal with her situation. And finally, Teta Elzbieta, Ona's stepmother, reacts to all of this disaster by caring only about getting food, and losing all of her other motivations - perhaps the ultimate example of dehumanization.

Jurgus himself goes from a just-emigrated innocent, who believes in "work will set you free" (whenever anything goes wrong, he says "I will work harder" [23]); to, after injuring himself and losing his "place" (job), a frustrated alcoholic; to, after Ona is seduced by her boss, a raging animal, lashing out violently at the perpetrator; to a hobo, abandoning his family after the deaths of Ona and baby Antanas; to a criminal participant in the system of corruption, even going so far as to work as a scab during a strike; to, finally, a Socialist, with his soul restored by learning the "truth" of the system of labor that employs him.

It's unclear how exactly the play advertised would re-cast this story as "wonderful", but maybe they mean "wonderful" in the "awe-inspiring" sense.

Various descriptions of the physical ecology of Packingtown serve as a background to the story and to play up the corruption Sinclair sees as attendant to the entire system. See page 32-3 for a physical description of the stockyards; page 37 for the description of the land upon which Packingtown is built, which is literally made out of trash; page 116 for a description of "Bubbly Creek," a tributary that runs through Packingtown and literally boils over with pollution; page 417 for the Socialists' view of environmental management for ultimate human efficiency and freedom (cf. Bryson's chapter on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who Sinclair's character cites as an authority on these issues).

Long passages describe the unhealthiness of the meat, I think in order to point out the inherent corruption in the system (if your food is corrupt, it hits mighty close to the bone). See page 43 for the initial explanation that the companies "use everything of the hog but the squeal"; page 93 for descriptions of the spoiled food that the children of Packingtown eat; page 119-20 for descriptions of what goes into the canned meat; page 167 for descriptions of the sausage making process (Sinclair: "This is no fairy story and no joke"); page 385, on which a Socialist compares the situation of workers to that of the hogs; and page 413, on which a Socialist catalogs the systemic costs of adulterated food.

Major themes:
Socialism. Labor. Progressivism. Reform movements. Corruption. Food. Factories. Dehumanization. Immigration. Environmental degradation. Prostitution. Drug abuse. Political machines. Class.

Sinclair famously said, "I aimed for the nation's heart and hit them in the stomach" - in other words, people were far more willing to consider the possible danger to their own food supply, than to empathize with the plight of immigrant workers exploited by a capitalist system. After reading an advance copy of the book, TR was "sickened", and called on Congress to establish tougher meat-packing standards. The book was eventually the major impetus for the establishment of the FDA. Supposedly TR coined the term "muckrakers" to describe Sinclair and other journalists who took on similarly controversial subjects in an effort to expose corruption and abuse.

Meat inspection was upped after the publication of The Jungle.

Books I've read that cover it:
Jacobson - Barbarian Virtues; Adams - The Sexual Politics of Meat.

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