Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Review: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

It's always fun to review famous books that everyone has heard of. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle made the world familiar with muckraking journalism, and shocked the country into adopting somewhat improved food safety standards. President Roosevelt, we're told, was swayed by discovering, from passages of the book, what goes into embalmed meat and sausage. It seems safe to say that he didn't read the rest of it. The Jungle may deserve a review for the plot that no one talks about, of which only a small fraction is spent in the Chicago meat empire. It follows the first few years in the life of Jurgis Rudkus upon immigration to America from Lithuania. Sinclair takes us through a handy travelogue of institutionalized hardship, starting with extortion on the passage, through the subtle or overt systematic coercion and humiliation and pestilence that bedeviled the teeming ranks of unskilled labor in the meat industry in 1904. He'd originally centered it on the failed meat-packer's strike of that year, but the book takes Jurgis and his family through several other modes of contemporary employment (factory work, begging, prostitution, crime, vagrancy, politics), all born of, and failing, their good intentions to live as decently and independently as they can conceive.

It ends with an improvement on their conceptions, a veritable epiphany. The Jungle is a Socialist marketing pitch, a surprising survivor in the American canon. Poor Jurgis is slated to experience every version of the underside of the machine that Sinclair can think of to add, a sort of pilgrim's progress that is maybe not strict allegory, but runs at least as a series of representative anecdotes. (I am sure there's an appropriate literary term.)

I think that there is some real conflict with Sinclair the novelist and Sinclair the propagandist, to the detriment of both missions. The book opens with Jurgis' wedding, the only scene of joy and vitality before the ending, and once it ends, there is only a dismantling of the happiness that developed in that moment, with each new subtraction coming through like a shot in the gut. But there is only so much there to take apart, and when it's gone, we find that Sinclair still has half a book to go. Cool lefty types remark with regret that people remember the horrible abuses of the meat industry but neglect to take home what it did to reveal the anguish of working people, but it's not entirely the fault of the reader. Once Jurgis leaves Packingtown, once the last connection to his family goes under the mire in yet another tragedy, his story gets a whole lot less immediate, and any mystery we have invested in the happiness of these characters vanishes under the weight of obvious authorial intent. The student correctly sniffs out a lesson coming at this point, and grows bored. A novel is an excellent medium to convey an individual story, but this everyman thing loses its punch for needing to include, well, every man.

As writing goes, an occasional moments of satisfaction, however impoverished, could have gone far to accentuating the far larger negatives that Sinclair was after. The only positive outlet for Jurgis, the author lectures, was chasing the hazy phantoms of joy at the bottom of a bottle. Sinclair lectures a good deal, and while his appeals to human dignity are strong, his reversion to Christian-style morality (temperance, abstinance, moderation) are tedious. The introduction (written by Maura Spiegel, in the B&N cheapo edition) notes that the author did not describe his characters with a rich inner life, but instead went for a more observational style that was the fashion of some of his contemporaries. But this is no vivid little Chekhov-style tableau we're talking. There is no shortage of moralizing and psychological mechanics, they just happen to all come from the author instead of the characters. The editorializing doesn't go down much easier for the obvious distance that exists between the supercilious Sinclair and his earthy protagonist. The author has got every article of mild slang doubt-quoted, sniffs at every hint of debauchery, is affronted by black people, adds exclamations to every larger observation, and dear-readers us nearly to death. The climax is a speech, and the denouement is a goddamn lecture, in which we're reminded, sadly without irony, that like many another ethos, national Socialism offers a brilliant critique, but a provides a very sketchy prescription. The faith by which the world should fall into place under its influence seems rather quaint with a century's hindsight.

I like novels, and I don't mind polemics if the writing is good, but this combination felt a bit distasteful to me, even though Upton Sinclair is good enough to put satisfying thoughts and words and plots together. And I am sympathetic to his criticism (even if I lack his faith in a Socialist panacea), so it's not really the content that's the problem. If this thing were a satire—or showed any trace of humor whatever—then it could have carried a lot more weight with me. It may be just my own weird predilections.

[Edited slightly, with apologies to the English language.]


Michael said...

I wonder how important it is to remind ourselves of the when. Turn of the 19th into 20th century was not a good time to be "labor." I know Sinclair didn't expect the book to be seen as being about the horrible working conditions at the Chicago Stockyards, but more an indictment of the absolute dearth of programs dealing with the poor and the rampant corruption among the higher-ups. Not exactly problems we've tackled yet, although the food thing was a nice, if unforeseen, benefit.

Keifus said...

I think it's pretty important. It's good to remember that a big part of the reason our jobs only crush our souls these days (and not our hearts, families, and bodies) is that people were scared of and woken up by the Labor movement for awhile. It's worth keeping in mind when the people who are re-creating trusts, and re-cheapening labor tell us about competition and value and oversight, what direction their pushing us back toward. Not that we ever really solved those problems, but it was far worse then.

Sinclair was very much trying to give a full picture of a system that not only worked its population literally to death and exploited it to subhuman destitution, but also poisoned it and entrapped it with the fruits of those labors. But yeah, the diseased meat was no less horrifying for that. Big scandal with Army provisions a few years before the book too.

I'll tell you though, those early Socialists were embarrassigly optimistic about human nature, and the ability of ideology to solve it. He really does close the book with a scholarly lecture, and if I didn't know he was a movementarian, or if he appeared to ahve a sense of humor till then, I'd have thought it was satire.

Owe you some comments. I've been laying sorta low.


Keifus said...


Michael said...

Haven't posted much comment-worthy lately. You owe me nada bud. I'm almost afraid to read Uncle Tom's Cabin again for reasons you touched on here re:Jungle. Gotta keep reminding myself of the when. Same deal with this one. I wasn't alive obviously, so all I can go on is the public's reaction to the book which is obviously significant. Stockyards were 2 blocks west of grandparents' house at 46th & Union. By the time I was old enough to know any better they'd closed down,...but the smell lingered for years. (office park now)

Keifus said...

Nah, I had a few things I wanted to say (which admittedly weren't so compelling), but just couldn't be assed to do it. Been up and down a lot in mood lately, and thinking toning down on booze and politics blogs (and Facebook) is a good plan.

So currently reading a novel about the New York Irish written like a decade before The Jungle. Gonna compare and contrast when I get to that point.


Maddy Marier:) said...

I really enjoyed ready this!!