Thursday, April 16, 2015

Aimed for the Heart; Hit the Stomach

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published in 1906. It was set in Chicago and was Sinclair’s sixth novel, if I’m reading my history right. It was certainly Sinclair’s breakout novel and helped to usher in some profound changes to the way the meat industry in America worked. That wasn’t Sinclair’s purpose in writing the book though. He primarily wanted to illustrate the horrible plight of the “wage slave” in America, and I thought he succeeded very well. Along the way, while making that point, Sinclair spent a few pages talking about horrible, unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry. It was those pages that produced an uproar. Sinclair remarked: “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Here are my thoughts on the book itself, and be warned that there are spoilers ahead. First, while the pacing is slower than most modern books, I thought it moved darn fast for the period. I’ve shelved the book as a “classic,” but maybe I should cross list it as horror since it is definitely a brutally horrific novel.

Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to Chicago with his family in search of a better life. He is healthy, vigorous, strong, and hopeful, and he is steadily broken by the wheel of industry as it casually grinds him and his family into pulp. The corruption of the housing market, the dreadful and dangerous work in the factories, the lack of proper sanitation and adulterated milk and food, all work insidiously to destroy member after member of Jurgis’s family. Jurgis himself survives, but only as every love and illusion is stripped from him. The story reminded me a great deal of the tale of Job from the Bible.

The book is fiction of course, but Sinclair spent quite a few weeks in Chicago while researching the book. He lived among the working class during that time, and while the pattern of events that happen to Jurgis do not describe any single person, they do reflect real things that happened to real people in those days. Overall, the book is a searing indictment of the greed and corruption that can be found in a Capitalist economic system, particularly when that system is allowed to run itself with scarcely any government oversight.

The one misstep in the book comes at the end, I thought, and it has to do with Sinclair’s “searing” indictment. Sinclair was a Socialist, or what we would more likely call a Communist these days. At the end of the book we find Jurgis given new hope and vigor by his exposure to the socialist party. The last couple of chapters of the book are an outright ode to the glory to be had by the working man if he but joins the Socialist party. In reality, of course, while Communism seems like a good plan in theory, it can easily end up as brutal as any Capitalist system. It’s not the system that is truly at fault; it is the people who run these systems, people who are full of greed and care nothing for the lives of those they exploit. This is why in any system there needs to be a series of checks and balances. Far too many humans are not to be trusted with unfettered power.



Tom Doolan said...

Communism is much like Trickle Down Economics. On paper, it is almost a perfect system. However, once you introduce the human element, it breaks down and doesn't work at all. I have always wanted to read this book. I think I might have to now.

Angie said...

I agree with you about that last chunk -- it reads like a Socialist/Communist recruiting pamphlet accidentally stuck into the back of the book. And it's not just the politics, it's the tone; the whole book is dark and grim and cynical until suddenly it turns into a Disney cartoon and bursts into song, complete with dancing woodland animals. Sinclair laid it on way too thick.

That said, though, it's a good book. I've read it a couple of times, and enjoyed the read. Definitely a great piece of social history.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I have not read Upton Sinclair but I have heard tell ahout this book. I'd sure like to read it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, yes, any system that depends on the basic kindness of humans for strangers is not going to work.

Angie, the end seemed so tacked on for sure, although the book was initially published by a socialist publisher so it may have been needed for that.

Prashant, it's worth a read, I think.

BernardL said...

Communism and Socialism fail everywhere they are tried, as do their programs, because people do not strive to be mediocre. When success is limited. Desire, productivity, and ambition disappear, along with inventiveness. As you say, it is a wonderful ideal, but when the ideal fails because of human nature, it is propped up by force (think Stalin, and Chairman Mao who murdered over a hundred million more of their own people than Hitler did in the death camps). The very first Socialist experiment was with the pilgrims. It turned out to be a deadly one until the people were allowed ownership of their land, and the fruits of their labor.

Capitalism breeds jealousy, in that many people are jealous of anyone making a buck more than they do. Each Socialist addition to our government is an attempt by people who do not have the ambition, skills, or imagination necessary to be very successful to rob from those who do. That fact can be wrapped in many cloaks of crocodile teared political hacks buying votes with cliches like 'poverty', 'the rich get richer, the poor get poorer', etc. Think about this though. We've had the welfare state for many decades. The government has stolen trillions of dollars from productive Americans to end poverty, and yet politicians still vie for votes citing even more money that needs to be stolen. In Sinclair's defense, no one at the time knew how deadly a Socialist experiment could become. They had only the ideal as an example. Please accept this only as one old man's perception. :)

Adventuresfantastic said...

I read this book in 9th grade for history class. Well, all but the last few chapters. I would probably have a different perspective now, since it was the horrific parts that appealed to me as a teenager.

Oscar Case said...

Haven't read the book which may not have been too heavily exaggerated, but it sounds like it was written for the glory of Socialism. I agree with Mister DeLeo.

Unknown said...

Your intriguing assessment tempts me to revisit the book, which I read in high school. I wonder, though, if I should simply permit my dim recollections and impressions persist without correction. Isn't that always the problem with rereading books we encountered in the past? There are -- for many reasons -- some books that I do not want to revisit. Perhaps _The Jungle_ is one of them. A current rereading would almost certainly convert me into a vegetarian. And then I could no longer enjoy those 1/4 pound bacon cheeseburgers that threaten to turn my arteries into clogged sewers.

jodi said...

Charles-I too, read that book in high school!

Ty said...

It's been on my Kindle for some while waiting for me to get to it.

I agree about the whole capitalism vs. communism deal. It's not the systems that are evil (though one could argue each and others have their own strengths and weaknesses), but the people working the system. But then, has their been a collective gathering of people of any kind at any point in history that hasn't become corrupted to some extent or another eventually?

Lisa said...

I didn't know the book or the author. You shelved your books by category, I guess we did ours too without really realizing it

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So avoid the propaganda and just focus on the story then.
And agree with what Bernard said.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernard, I tend to see all economic systems as flawed, but Capitalism has been successful in many ways at improving the quality of life for many people. I still think it could be done better. The problem is basic human nature, which is so often greedy, intolerant, and just plain ugly. I certainly don't have a solution to the problems.

Keith, yes, the brutality might have been more tolerable for me when I was younger.

Oscar, The last couple of chapters really read almost as tacked on. The suffering of workers has been pretty well documented from that time, although, of course, there are always those who exaggerate their plight for sympathy. Humans in general are not terribly nice creatures.

RT, I hope the meat packing industry is more regulated now, because I don't want to give up hamburgers either.

Jodi, one of the books we didn't have to read then.

Ty, I don't think there has been such a grouping. there are always those who seek to dominate, and not for the good of the people.

Lisa, it is the way.

Alex, well, in the case of the Jungle, I think the propaganda is part of the story. For good or ill. I didn't read it simply as a novel, or I would have rated it lower because of the ending.

Cloudia said...

This is possibly the best review this book has every inspired

ALOHA from Honolulu,

sage said...

Good review--I read "The Jungle" decades ago and parts of the book still sticks with me. I remember being disappointed in the last section of the book, when he goes from the story to the moral. At one point, I remember the protagonist being let go by a farmer at the end of the season and realizing that the farmer cared more for his draft animals than his hired hands... It was a good book.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, that is very kind of you.

Sage, yes, I found a lot of good stuff in it.

Snowbrush said...

Funny how America seems to think that capitalism and Christianity somehow go together, when I see nothing to think that Jesus would have been a fan of it--or of "family values" for that matter. We have what he said, and then we have the myth we build around him that so clearly contradicts what he said.

Charles Gramlich said...

Snowbrush, I'm also troubled by that, about how many seem to feel the need to reinvent Jesus to support their own views. Of course, I'm sure that happened even when Jesus was alive

Riot Kitty said...

Agree completely. I thought the last couple of chapters basically should have been left out, because it becomes preachy and solely a bit of ideology. But the rest was pretty amazing.