A review of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

INTRO

It was 7:30 PM on Thursday, April 11. I was working late at my office and had come back from getting a cup of coffee, when I noticed that my black shoulder bag was missing from its usual perch near my desk. It turned out that the bag had been stolen, and inside it, among other things, was my (well, the library’s) copy of The Jungle, along with — much more importantly — all of my reading notes; I had almost finished the book at that point. Actually, many of you may feel fortunate, since if I still had those notes, this present review might be considerably longer. 🙂

It would have been easy to get another copy of The Jungle (hereafter “TJ“) from the library — standard on the “Classics” shelf as it is — but since I only had a couple dozen more pages to read, I simply printed that part out after downloading it from the Web. [1] (I would have taken the paperless course, and downloaded the book to my Palm handheld, [2] but my Palm was a casualty of the theft as well.)

The idea for reading TJ came from my 16-year-old daughter Jill, who, after hearing about it in her history class, asked me if I had ever read this book. I thought it might become a joint project, and though she hasn’t picked up the book yet, perhaps she still will …

U. SINCLAIR

Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore in 1878. TJ (1906) is one of his earlier novels, and his first one in the “muckraking” vein; it is probably the only one of his books that is still generally familiar nowadays. Though Sinclair (hereafter “US”) is famous for exposing the terrible conditions in the meat-packing plants, he was, more generally (which I had not realized) a dedicated socialist. And not just a theoretician. With profits from TJ he set up a socialist colony. He ran for governor of California (but lost) in 1934. Sinclair lived till 1968, was widely read, and was very prolific, writing more than 80 books, many of them in TJ’s social-criticism vein.

Sinclair is apparently one of the most familiar American writers in Europe. [3] I had a bit of anecdotal evidence for this: when I told my mother I was reading TJ, she recalled that as a teen-ager growing up in Germany, she read Sinclair’s Oil (1927) … this would have been just about the time it came out! This is one of Sinclair’s socialist-oriented books; my mother was very much into socialism at that time. She now wants to have another look at Oil, and first I tried finding it on the Web to download and print out; but unlike TJ, Oil is still under copyright, so I had to order it for her (it’s printed by a small press, [4] and even good bookstores in NYC did not carry it).

MUCKRAKERS

Along with Lincoln Steffens, US is nowadays the best-known of the “muckrakers”. As most people who have been to an American [5] school probably know 🙂 the muckrakers were a group of USA writers who, in the 20th century’s first decade, tried, through articles and books, to expose the abuses of business and the corruption in politics. To understand how the muckrakers got started, I think you have to go back to a writer who does not seem to be listed within their ranks. Frank Norris, born in Chicago (the setting for TJ) in 1870, came out in 1899 with a book called McTeague. This novel (a marvellous one I think) [6] about a dentist in San Francisco, is not a “muckraking” work, but is (Norris being influenced by Zola) the first important American naturalistic novel. In case you don’t know, naturalism (in literature) is “an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces, e.g. heredity, environment, physical drives”. [7] This seems to be the “official” definition. To me, based on my novel-reading, naturalism is a mode of writing that shows life as sordid, harsh, gritty … an approach also very much in evidence in TJ. Other naturalistic writers in English include the British George Gissing, [8] and the American Theodore Dreiser (whose Sister Carrie (1900), [9] like TJ, takes place largely in — guess where — Chicago).

Later novels by Frank Norris apparently approached the muckraking vein, and I would think influenced US in this direction. These were The Octopus (1901), about the wheat farmers versus the railroad, and The Pit (1903), about speculation on the Chicago grain market. (You’ve probably noticed how often Chicago, which in Chap. 29 US calls “the industrial center of the country”, comes up.) There was also the bona-fide (if nowadays obscure) muckraker David Graham Phillips, who came out with The Great God Success in 1901.

The term “muckrakers” came from a 1906 speech by Theodore Roosevelt (hereafter “TR”, president from 1901 to 1909). Although TR was of course a great domestic reformer himself, he thought that though the muckrakers were justified in many of their charges, they were too zealous and relentless in their methods. He compared them to the Man with the Muck-Rake in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. [10] I took this opportunity to look up the relevant passage, and was struck by how beautiful is the cadence of Bunyan’s prose … thus I am reproducing the entire excerpt below:

This done and after these things had been somewhat digested by Christiana and her company, the Interpreter takes them apart again, and has them first into a Room where was a Man that could look no way but downwards, with a Muck-rake in his hand. There stood also one over his head with a Celestial Crown in his hand, and proffered him that Crown for his Muck-rake; but the man did neither look up, nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks and dust of the floor.

Then said Christiana, I persuade myself that I know something of the meaning of this; for this is a figure of a Man of this World, is it not, good Sir?

INTER. Thou hast said the right said he, and his Muck-rake doth shew his carnal mind. And whereas thou seest him rather give heed to rake up straws and sticks and the dust of the floor, than to what he says that calls to him from above with the Celestial Crown in his hand, it is to shew that Heaven is but as a fable to some, and that things here are counted the only things substantial. Now whereas it was also shewed thee that the man could look no way but downwards, it is to let thee know that earthly things when they are with power upon men’s minds, quite carry their hearts away from God.

CHRIS. Then said Christiana, O deliver me from this Muck-rake.

INTER. That prayer, said the Interpreter, has lain by till ’tis almost rusty. Give me not Riches, is scarcely the prayer of one of ten thousand. Straws and sticks and dust with most are the great things now looked after.

With that Mercy and Christiana wept, and said, It is alas! too true.

I presume that after TR’s use of “muckraker”, US looked up this passage! And, based on my reading of TJ [11] I can just see his saying: “Well, that is exactly my point … socialism teaches us that we should spend more time in looking at the abuses of this world, and not heed conventional religion’s preachings about a better life hereafter that will make up for whatever deficiencies there may be here on earth”.

It is interesting that like the art term “impressionism”, the appelation “muckraker”, at some point, changed from a term of opprobrium to one that was doubtlessly worn as a badge of honor! (Does anyone know of other terms for movements, that have turned around in this way?)

THE PLOT

TJ concerns itself with an extended family of immigrants from Lithuania, who arrive in Chicago presumably in the early 1900’s. Jurgis Rudkus is the pithy name of the main character. He goes to work in the Chicago stockyards, and we see the appalling meat-preparation conditions that the book is so famous for exposing. But US really has bigger fish (steaks?) to fry, and as the story goes on, we see how JR and his family are ground down by the combination of the huge “trusts” such as the meat industry, and the corrupt political system which winks at their practices. For a while, JR tries to persist in his original course of honorable labor, several times uttering the phrase “I will work harder”, a phrase, which, I think in direct homage, George Orwell uses in his book dealing with the Communistic flavor of socialism, the brilliant Animal Farm (1946). But later, Rudkus is driven to more desperate measures, and sets out on a painful and far-reaching odyssey of geography, and of the spirit…. The last part of the book, a very “in your face” exposition of socialism, shows how JR’s consciousness finally comes to be raised in this regard.

POT OF MESSAGE

When I recently read Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, [12] I thought that the scenes in debtors’ prison, heart-wrenching as they were — and as much as they might have enlightened the public — did not well serve the novel as a whole. I thought that Dickens was to some extent “selling his birthright for a pot of message”. [13] But in the case of TJ, I think US would agree that the message comes first; so I’m taking the unusual step of looking at that aspect of the book before getting into the purely literary side of things.

Was TJ successful in getting the change that US wanted? On the food-preparation side, a definite “yes”: TJ incensed the public, and in 1906 — the year TJ came out — were passed, with TR’s backing, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

But what about US’ more sweeping goal: to actually convert the USA to the socialist system? Obviously he did not succeed here! US was likely working on TJ in 1905, when the first Revolution in Russia was actually taking place, with a “soviet” (worker’s council) being organized … so socialist ferment was very much in the air. However, It’s not clear to me whether he actually advocates a violent revolution, or if he feels everything can be done through the democratic election of socialist candidates. (Is this ambiguity intentional?) In any event, paradoxically, the reformist stance of TR perhaps took some of the air out of socialism’s sails, and helped the USA follow a path of reform within the existing political structure. And very likely, even disregarding TR’s liberalism, the USA was not the fertile ground that Russia was for profound social change. [14]

AS A NOVEL

Now, what about TJ in a more purely novelistic sense? Well, it does have its failings. I don’t think any of the characters emerge as really unique individuals. In the case of Rudkus, I get the feeling that he is deliberately being put into as many different situations as possible, the better to elucidate all the abuses of the system. It did not seem likely, as I was reading, that one individual would really to through all of this … and the catalogue of horrors almost slips into parody at times, things being so bleak in so many different ways. Also, the style can at times sound a bit stilted and “biblical”.

But there are also definite plusses. Perhaps the greatest one is the passionate quality that animates the whole work, making it easier to overlook some literary lapses. Some of US’s images can be vivid, as:

So Jurgis slunk in among the rest of the men, who kept dodging behind each other like sheep that have smelled a wolf.

Also telling is the portrayal of socialist enlightenment as analogous to a visitation from a higher dimension (shades of Flatland [15]):

It was like encountering an inhabitant of the fourth dimension of space, a being who was free from all one’s own limitations. For four years, now, Jurgis had been wondering and blundering in the depths of a wilderness; and here, suddenly, a hand reached down and seized him, and lifted him out of it, and set him upon a mountain-top, from which he could survey it all–could see the paths from which he had wandered, the morasses into which he had stumbled, the hiding places of the beasts of prey that had fallen upon him.

Last but not least: In keeping with US’s obviously didactic intent, the book is I think easy for almost anyone — teen-agers included — to read.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

I think it is interesting to “compare and contrast” TJ with that other famous book that changed things about American life, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. UTC, published serially in 1851-52, was apparently not intended by H.B. Stowe to be fodder for the abolitionists; in fact, it depicts slavery in not totally a bad light. Nevertheless, it evidently helped arouse public opinion in the direction of the war that would free the slaves a decade-plus later. By contrast, US’s unequivocal, polemical effort to free the “wage slaves” (to use the book’s own term), was nowhere near as dramatically successful!

RAISING CONSCIOUSNESS

While TJ was of course not successful in converting our country to socialism, I have to say that it did raise my own personal consciousness. It did this not so much by introducing new facts to me, as by reminding me of conditions I usually tend to gloss over.

JR is homeless during a good part of TJ … making me think of all the homeless people I see around me in New York City, and usually try to ignore.

Reading TJ reminded me that the USA has one of the most unequal income distributions of any developed country. [16] The USA poverty rate in 2001 was 11.7 percent. [17]

Reading TJ reminded me that while doctors in the USA make absurdly larger incomes than almost anybody else (this is I think not true anywhere else in the world) there is no universal health insurance, and millions can not afford adequate health care. Perhaps US is right when he has one of his exponents for socialism say:

I would seriously maintain that all the medical and surgical discoveries that science can make in the future will be of less importance than the application of the knowledge we already possess, when the disinherited of the earth have established their right to a human existence.

And … many Americans now have to work at more than one job just to make ends meet. Consider, in this light, this tantalizing (would it really be true?) snippet from TJ:

… after the abolition of privilege and exploitation, any one would be able to support himself by an hour’s work a day.

CONCLUSION

I would not say that TJ is a total success as “pure literature”. But I’m not sorry I read it. Especially toward the middle of the book, when JR becomes an outcast from his family and strikes out on his own, I definitely became caught up in his story. The laying out of socialism in the book’s latter part, crude as it is novelistically, is powerful and as I’ve indicated, definitely got me to thinking.

With its passion, idealism, and lack of complexity in its characters, TJ is perhaps especially suited to youthful readers. But on the other hand, if one considers how US addresses economic inequities still present today, perhaps this is a book forthe rest of us to reach for as well.

To give a postscript to the opening story of the theft of my bag: It turned out that on that same evening, someone else on my floor had their coat stolen, presumably by the same person who raided my office. Left in their office were some clothes that looked like they belonged to a homeless person. Thus, the “criminal” could well have been someone who was dealt with harshly by society, and who had (perhaps reluctantly) to resort to desperate measures to survive … in other words, someone like Jurgis Rudkus himself.

NOTES

[1] Downloading TJ from the web — You can find the text via the Online Books Page:

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

[2] Downloading book to a Palm OS handheld — see my writeup at:

http://home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa/pp-rev-Web.txt

[3] Sinclair popular in Europe — see the article on him in the ever-useful online Columbia Encyclopedia, available via:

http://www.encyclopedia.com/

[4] Present publisher of Sinclair’s Oil is the Univ. of California Press. See:

http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/6923.html

[5] Rather than the rather crude “USA-an”, I use “American” to denote those who live in the United States. But since “American” is prone to ambiguity, I just state here for the record that I’m not including those who live in Canada or Mexico under this term.

[6] I am so fond of McTeague that I cannot refrain from quoting a rather long section of its beginning here:

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee-joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna’s saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. It was his habit to leave the pitcher there on his way to dinner.

Once in his office, or, as he called it on his signboard, “Dental Parlors,” he took off his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed his little stove full of coke, lay back in his operating chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking his beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food digested; crop-full, stupid, and warm. By and by, gorged with steam beer, and overcome by the heat of the room, the cheap tobacco, and the effects of his heavy meal, he dropped off to sleep. Late in the afternoon his canary bird, in its gilt cage just over his head, began to sing. He woke slowly, finished the rest of his beer–very flat and stale by this time–and taking down his concertina from the bookcase, where in week days it kept the company of seven volumes of “Allen’s Practical Dentist,” played upon it some half-dozen very mournful airs.

[7] Definition of “naturalism” — once again I am indebted to the online Columbia Encyclopedia (see note [3])

[8] Gissing — see my review of his New Grub Street:

http://home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa/ngstreet.txt

[9] See my review of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie:

http://home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa/scarrie.txt

[10] Pilgrim’s Progress is of course available online; see note [1].

[11] US on religion — note this quote from Chap. 31 of TJ:

The working-man was to fix his hopes upon a future life, while his pockets were picked in this one.

[12] For my review of Pickwick Papers, see note [2].

[13] “selling his birthright for a pot of message” — this expressive phrase originated in “Unite and Conquer”, a 1948 story by the great science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon.

[14] Russian Revolution — from (again!) the online Columbia Encyclopedia (see note [3])

[15] Flatland — the classic “Romance of Many Dimensions” (1884) by “A. Square” (Edwin A. Abbott). Available via the Online Books Page (see note [1]).

[16] USA has unequal income distribution — see “Income Inequality Measured in the US & worldwide”:

http://www.925iwish.com/distribution.html

[17] USA poverty rate — see the US Census Bureau report “Poverty in the United States: 2001”, at

http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/p60-219.pdf
Tom Frenkel

email: frethoa AT aol DOT com

website: http://home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa

30may2003

Views All Time
Views All Time
728
Views Today
Views Today
2