Schatzi: Because I like to read, and I like to read about food, I have decided to make a demi-regular feature of book reports on books about food, be they literature or history, or anything else for that matter. Several months ago, I found an inexpensive copy of Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle, which I promptly read and wrote a report on. Since we’ve been ill this week and haven’t caught up on recent events, here it is!
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
originally published 1906
Bantam Classics, 42nd printing, 2003
If you eat food in America, then you’ve been affected by The Jungle, whether you realize it or not. Though it was published just over one hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair’s scathing document of social injustice reverberated through American society, leaving lasting changes in its wake. Sadly for Sinclair, the changes made had little to do with the conditions of the working poor, and everything to do with America’s food supply. Aiming at America’s heart, Sinclair instead hit its stomach, and Americans who read The Jungle were revolted by his descriptions of the slaughterhouses and packing facilities of Chicago’s Back of the Yards. A disgusted public demanded reforms, insisting on the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which formed the Food and Drug Administration and implemented the first federal standards for meat inspection. Meanwhile, wages and living conditions for workers remained unreformed.
Despite those reforms, we continue hearing tales both nauseating and infuriating about the meat industry. Robbins’ Diet for a New America and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation are more recent non-fiction treatments of the same subject: the social injustices and foul practices inherent in the meat industry. In October of 2007, industry giant Topps Meat Company, founded in 1940, went out of business following the recall of almost 22 million pounds of frozen ground beef tainted with E. coli. Topps had not learned its lesson from a similar incident in 2005, leading to the belief that Topps management simply skipped or abbreviated food safety systems, as did Chicago’s Beef Trust.
But The Jungle is also a novel. The protagonist is Jurgis Rudkos, a Lithuanian immigrant who has arrived in Chicago in search of wealth and prestige. His father, his fiancée Ona Lukoszaite, and several relatives, all as blindly trusting in the opportunities available in the New World as he is, accompany Jurgis. Upon reaching Packingtown, the slums that surround the beef factories, the family discovers that it is far more difficult to have a home and family than it was home in Lithuania. Instead of finding a land where “the roads are paved with gold and at every corner is an opportunity,” they find a land where the roads are paved with waste and garbage and at every corner, there is women selling her body, desperate to feed her family. Instead of finding equality and understanding, they find a land of set social classes that are extremely hard to break out of and no sympathy or help from anyone. They speak no English, and are easy targets for the many swindlers who prey on such marks; they also have difficulties communicating even with the few who can or will help them. Jurgis and the others manage to find jobs in various sections of the factories, jobs that involve too long working hours, brutal and pitiless bosses, petty and vindictive co-workers, pay entirely inadequate for basic needs, and filthy, dangerous conditions.
Initially, Jurgis doesn’t care how bad it is, for he believes in the virtues of hard work: if he and his family can work hard, then they will be rewarded for their efforts and be able to afford to purchase a house and happiness. The desire to have a home and stability embroil the family in a scam that keeps them teetering on the brink of eviction and always a paycheck behind. Every step forward is followed by an inexorable slide back, further into debt and despair; every burden is shouldered by Jurgis, who only insists that he will work harder. Through the years, debt, illness, injury, dismissal, death, brutal and uncaring superiors, and crime all take a devastating toll on Jurgis and his family.
The Jungle‘s greatest strengths lie in the many descriptive passages about immigrant life, Chicago, and in particular, the food industry and the meat plant. Such passages dominate the first half of the book, from the opening chapter, which depicts a traditional Lithuanian wedding in the New World. In the second half of the book, Sinclair spends too much time pontificating on the Evils of Capitalism and the Virtues of Socialism, considerably weakening the plot, particularly the ending. Sinclair would have done better to take a lead from another proponent of literary naturalism, Emile Zola, and let events roll to their inevitable ugly conclusion. Instead, Jurgis is “saved” by socialism in a simplistic and unconvincing move. The constant stream of tragedies enveloping Jurgis and his family are at times overwhelming and too melodramatic; Sinclair heaps every possible abuse on his protagonist in order to very pointedly make his point. (Remember that it is a muckraking novel, and contains a great deal of propaganda.) But for its vivid details and depiction of working classes in early twentieth century America, and its criticism of the myth of the American dream, The Jungle is still a valuable addition to any reader’s—or eater’s—library.