Sunday, October 16, 2011

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)

Probably gonna run into trouble if you try to write about Upton Sinclair and then it is revealed that you haven't read The Jungle, right? Still, while it may be the one Sinclair novel that anyone knows about and the only one consistently in print, I'm a bit curious as to how many people in this day and age have actually read it, as opposed to just being peripherally aware of it. I have the impression that it's sometimes assigned in high school, but it sure wasn't ever to me, and I'd say it's actually a fair bit longer than just about anything that was.

Anyway, The Jungle. You know the plot, maybe: a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis, and his family come to Chicago where they get jobs, mostly involving meat packing, and are steadily ground down by the remorseless forces of capital. Then he learns about socialism. The end. It's more effective than I thought it would be, based on those coal mining novels, I'll tell you that much. The march of unrelenting misery is kind of predictable but it has its impact. There's not much in the way of context for why things are as they are; this, the book shares with the coal novels, as well as characters that are constructed more to be acted upon than to act. I think these are flaws in terms of the book's overall effectiveness, but not fatal ones. And sometimes you come across a bluntly effective passage, like so:

…then [the man] set some one else at a different job, and he showed the lad how to place a lard-can every time the empty arm of the remorseless machine came to him; and so was decided the place in the universe of little Stanislovas, and his destiny till the end of his days. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, it was fated that he should stand upon a certain square foot of floor from seven in the morning until noon, and again from half-past twelve till half past five, making never a motion and thinking never a thought, save for the setting of lard-cans.


Not that I wasn't aware of this stuff in the abstract, but for all their faults, I do feel as though these books are giving me a more concrete picture of the hellish sort of world our Mighty Leaders are so eager to return us to. For that reason, I think they should be more widely read.

However, whatever praise you want to give the book, it's impossible not to notice that it badly loses its focus once Jurgis's wife and son have died and he goes off on his own. First he tries his luck as a hobo; then he comes back to the city and there are some bits where he tries to get work in several different unsafe factories, but it doesn't feel like Sinclair's heart is quite in it, compared to the meat-packing sections. There's a most peculiar interlude in which he falls in with a drunken, upper-class fop straight out of the Drones Club (even his name, Freddie Jones, has a Wodehousian flavor). It's possible that this is just meant to stoke further class outrage, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it's actually meant to be funny. Finally, he turns to crime, and Sinclair does a pretty half-assed job of showing his conflicting emotions during this period (ie, just enough to let you know he's supposed to have conflicting emotions, but no more).

For all that this section meanders, though, I have to admit I found it more engaging than what had come before--its sheer unpredictability was more interesting than the previous section, which was very predictable. It would be hard to argue that it's very effective as propaganda, however.

And finally, socialism! Conveniently enough, Jurgis just happens to get a job with a totally awesome socialist boss, from which to lecture the masses. Whee. And his story sort of breaks up and fades away in a flurry of monologues and dialogues about socialism in a way that vaguely reminds me of Slothrop's dissolution in Gravity's Rainbow. The very last part features Sinclair's attempt at envisioning what an ideal socialist future would look like; it's not wholly convincing, but fuck--how could it possibly be worse than what we've got now? It's a bit unfortunate, though, that Sinclair was so enthusiastic about fad diets and such. Not that this stuff plays a huge role in the novel, but when part of your utopian future involves people learning a special technique to obtain more nutrition from food through more effective chewing…well, you're not exactly inspiring confidence.

The real lesson to be learned from The Jungle, however, is this: people are self-centered jerks. And I'm not talking about the captains of industry; they're beneath contempt, of course, but really now: as you know, probably, the novel's descriptions of meat packing inspired the Pure Food and Drug Act. And yes, these descriptions are really, really disgusting, but the book is not about food sanitation, and there is just no way that anyone could possibly imagine that it was. These passages make up a very small portion of the whole, all told, and they're obviously there to illustrate the general sociopathy of the companies so as to emphasize how horrible they are in their treatment of workers. But does anyone care about that? NO. Because they're not us. Instead, let's fixate on this tiny portion of the novel that affects us personally and throw out the rest. It's held up as this exemplar of how a novel can make a difference, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, but you'd think that the very particular, limited nature of this difference would be more a source of embarrassment to us than anything else.


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