The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

I am finishing it tonight. I’ve heard this book talked about for years and was happy to finally pick up a cheap, used copy. In the past, when people talked about this book, they often mentioned how it was a catalyst for the introduction of food purity laws. Some of my past English teachers did not even mention that it is a story of an immigrant family. They just said it is about the nasty things that went into factory food at that time.

Yes, the sanitary conditions in Chicago’s meat packing houses in the early 1900s is a big part of the story. I find even more so however, that it is about the struggles of the people and the animals who lived and worked in those conditions. That is not even mentioning the Socialism theme. Why do you think people focus so much on the gore in the slaughter houses as opposed to the human suffering portrayed? Was it because this was a new form of “journalism” the likes of which had not been seen until that time? Or, and this is getting into Great Debate territory, do people care more about the horrible things in their food than they do about horrible things happening to other people?

Everybody is disgusted by unhealthy food.

Not everyone wants to be a Socialist however.

The descriptions of what happened at the plants in the book were so frightening and gross that I think the larger issues Sinclair wanted to talk about got ignored. He once commented that he “aimed for America’s heart and hit its stomach.” Some good did come of the book, though, as far as food purity laws go. A book that just advocated socialism might not have accomplished so much.

As far as ‘journalism’ goes, I think the book is considered a prime example of the muckracking style. But I don’t really know how much reporting or research Lewis did, so it may or may not be real journalism.

When a teacher tells a class “the book is about human suffering”, the students say “yeah, yeah”. But when the teacher says “the book is about gross, disgusting, nasty stuff that goes on in the slaughterhouse” they perk up and say “wow, cool man! I wanna read about that!”

It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve read The Jungle and although I’ll never forget the horror of the slaughterhouse the one thing that stands out most in my mind is the part where they have to beat the little boy to make him go to work. Just thinking about it now send shivers down my spine.

For a modern day version of the same story (only this time it’s for real) get hold of a copy of Slaughterhouse* written about 5 years ago by a woman who inteviewed the people who work in the slaughterhouses and did an in depth study of the system from the killing floor to Washington D.C. Compare the beginning of the century to the end of the century and see how much has changed. It will scare the hell out of you.

*Can’t recall her name off the bat but I’ll try to find out shortly.

*Gail A. Eisnitz

Also the historical rarity of the book causing the Pure and Drug Act of 1906. Rare that a novel has an immediate legislative effect.

For another modern parallel, vis-a-vis Slaughterhouse, look at FAST FOOD NATION, too–pretty harrowing stuff there.

If I may be extremely cynical for a moment:

  1. Bad things happening to other people (i.e. deaths and maimings of slaughterhouse workers) = very sad
  2. Bad things happening to me (i.e. horrible things in my food) = a shocking outrage that must be dealt with immediately!

Or, as Mel Brooks once put it:

On a slightly more relevant note, if you’re interested in what happened to socialism in America in the early 20th century, do some research on Eugene Debs. Interesting man.

pseudotriton ruber ruber

Another book, which was influential in producing legislation, was “White Jacket” by Melville. In that case, the horrifying story was about flogging in the Navy, which was subsequently outlawed.

Sorry for the hijack.

I’d wager that Sinclair managed to get both messages across to some degree. Large corporate combines and their willingness to feed the public utter refuse was a pretty good mirror of how unbridled capitalism looked upon the common man. While the slaughterhouse scenes were more lurid, the blatant disregard for human life was not entirely lost upon many readers.

Two scenes struck me most deeply. Coming from Scandihoovian stock, the part where the Swede gets a one hundred dollar bill, only to have it ripped off when getting change for it was one of my earlier exposures to how “hunky Swedes” were discriminated against just like the Irish and blacks.

Another was when the slaughter house’s refuse holding pond froze over during winter and its ice was cut into blocks for sale to the local population so they could use it in their ice boxes. As a budding chef, that one nearly provoked a Technicolor™ yawn.

Thank you for the responses. While finishing the book last night, I realized how the “convert to Socialism now” message might have turned off some people who otherwise would have been interested in social reform. The last few pages are rather steeped in it.

Marley23, the Afterword in my edition reports that Sinclair lived in the Chicago stockyards for seven weeks in order to research “The Jungle.” Later investigators sent by President Roosevelt saw things that Sinclair missed.

Another interesting fact is that only about 12 pages out of 308 contain gruesome details of food preparation.

Peanuthead, I know what you mean about the scenes of Jurgis having to beat the child so he would go to work in the snow after having suffered frostbite. That part also stood out to me. It is rather understated, as opposed to the more descriptive passages on the slaughter houses and the merits of Socialism. If I remember correctly, there are only “matter-of-fact” references made to it. That off-handed way of writing makes it even more horrifying.

Thank you all for the book recommendations. While reading, I asked myself if things are any better for the animals today in the packing houses than in 1906. I didn’t think they would be.

Forbin, I never heard of “White Jacket.” I will have to check it out. I knew Melville wrote “Billy Budd” about the pathos of discipline aboard ships.

:confused: Jurgis wasn’t a Swede; he was a Lithuanian.