Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”

Maybe there’s something about the name “Sinclair”.  Last year, I blogged about Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, and mentioned how terribly unsubtle its political commentary is.  I just finished reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and it has much the same problem.

Upton Sinclair did not like the meat-packing industry. And so he wrote this book to explain why it–and ultimately the entire capitalist system–was corrupt and evil.  The book tells the story of a Lithuanian family who comes to America and finds work in the Chicago meat-packing industry.  Every single horrible thing that you can imagine happening then proceeds to happen, and so, through soul-crushing poverty, crime and death, the family breaks up.

The main character is the family patriarch, Jurgis Rudkus, who goes from being an honest working man beaten down by the cruel meat industry to a cynical and selfish criminal to finding the light of socialism, which he then espouses with religious zeal.

I have to admit, though it is about as heavy-handed as it could have been, it nevertheless succeeds somewhat in making you feel sorry for the characters by sheer force of repetition.  Sinclair had this irritating habit of writing something along the lines of: “Jurgis went home that night, little knowing that something unbelievably horrible was about to happen.”  This kind of kills the suspense, and is dramatically a dreadful device, but it beats you over the head with it so much it sometimes works anyway.

The irony is that though the book is famous for its depiction of the disgusting practices of the meat-packing industry, that was really just a bit of extra detail Sinclair included. His real point was much broader; it was that the workers were oppressed by the bosses.  So, he actually accomplished the extremely rare feat of writing a novel that accomplished social change, but it was not the change he wanted. (It wouldn’t shock me if the reason the book is famous for the parts about the food production processes is because those bits are closer to the beginning, and most people quit reading after that.)

Sinclair wrote this novel for a socialist magazine, and this is where it comes to its central problem: the conflict between being a work of propaganda and a work of art.  There can be propaganda that is also art, but when a person is writing to make a political point, there is a dilemma between portraying things as they are versus how the ideology requires them to be.  So, almost all of the characters in The Jungle are just puppets with which Sinclair makes his political points.

There are vast swaths of the book that don’t really qualify as being part of the story, they are merely long lists itemizing everything that is wrong with meat-packing, or the city of Chicago, or the factories, or whatever.  The last chapter of the book is just a huge lecture on the evils of Capitalism and the virtues of Socialism:

“How is the price of an article determined?”

“The price is the labor it has cost to make and deliver it, and it is determined by the first principles of arithmetic. The million workers in the nation’s wheat fields have worked a hundred days each, and the total product of the labor is a billion bushels, so the value of a bushel of wheat is the tenth part of a farm labor-day. If we employ an arbitrary symbol, and pay, say, five dollars a day for farm work, then the cost of a bushel of wheat is fifty cents.”

“You say ‘for farm work,'” said Mr. Maynard. “Then labor is not to be paid alike?”

“Manifestly not, since some work is easy and some hard, and we should have millions of rural mail carriers, and no coal miners. Of course the wages may be left the same, and the hours varied; one or the other will have to be varied continually, according as a greater or less number of workers is needed in any particular industry. That is precisely what is done at present, except that the transfer of the workers is accomplished blindly and imperfectly, by rumors and advertisements, instead of instantly and completely, by a universal government bulletin.”

That’s just a bit of it–to give you the flavor.  It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s writing, and almost made me wonder if her books are better once you are familiar with clumsily-written socialist propaganda.  Perhaps her sledgehammer approach to philosophical writing was intended as a parody.

There are a ton of obvious questions Sinclair fails to answer in the concluding chapters.  Given the benefit of hindsight, the “Socialism is Our Salvation” message of the book is truly ironic.  Just in the above passage, you may ask “how exactly will this ‘universal government bulletin’ work?” Or perhaps, if you’re after the big game, you might wonder “if price is determined by labor, wouldn’t that mean something produced with more labor–that is, less efficiently–be more valuable than the same good produced with less labor?”

Ok, that second one is unfair.  I’m criticizing Sinclair for repeating Marx’s mistake.  But if we just stick to the problems with this as a novel, it’s still pretty bad to end your book with a series of “Marty Stu” characters giving speeches.  This Socialist F.A.Q. in the last chapter made me think of a quote from Marx–Groucho, that is.  In one of their movies, there’s a bit where Chico is asking and answering his own rhetorical questions and then asks Groucho, “Now so far I’m right?”.  Groucho responds: “It’s pretty hard to be wrong  when you keep answering yourself.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me–I’m sure a lot of the criticisms Sinclair made of the meat industry were quite valid.  It was just the solutions where he went wrong, I think.  According to Wikipedia, an employee at the publishing company for The Jungle wrote:

One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich.

Doubtless, Sinclair would say that this employee was just slandering him on behalf of the capitalists in order to crush the glorious proletariat uprising. “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

Seriously, though, that person was right that Sinclair hated the rich.  He seems to have surprisingly little actual interest in the poor, and besides that, he seems to have had odd little prejudices of his own.  (Especially against the Irish–I think nearly all of the bad characters in the book are explicitly noted to be Irish.)

As a novel, it is pretty poor.  As a work of propaganda, it is also fairly weak, though it did actually set people thinking and inspire them to take action to make changes in society, even if it wasn’t what the author himself had in mind.  It caught the attention of  President Theodore Roosevelt–clearly, it was an effective vehicle for getting a message across.

And if nothing else, it made me glad I’m a vegetarian, even though I’m quite certain the meat industry’s practices have improved over the last century.

6 Comments

  1. The same could be said of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged with a fifty page doctoral dissertation on economics disguised as a rant by John Galt. That was the style of writing at the time and people would read it. Today not so much. I applaud you in wading through it.

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  2. LOL. I did read it, and I love your insight. I was naïve back then, I felt for those poor schmucks. nothing went right.

    P.S. The slaughter industry is still an awful business.

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    1. I should clarify: from an *ethical* perspective, the meat industry is just as terrible as ever. The inherent cruelty of it doesn’t change with time. What I meant was, at least in terms of how “safe” the meat was for the consumer, I think things have improved.

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  3. I did not like the book one bit…

    Ironically made me more anti-socialist…

    Jurgis makes allot of bad choices and becomes a thug…

    …not a sympathetic character at all…

    I thought it was strange how they bought a house they could not afford and eventually lost it. Seems like it predicted the mortgage meltdown years early…

    Am I really supposed to feel sorry for all the people who bought more house than they could afford? (I’ve never owned, where’s the sympathy for me for not being “high class” enough to own.)

    Yes the banksters are scum but you go along with them by signing along the dotted line…

    Also this Sinclair fellow seemed to have many prejudices of his own….

    He did seem anti-Irish and later in the book makes a big deal about black men and white women, and, if I recall, something about syphylis…

    Really seemed more like a feminist who hates men rather than someone who is pro-woman…

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