Exploring Sustainability – Spring 2008
Book Review “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair
“The Jungle” was first published as a serial, in the national socialist paper, “The Appeal to Reason” in 1905. Upton Sinclair, 28 years old at the time, had read about the suppression of the stockyard strike of 1904, and had sent an unsolicited article titled “You’ve lost the strike. And now what are you going to do about it?” to The Appeal1. The article sought to have the strikers advance their cause through political means by supporting the socialist presidential candidate, Eugene Debs.
Later that year, Sinclair arrived in Chicago, sent by The Appeal, to write a novel about the “wage slavery.” Often called “the second civil war”, The Great Upheaval following the civil war sought to emancipate those slaves not freed during the civil war2 – the wage slave. Political and business interests, woven together via corruption kept workers tied to their machines with chains of starvation wages as surely as the Negro had been chained to the plantation. And war it was. For example, in 1894 the US Marshals and some 12,000 US troops were sent in to break up the Pullman strike outside Chicago, killing 13 and wounding 57.
Sinclair’s intent was to expose the capitalist system for what it was, and to forward socialism as an alternative. While most people think of the stockyards when they think of “The Jungle,” only about half the novel is set there. Following the destruction of his family working in Packingtown – father, wife, and finally son dead from ill treatment in the yards and the grind of poverty – Jurgis Rudkis, the novel’s hero, takes to the road and then returns to Chicago, giving us a broad view of the effects of the capitalist system upon the labor force – the migrant worker, the steel mills, and finally, into the criminal and political underworlds. We see how the elections are bought and sold, we see how a surplus labor force is used to keep wages low and workers disposable, we see the very strong link between poverty, alcohol and drug use and crime, and how each are used in turn by those in power to stay that way.
That Sinclair wrote in novel form makes the case against capitalism much more compelling. We find characters we identify with, people like ourselves – wanting opportunity, perhaps something a little better, holding onto family, onto community, onto the values of their culture. Starting out as an honest hardworking extended family with a faith in humanity that is stripped away as they are ground down by the merciless nature of their situation, by the end of the novel the two that survive have become a whore and an opportunist criminal looking out only for himself. And still, they have not lost their humanity – we still recognize ourselves in them. And, redemption is still possible – our hero rediscovers his values and puts his ill-gained organizing skills to use for the socialist party in the end. The novel form allows Sinclair to strip away the illusion that the oppressed are somehow different, that they are not like us, that we could never become such people.
Sinclair was not writing about the packing industry specifically, but his detailed descriptions of the filth of the packing houses, the adulteration of “tinned” beef and sausage with chemicals, the doctoring and sale of gangrenous beef and choleric pork struck horror into middle class Americans. Europeans stopped consuming American meat. The resulting crisis and outcry was responsible in part for the passage of the pure food and drug act of 1906. However, labor practices remained untouched. Sinclair is said to comment “I aimed at their hearts, and hit them in the stomach.”
The picture of the capitalist system that Upton Sinclair reveals is an important one. It shows what can happen when every aspect of life is monetized, when every motive is reduced to the profit motive. Decent humans are reduced to living as beasts in the jungle. He also shows how the system of limited liability corporations, coupled with capitalism diffuses responsibility in such a way that fighting such oppression is like fighting a fog – no one ever is to blame.
2 Introduction to the 1995 “Barnes and Nobel Classic Edition”