Monday, August 11, 2008

The Jungle - Upton Sinclair

"They could tell the whole hateful story of it, set forth in the inner soul of a city in which justice and honor, women's bodies and men's souls were for sale in the marketplace, and human beings writhed and fought and fell upon each other like wolves in a pit, in which lusts were raging fires, and men were fuel, and humanity was festering and stewing and wallowing in its own corruption."

The Good:

Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant, newly landed in Chicago, IL with his extended family. Like many immigrants, he dreams of a new life: work, good pay, food on the table. Things begin to go wrong from the moment they arrive. Con men are quick to take advantage as greed, corruption and moral decay are the driving forces in town. The fortunes of the family dwindle and they learn to shrink from opportunity as it often serves as a Trojan Horse.

Upton Sinclair traveled to Chicago to research this story, originally intending to focus on the morbidity of working conditions but instead switched over food safety after witnessing the revolting conditions in which food was prepared. After the book was published, its effect became apparent. Foreign sales of American meat fell by one half and to calm public outrage, major meat packers lobbied the government to pass legislation to pay for the additional inspection and certification of meat packaged in the United States. This led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established the Food and Drug Administration.

This story is a great example of the idea that books can change the world, something I deeply believe in. The publishing of this book led to public outcry and a government investigation that led to the passage of pure food laws.

I can't imagine the conditions these people had to work in and this only further convinces me that my great grandparents were made of tougher stuff than I am. Jurgis becomes a broken record with his declaration "I will work harder" whenever the welfare of the family is threatened.

Sinclair has an excellent eye for detail and has some amazing lines in this book. "One could not stand and watch for very long without getting philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe."

The Bad:

The story and main characters are victims of Sinclair's criticism of the meatpacking industry, the poor working conditions and the all consuming poverty and hopelessness of the lower classes. While Sinclair spends time over-describing slaughterhouse conditions and the joys of socialism, the plot fades into the background, subservient to his hidden agenda.

While I like the idea of a book changing things for the better in the real world, I was looking forward to the story of this Lithuanian family and their struggle as immigrants. Instead the story is treated more like a textbook documenting the lack of food safety in Chicago in order to illustrate the problems with the American food industry. The book shouldn't have tried to be both story and textbook as the two inevitably end up clashing and leave the reader wanting.

The Ugly:

I had trouble stomaching this book. I'm not a vegetarian but it was difficult to contemplate eating meat after finishing this story. As well, I found couldn't physically eat anything in the actual reading of the book. Sinclair doesn't hold back on detail or description when it comes to the horrors of the packing houses or other various food preparation factories.

Rating: 3/5

1 comment:

Melanie said...

This book did influence food safety regulations in the US when it was published; I recall reading somewhere that Sinclair was quite annoyed by the focus on food safety and meat packing since he'd intended his novel to be "about" the working class and their miserable lives. Interesting!