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Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is still frequently read in American schools as an example of "muckraking" progressive journalism. 
Book Review
The Jungle (1906)
by Upton Sinclair

  Not sure when I read The Jungle.  I want to say junior high.  I'm sure there is some alternate universe where Upton Sinclair somehow managed to win the governorship of California in 1930, maybe in that universe socialists were actually succesful.  In fact, in this universe, The Jungle is an example of how socialist-radical ideas can be co-opted by the mainstream.  Written as a call to socialism, The Jungle had the impact of leading the existing political parties to pass the Food and Drug Act, some of the first public-health protections for the food supply in the United States, no socialism required.

  The nut shell description of The Jungle is that it exposes conditions in the packing houses in Chicago, but really, that only covers about a fifth of the length, nearly five hundred pages in print and a thirteen hour audio book.   Jurkus Rudkus is the protagonist, the narrator, it would seem, is the author, writing in the high omniscient narrator style of 19th century fiction.  Rudkus, a strapping farm hand from Lithuania, quickly emigrates to America when he hears about high wages (no one mentions the equally high prices), he and an extended family of women and children (of the 12 mentioned in the immigrant party he is the only working age man, which seems a trifle unusual if you know anything about actual migration patterns to the US in that period) settle in the stock yards of Chicago, where he quickly finds work on the slaughterhouse floor.

  He can't KEEP the job though, within the book, only four or five scenes are actually set in the slaughterhouse.   Then Jurkus gets hurt, loses his job and ends up assaulting the plant foreman after he forces Rudkus' wife into prostitution.  When Rudkus leaves the slaughterhouse for good, the book is barely begun, and what follows is a kind of horrific picaresque about life in turn of the century America.

   One of the aspects of listening to an audio book is that you don't really skip or skim anything- giving the listener plenty of time to think about what is happening in the book.  Here, I found myself wondering why a bunch of peasants from Lithuania had such a hard time in a Chicago winter.  Aside from a reference to the fact that the houses in Lithuania are reinforced with mud, you would think this bunch of immigrants came from Jamaica, so horrific is the impact of the cold on their lives.  Sinclair repeatedly hammers home how woefully naive and exploitable are his poor characters, but you think, at least, they would have some useful skills for surviving in cold weather, or be used to it, because, you know, Lithuania is cold.

  Towards the end Rudkus falls in with socialists, and the last fifty or so pages are a series of speeches about socialism is so great. Early 20th century socialists tend to get a past since they didn't know about how things would go down in the Soviet Union. Looking back, even leftists can say that state run socialism tends to be a bit of a disaster.  That leaves you with "meat processing in early 20th century America was disgusting."  Point taken.

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