Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle

Reviewed by: Leopold McGinnis

Penguin Classic Re-issue, U.S. $14, CDN $20, 388 pages

Leopold has never met Upton Sinclair, but that's because Upton died before Leopold was born. Otherwise they certainly would have met, as they share similar world views.

Leopold McGinnis is a great Canadian writer. His novel, "Game Quest", is a very funny, very deeply felt tale of corporate morality v. individual ideals. It is set at the time when computer gaming companies were in transition from games which wanted you to think to games which wanted you to shoot things (the switch from Sierra games involving puzzles to be solved, to first person shooters like Doom). I know of no other novel about that part of modern life's history. Aren't you curious?

To see more of Leopold's work, please consider checking out This is an excellent literary site which Leopold runs. It features some wonderful poetry, prose, and even, in its archives, two chapters of my own graphic novel! (Yes, I've met Leopold, and he is a friend--what's it to ya?) On the site you can also order Game Quest, which you should.

It's hard to review a book of such immense scope, ambition and craft. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is arguably one of the best American books of the 20th century (not so difficult a distinction to achieve, it would seem, considering the dearth of quality fiction in the latter half of said century), it's also, sadly, one of the most forgotten.

Written like fiction, Sinclair's book ostensibly follows the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian who, with several members of his family, come to Chicago on the tail of the American Dream and find themselves working in the nightmare of the Slaughterhouse district. But in effect The Jungle is an epic look at the obscene cost of unfettered capitalism run rampant in the early 20th century. Sinclair's book is a muckraking expose of the institutionalized inequality, corruption, privilege, sickness and slavery needed to keep the machine running that runs beneath he thin veneer of the American dream of freedom and success. A fascinating and incredibly thorough indictment of the out-of-control capitalist structure at the turn of the century The Jungle, sadly, rings true in a number of areas today.

Jurgis starts off firmly believing in the American dream, even while working in slave-like conditions for the meat packers, brushing off the arguments of broken men and unionists that the machine will eventually crush him as the bitter ramblings of lazy and weak men It's this stubborn arrogance that carries Jurgis through the unceasing volley of injustices that make up the entirety of the book. The Rudkus', due to their innocence and desperation, get swindled into 'buying' a 'new' house where they pay an exorbitant amount every month, but never own the house until it is all paid off. If they miss one payment the house, and all their payments go back to the landowner, who repaints the house and sells it as 'new' to the next batch of immigrants. The threat of losing their house becomes the greatest chain their carry and in service of it every member of their extended family, including the grandparents and children, works to survive.

It's a losing battle, of course, and work in the packinghouses brings poverty, disease, death, injury, injustice, rape, jail and exploitation to the Rudkus family. With no other options and a thousand men clamoring at the gate for their job, the Rudkus family works endless hours in mind-numbing, incredibly dangerous work. Here Jurgis gets first hand experience of the inevitable 'short-cuts' that arise from profit-driven enterprises. In the drive for even a half-penny of profit spoiled meat is bribed past inspectors, men are crushed and killed, waste is driven wholesale into public drinking water and, like the meat the process, every ounce of worth in a human being is taken before being discarded in favor of fresh meat. Early on Jurgis is impressed with the way in which the packers have set up their enterprise to squeeze every possible amount of wealth possible from a pig. Jurgis also is glad that he is not a pig – only to realize at the end that he and all the working men were treated as cruelly and as senselessly as the animals, driven to the point of death to churn out meat faster and faster and then discarded.

Work in the Slaughterhouse district covers most of the book and the novel is currently being sold as an expose of the meat packing industry. This is a simplification and probably stems from, in the current timid literary circles, a fear to mention the dreaded word 'socialism' or believe that the entire system may be corrupt, rather than just where the wound festers most. The second half of the book follows Jurgis after he escapes from the Slaughterhouse, a shell of the man he once was, his family, wife and son dead in service to the Packer's profits. The book is quite uplifting when he finally leaves to hobo it across the country on trains. The first day he spends in the woods, washing in a lake and sleeping in the sun is probably one of the most uplifting scenes in the book and an unforgettable illustration of how it is better to be a homeless vagrant than in service of the Trusts. Jurgis, for a while, is free. But the nature of seasonal farm work, leaving him without a home in the winter, eventually drives him back to the city.

Jurgis scrapes by at first by begging on the streets. Eventually he finds himself working on a massive secret underground railway being built by the Packers Trust to break the Teamsters union! But an accident at work puts him back on the street. Starving to death, Jurgis finds himself in Jail. By this point Jurgis has adopted an attitude much more likely to achieve the American Dream: looking out only for himself. Jurgis becomes involved in crime, eventually moving up into the very corrupt political and Trust circles that run the wage-prisons of the slaughterhouse district. He helps fix an election, crush a strike and generally be on the operating end of all the corruption and sleaze he once suffered under. But like everything else, once his purpose has been served, he's back on the streets again.

Perhaps the biggest weaknesses of this novel are the opening and ending. The first chapter is an overly long description of a wedding ceremony. Although it serves to introduce a lot of the characters and their hopes and desires, it's too much at once with little reason for the reader to care or understand the significance of this event at the time. The book could have easily started at chapter 2. The book ends with Jurgis finally understanding the corrupt system in all its parts (indeed, we do too as through Jurgis Sinclair has hit upon every nail and exposed every interlinking thread of corruption) and becomes involved in the growing socialist movement to overthrow the corrupt two parties of the two-party political system and begin with a system that is actually fair. This end of the book, though I mostly agree with it, is a bit preachy and, with 100 years of foresight, perhaps a bit naively optimistic. The book also ends somewhat abruptly. It's a thematic book, to be sure, and so it's ok to end with the theme rather than the end of Jurgis' story, but Sinclair does such a fantastic job of getting us into the story of Jurgis, it's hard to see him dropped at the end for the point to be made.

But these are slight weaknesses in an otherwise amazing book. The Jungle is the type of novel no longer made. The book has teeth and a point to prove, right from the onset. It seems that it is now taboo for analysis or criticism of society to come from works of fiction. If anything The Jungle is the perfect example of a fictional story illustrating a point much more clearly than non-fiction could hope to. The novel isn't didactic or polemic anymore than a documentary is and the reader is smart enough to understand that this is both a work of fiction and an incredibly insightful and truthful expose of the devastating pitfalls of unfettered capitalism. Sometimes studying was is possible provides more insight than what is.

Sadly, due to a lot of interlocking commercial and class interests in the literary industry similar to those documented by Mr. Sinclair, books like this are unlikely to be found in the mainstream circles anymore. Though the problems outlined in The Jungle have been lessened in the century since its publication, there is still work to do. Authors of this day have many equally important things to write about and we too can hope to make continued change through our writing and activism. To tweak the phrase that closes Mr. Sinclair's book, “We shall bear down the opposition, we shall sweep it before us – and [literature] will be ours! [Literature] will be ours! [LITERATURE] WILL BE OURS!

The Jungle is a fantastic book for anyone interested in social criticism, or just a good read. Certainly it will be inspiring to writers who hope to achieve something by their writing.

The Jungle does what far too few (if any) books these do these days.


Dirk_Star said...

Great site! Nice to find a well read individual on the internet...

Brooklyn Frank said...

great review!

muchos kudos.

Anonymous said...

Written like fiction??? The Jungle IS fiction. Oops.

Lori-Ann said...


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