Grateful American® Foundation

The Jungle

by Upton Sinclair

Reviewed by Ed Lengel

Was there ever an American “Golden Age”? The early Twentieth Century might seem like such a time. Forty years after the end of the Civil War the United States was just emerging from a period known as the Gilded Age, when political unity and economic prosperity brought the nation toward the height of its power. Theodore Roosevelt, known then and now as one of the most remarkable leaders in the country’s history, became president in 1901. He led the United States toward becoming a top-tier world power; indeed, an imperial power, with possessions across the globe and the military means of defending them. Industrially, the nation reached parity with powerhouses Great Britain and Germany, with every prospect of outstripping them easily in short order. At home, the St. Louis World’s Fair or Louisiana Purchase Exposition—gaudily captured in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis—encapsulated the easy self-confidence of this “Gingerbread” era. But appearances were deceiving, nowhere more so than in the nation’s cities.

Two factors—industrialization and immigration—had profoundly transformed American cities by the early 1900s. Immigration, then still not past its height, produced an influx of millions of impoverished and culturally alien people who made their homes from New York to Chicago and San Francisco. The passage of generations has produced a mythic image of arduous work leading to eventual prosperity and assimilation. Countless numbers of people, though, fell by the wayside of the American Dream. In an era when social support services were almost entirely nonexistent, they packed filthy tenements slept—and sometimes starved—on the streets. Even so, the draw to immigrate was irresistible. Industry was booming and it needed cheap labor.

Upton Sinclair, a novelist from a privileged, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Virginia background, became a witness to ugly truths concealed from most native-born Americans when he began writing for the Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, in 1904. Socialism was different; then, it had a strong presence–and understanding of–underprivileged communities, especially the downtrodden working class and, to a somewhat lesser degree, immigrants. When Chicago meat-packing workers—mostly Eastern European immigrants living and working in horrendous conditions around the city stockyards—went on strike that year, Sinclair went to the city to live among them, and learn about their lives.

The result of his efforts, originally published in 1905 as a serial in Appeal to Reason, appeared as the novel, The Jungle, in 1906. The book’s hero, Jurgis Rudkis, is a Lithuanian immigrant who has come to Chicago to work for the meatpackers. He certainly doesn’t mind hard work, even among the most filthy and degrading conditions.

Circumstances are bad and the hours are long, but Jurgis is strong. And as Sinclair lovingly depicts, Jurgis and his fellow immigrants are buoyed by their rich culture and sense of community. But Industry subverts these strengths, robbing workers of any opportunity to better themselves by keeping their wages low, and imposing expenses that drag them ever deeper into debt. Unsafe and unsanitary workplace conditions collapse bodies and minds. And extreme hardships are divisive, breaking down community and familial bonds. Over the course of this long novel, Jurgis eventually loses everything, including his job, his health, and his family.

The Jungle is in its essence a propaganda piece. And so, inevitably, Jurgis and his fellow workers find purpose in Socialism, which provides fresh glue to re-bond broken and oppressed communities. The novel’s continuing power, though, arises from Sinclair’s genuine empathy for–and at least limited understanding–of the men and women whose lives he studied and repackaged in fictional form. My grandfather, a steelworker in Reading, Pennsylvania, who became an active Socialist, was deeply influenced by Sinclair’s novel, as were millions of other workers across the country. They were Sinclair’s primary interest.

Although The Jungle became a national bestseller despite its density and sometimes turgid prose, to some extent it misfired. Judging from the popular response, Sinclair famously remarked that, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Instead of focusing, as he desired, on the plight of immigrants and the working class, readers were appalled by the horrifically unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry that The Jungle exposed. In the early 1900s, poor urban sanitation contributed to epidemics of typhus, cholera, and high infant mortality. To these even the more privileged were vulnerable, especially when they consumed contaminated food. Horrified, middle and upper-class Americans demanded reform—not of oppressive working and living conditions for the less fortunate, but of food safety laws; the Progressive Roosevelt administration responded aggressively.

Though it is a challenging read, The Jungle offers object lessons in the strengths and limitations of the human spirit. Searching deeply within themselves, Jurgis and his fellow workers discover strategies to renew their strengths and sense of purpose. Robust political activism, grounded in experience and aimed at tangible change, could and did have influence. As all too often in history, however, human sympathy is too often sabotaged by self-interest, derailing good intentions, and ensuring that each generation must renew efforts that are never finished.

Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.

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