aI heard in a YouTube video I was showing to my class that The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was the only book that had made the narrator vomit I instantly thought hmm that is quite a reaction, I should read that! The Jungle is one of those rare gems written so well and with such a relevant tale to tell that it could almost pass for a new release.
Originally published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, it was published by Doubleday in book form a year later.
Sinclair was a muckraker something akin to today’s investigative journalist. One of a number of similar expose` type works that exposed the inhumane working conditions in particular industries. Other examples include following the color line by Ray Stannard Baker, The history of the standard oil company by Ida M. Tarbell, and The bitter cry of the children by William Hard.
The novel focuses on Yurgis, an immigrant to Chicago chasing the American dream- in tow are his elderly father, intended wife and her extended family including step mother, aunt, and a tribe of children. Cheated and tricked the family enters the the fabric of the meat district, and through their daily struggles we are exposed to the harsh realities of the wage worker under corrupted capitalism. Poverty, illness, death and despair carry the reader mournfully through the chapters in the lives of the family. Simultaneously we get an inside glimpse into the more stomach churning practices of factory food production.
Sinclair’s main purpose was to advance socialist ideas in America but Socialism isn’t really properly addressed until the last few of over 30 chapters. The introduction of the Socialist agenda is a convincing and inspiring turn in the life of Yurgis, who by this time has been stripped of all value and dignity save his life. Rousing speeches present a convincing argument for the inevitability of a socialist America. Of course, being from the future we know that lofty vision withered on the vine, as did Sinclair’s attempt.
Instead of swaying a mass movement towards Socialist thinking or opening the public’s eyes to the tragedy of the (primarily immigrant) workers plights the book became a sensation for the repulsive claims it made regarding the meat industry. Readers were repulsed by the descriptions of unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry. This greatly contributing to a public outcry and the books notoriety. Sinclair famously said of the public reaction, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” President Teddy Roosevelt who described Sinclair as a crackpot for his Socialist ideas, would send investigators into the meat works in Chicago upon reading the book. The unsatisfactory conditions uncovered by these inspectors lead to the establishment of legislation for meat inspection and pure foods that was the precursor to today’s FDA. After reading My year of meatsby Ruth L. Ozeki. about 15 years ago it was interesting to me how little seems to have changed regardless of these initiatives.
I cheated a little for this one and ‘read’ The Jungle by audio book – available free on the also free, Librivox app. This was a phenomenal read that I honestly couldn’t shut up about it is worthy of a permanent home on my bookshelf and is one I will be assigning to my classes as required reading in the future.