The Jungle 2008
It’s a book most people read in middle school. But for those of us who received a fundamentalist Christian education, the overt socialism of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was probably omitted from their literary diet.
I just finished reading The Jungle for the first time, and I loved it. The horrors of the early 20th Century meatpacking industry were – true to reputation – unsettling, but considering the cryptic looks that flashed across the faces of the managers of Kings Books as they asked “have you ever read this before” just prior to selling it to me, I must confess that I was somehow expecting something more. After all, The Jungle is more an icon to an era than a piece of literature. True, not everyone has read it, but almost anyone who has studied American history knows how profound it’s impact has been. Or at least, how profound its impact was.
Sinclair, of course, had been trying to sound the alarm to the evils of capitalism. He had wanted to bring the plight of the workingman to the forefront of the public discourse. Instead, his book inspired passage of both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Beef Inspection Act – both less than six months after publication. It also inspired the creation of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) thereby instilling notions of state regulation and federal oversight that would remain unchallenged until the Reagan Administration (by which point domestic industry was rapidly leaving the country anyway.)
Sinclair famously later said that “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” which in one sense would seem to be true. Chicago’s socialist utopia, outlined in the final chapters of his novel, never materialized – though Sinclair’s prediction of a time when the warriors bleeding on the plains of Manchuria (The Russians and the Chinese) would both embrace the call of the Red International, did happen in his lifetime. Within the context of America, however, The Jungle did little more than sanitize the machines of capitalism that remained largely unchanged for the many workingman of countless hazardous industries – despite the best efforts of progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Taft – until after World War II.
I suppose that the typical modern reader is supposed to stifle his disgust when reading The Jungle, before retreating into his surroundings and marveling at just how far we have come. Is it thus strange for me to feel so connected to the working conditions of Sinclair’s day? Perhaps not. Perhaps the very reason why this book is assigned to seventh and eighth graders is because relatively few adolescents know what work is like for their mommy, their daddy, much less the teacher before them. Sure, now consumers have FDA guarantees that they will receive a certain level of quality when they purchase meat and poultry, but beyond that what can we really say has changed for workers since 1906?
There are endless issues that could be taken from this book that we could use for a lively debate and a comparative analysis. These include: immigration, urban planning, public education, alcoholism, prostitution, cronyism, average salaries/benefits, compensations, work-weeks, prostitution, politics, organized labor, job-training, continuing education, diet, child labor and the family unit. I would ask each reader who chances upon this to pick one of the aforementioned, and explain how we have improved since 1906 on said issue, how we have declined, and what remains the same?