The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (New York: Penguin Books, 2006; originally published in 1906. 464 pp)

Upton Sinclair is an American author born in 1878. He wrote close to 100 books during his career and later unsuccessfully ran for Congress. Sinclair won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 and died at the age of 90 in 1968.

An Overview

Upton Sinclair’s classic, The Jungle, highlights the poor working conditions of the meatpacking industry at the dawn of the 20th century.

The principal character of the novel is Jurgis Rudkus, a recent immigrant from Lithuania seeking the American Dream in the outskirts of Chicago. Jurgis and his family find employment at a slaughterhouse but soon discover the deck stacked against them.

The Jungle depicts the inevitable spiral of this family as their beliefs about hard work and success crash against the systems of Capitalism like surf against the peninsula point.

On Capitalism

Donovan: Andrew, what is Sincliar trying to say about Capitalism?

Andrew: Sinclair writes,

“Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave” (120).

Ultimately Sinclair’s book, while astonishingly disturbing at times, is a collection of rather political viewpoints. This quote explains a family member’s working conditions, and how she’s forced to work in questionable settings. But, alongside with every other fault among the working class that Sinclair presents, the working conditions described here aren’t the faults of the people committing the crimes. Sinclair, through his prose, posits quite the contrary. By comparing capitalism to slavery, Sinclair is attempting to expose the “true” social relations inherent in Capitalism. It’s quite powerful prose.

Andrew: What does The Jungle say about work? 

Donovan: The meaning of work is certainly one of the core questions behind Sinclair’s book. Does our labor have intrinsic meaning? In other words, does our creative ability to create something of value out of our blood, sweat, and tears matter?

Or is our work instrumental? Are we left to the negotiating table, selling ourselves for as much money as we can get—the second we clock-in, we’ve lost everything that makes us human. Now, we’re just another cog in the machine.

Interestingly, Jurgis’ view of work shifts as he begins to understand the systems and institutions that organize labor and distribute goods.

Newly-on-the-job Jurgis—a hard worker and believer in just rewards—is taken aback by the bitterness of his co-workers:

“He was quite dismayed when he first began to find out—that most of the men hated their work. It seemed strange, it was even terrible, when you cam to find out the universality of the sentiment; but it was certainly the fact—they hated their work” (63).

Both the green hopeful position of Jurgis and the grim defeat of his co-workers signify a universal view that work means more than just a measly paycheck. The conditions of your work matter. The relationships between co-workers and superiors mean something. Yet, the reality of Packingtown is one of Taylorist efficiency. Sinclair writes,

“That was true everywhere in the world, but it was especially true in Packingtown; there seemed to be something about the work of slaughtering that tended to ruthlessness and ferocity—it was literally the fact that in the methods of the packers a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit” (354).

How can you hold on to yourself when your employer counts your life as nothing versus increased profit?

Gruesome Descriptions

Donovan: Were you able to stomach Sinclair’s descriptions of such poor conditions? Has anything changed in 100+ years?

Andrew: Sinclair’s ultimate aim was to raise awareness about the working poor, even though he did venerate the socialistic philosophy. As we had a discussion among friends, our mutual friend Nick mentioned a passage that made him physically nauseous, something that rarely happens when reading. I am all but certain this was the aforementioned passage, as it truly is disgusting.

“[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast” (151-152).

I read The Jungle in high school, and didn’t have fond memories of it. Somehow, powerful passages like this one eluded me, maybe because I skimmed an awful lot. Nonetheless, the Packingtown laborers are forced to make terrible things (I went vegetarian for a couple days after reading this passage), but they are also forced to work in terrible conditions. Though it isn’t something many Americans can relate with, factories around the world still employ some of the same conditions described within The Jungle.

“All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks, and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them; and there were not merely rivers of hot blood, and carloads of moist flesh, and rendering vats and soap caldrons, glue factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell—there were also tons of garbage festering in the sun, and the greasy laundry of the workers hung out to dry, and dining rooms littered with food and black with flies, and toilet rooms that were open sewers” (309).

The Jungle is both a cautionary tale as well as an emphasis on proper governmental operations. While Sinclair blames terrible working conditions of the philosophy of Capitalism, one might posit he also views human nature just as negatively. Certain that working conditions are still like this around the world; Sinclair is still succeeding in raising awareness to how we treat our fellow man.

What’s the Solution?

Andrew: Sinclair suggests Socialism as the solution to the problem of Capitalism. Would it work? 

Donovan: That’s kind of a loaded question. May I say yes and no? Sinclair’s depiction of Capitalism is one that I hope no longer exists, although as you rightly point out—it surely still exists, we just don’t have to see it.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Photo by Luca Rossato

However, I don’t think a 100% socialist solution solves the problem. Much like unfettered Capitalism turns people into metrics of efficiency and a place where profit matters more than people, a strict socialist approach has its own weaknesses. Whether we like it or not, the brokenness of humanity makes it difficult to truly organize in an egalitarian state. Some people will steal; others won’t find the incentive to push themselves to innovate.

Interestingly, The Jungle was published before the World Wars. The view of socialism and its more intense sibling, Marxism, seemed inevitable to many. Of course, we’d move to a point where we share equally and everyone is happy. Someday, we’ll all be living the life of leisure with everyone rich and no one poor.

These beliefs permeated Christianity as well. Walter Rauschenbusch offered the idea of a social gospel where Socialism and Christianity meet—an idea Sinclair includes in The Jungle.

“It would not do, Ostrinski explained, for the proletariat of one nation to achieve the victory, for that nation would be crushed by the military power of the others; and so the Socialist movement was a world movement, an organization of all mankind to establish liberty and fraternity. It was the new religion of humanity—or you might say it was the fulfillment of the old religion, since it implied but the literal application of all the teachings of Christ” (353).

This fulfillment of the old religion became difficult to uphold after the gruesome terrors of war. The inevitability of socialism became much less certain.

Is socialism the answer? I don’t think so. Is an exclusive profit-driven approach to Capitalism the answer? No. Business is good because it offers goods and services that help humans flourish. But to do so, work must also have meaning.

Final Thoughts

Donovan: Final thoughts? 

Andrew: While I didn’t enjoy this book for what it was in high school, I enjoy it now. I think it is brilliantly written, and a good social reminder for the times in which we live. The Jungle has made me enjoy more fully the work of Upton Sinclair, and I may even check out some of his other works.

Andrew: You? 

Donovan: I really enjoyed The Jungle. Sinclair writes vividly and the ideas offer much to consider about how we approach work. A must read.

Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5

Donovan’s Verdict: 5 out of 5

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