Review #22: The Jungle

Men and cows behaving badly

The Jungle

Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jurgis, a poor Lithuanian, barely kept his family fed. And then one day he was butchering up some food, when up through the ground came every possible misery and corrupt human behavior you could ever think of, all compressed into a ten-square-mile area.

Upton Sinclair’s tragic story, The Jungle, follows Jurgis Rudkis and his family, newly arrived to Chicago from their impoverished Lithuania at the turn of the twentieth century. Jurgis looks to the “land of opportunity” with hope, but even before he steps onto American soil, he gets his first taste of the nonstop thefts, political corruptions, cheating shop-keepers, and murderous business owners that are the United States of America.

Let me make it clear: The Jungle is a propaganda piece for the Communist Party. Sinclair describes an America where every business is corrupt, every product is substandard, every politician is on the take, every policeman is open to graft and petty theft, every doctor engages in medical experimentation, and every citizen eventually descends into a life of beggary, prostitution, and unsafe, unsanitary working conditions. The only solution to these problems, according to the book, is to unite the proletariat and institute a Socialist workers’ paradise. These sentiments are not veiled behind interesting plotlines; the final chapters of the book literally break into song over the virtues of communism.

If The Jungle was an interesting literary work on the struggle between communism and capitalism, I might forgive Sinclair his ideological bent. But the book is far from interesting. The constant misery that Jurgis and his family experience is as farcical as movies like The Money Pit, where by the end you are hoping that the theater has a refund policy.

Perhaps most people today know The Jungle as “that book that talks about the horrors of the meat packing industry in Chicago.” The claims made by the book did in part lead to the creation of America’s current Food and Drug Administration. It’s no surprise to me that the book led to government action, since the text reads like a Department of Transportation feasibility study.

For those who like to make decisions on emotion alone with their brains checked at the door, The Jungle is great reading. Perhaps I should forgive Sinclair for the things he wrote. His book came out a decade before the Russian Revolution, before the horrors of that system came to light. But in later years, he ran twice for the United States Senate on the Socialist ticket, and was the leading Democratic candidate in the 1934 California gubernatorial race. He never strayed from his literary view that America was a problem in need of a labor-centric solution.

Sinclair went on to pen other popular works. His 1937 book The Gnomemobile was turned into a Disney children’s film, and his 1927 book Oil! was adapted just four years ago as the Daniel Day-Lewis movie There Will Be Blood. But it was The Jungle and its blatant, humorless political ideals that made him famous. Despite the book’s extreme fiction, it should be read today, if only to understand that complicated political machinations in Chicago are nothing new.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


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