The Jungle (Modern Library Classics)
by Upton Sinclair
A review by Christopher Hitchens
Probably no two words in our language are now more calculated to shrivel the sensitive
nostril than "socialist realism." Taken together, they evoke the tractor
opera, the granite-jawed proletarian sculpture, the cultural and literary standards
of Commissar Zhdanov, and the bone-deep weariness that is paradoxically produced
by ceaseless uplift and exhortation. Yet these words used to have an authentic
meaning, which was also directly related to "social" realism. And the
most fully realized instance of the genre, more telling and more moving than even
the works of Dickens and Zola, was composed in these United States.
Like Dickens and Zola, Upton Sinclair was in many ways a journalist. His greatest
novel was originally commissioned as a serial, for the popular socialist paper
Appeal to Reason, which was published (this now seems somehow improbable)
in Kansas. An advance of $500 sent Sinclair to Chicago in 1904, there to make
radical fiction out of brute reality. The city was then the great maw of American
capitalism. That is to say, it took resources and raw materials from everywhere
and converted them into money at an unprecedented rate. Hogs and steers, coal
and iron, were transmuted into multifarious products by new and ruthless means.
The Chicago system created almost every imaginable kind of goods. But the main
thing it consumed was people. Upton Sinclair tried to elucidate and illuminate
the ways in which commodities deposed, and controlled, human beings. His novel
is the most successful attempt ever made to fictionalize the central passages
of Marx's Das Kapital.
The influence of Dickens can be felt in two ways. First, we are introduced
to a family of naive but decent Lithuanian immigrants, sentimentally portrayed
at a wedding feast where high hopes and good cheer provide some protection against
the cruelty of quotidian life. There are lavishly spread tables, vital minor
characters, and fiddle music. Second, we see these natural and spontaneous people
being steadily reduced, as in Hard
Times, by crass utilitarian calculation. They dwell in a place named Packingtown,
and "steadily reduced" is a euphemism. The extended family of the
stolid Jurgis is exposed to every variety of misery and exploitation, and discovers
slowly — necessarily slowly — that the odds are so arranged that no honest
person can ever hope to win. The landlord, the saloonkeeper, the foreman, the
shopkeeper, the ward heeler, all are leagued against the gullible toiler in
such a way that he can scarcely find time to imagine what his actual employer
or boss might be getting away with. To this accumulation of adversity Jurgis
invariably responds with the mantra "I will work harder."
This is exactly what the innocent cart horse Boxer later says as he wears out
his muscles on the cynical futilities of Animal
Farm. Orwell was an admirer of Sinclair's work, and wrote in praise of The
Jungle in 1940, but Sinclair may have been depressed to see his main character
redeployed in the service of allegory.
Sinclair's realism, indeed, got in the way of his socialism, in more than one
fashion. His intention was to direct the conscience of America to the inhuman
conditions in which immigrant labor was put to work. However, so graphic and
detailed were his depictions of the filthy way in which food was produced that
his book sparked a revolution among consumers instead (and led at some remove
to the passage of the Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906).
He wryly said of this unintended consequence that he had aimed for the public's
heart but had instead hit its stomach.
There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water
from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about
on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could
run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung
of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread
out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the
hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shovelled
into carts, and the man who did the shovelling 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.
To this Sinclair added well-researched observations about the adulteration
of food with chemicals and coloring. He also spared a thought, as did many of
his later readers, for the animals themselves, especially (and ironically, in
view of Animal Farm) for the pigs.
At the head there was a great iron wheel, about twenty feet in circumference,
with rings here and there along its edge. Upon both sides of this wheel was
a narrow space, into which came the hogs...[Men] had chains which they fastened
about the leg of the nearest hog, and the other end of the chain they hooked
into one of the rings upon the wheel. So, as the wheel turned, a hog was suddenly
jerked off his feet and borne aloft.
At the same instant the ear was assailed by a most terrifying shriek...And
meantime another [hog] was swung up, and then another, and another, until
there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy
— and squealing....It was too much for some of the visitors — the men would
look at each other, laughing nervously, and the women would stand with hands
clenched, and the blood rushing to their faces, and the tears starting in
Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going
about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference
to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke
they slit their throats.
Again, the demands of verisimilitude have a tendency to work against the recruitment
of any sympathy for the calloused and even brutalized laborer. Sinclair's title,
The Jungle, along with indirectly evoking the ideology of Thomas Hobbes,
inverts anthropomorphism by making men into brutes. In her rather deft introduction
Jane Jacobs dwells on the passage above and on the sinister implications of
machine civilization without registering what to me seems an obvious point:
Sinclair was unconsciously prefiguring the industrialization of the mass slaughter
of human beings — the principle of the abattoir applied to politics
and society by the degraded experimenters of the assembly line.
Eugene Debs, the great Socialist Party leader and orator of that period, announced
that his ambition was to be "the John Brown of the wage slaves." This
noble hyperbole was not all that much of an exaggeration: the lower orders in
Chicago may have come voluntarily, to escape a Russian or a Polish house of
bondage, rather than being brought by force from Africa to a house of bondage;
but once here they were given only enough to keep them alive until their bodies
wore out. Their children were exploited too, and their womenfolk were sexually
vulnerable to the overseers. Indeed, the most wrenching section of the book
comes in the middle, when Jurgis discovers that his wife has been preyed upon,
under threat of dismissal, by a foreman. Not following the socialist script
in the least, he sacrifices self-interest for pride and pounds the foreman to
a pulp. By this means he swiftly discovers what side the courts and the cops
and the laws are on, and is made to plumb new depths of degradation in prison.
Among other humiliations, he stinks incurably from the materials of the plant,
and offends even his fellow inmates. (We are not spared another Dickensian moment
when he realizes that he has been jailed for the Christmas holidays and is overwhelmed
by childhood memories.) Sinclair interrupts himself at this point to quote without
attribution from The
Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde was not long dead in 1905), and it seems
a sure thing that Sinclair would have read The
Soul of Man Under Socialism, the most brilliant line of which says that
it is capitalism that lays upon men "the sordid necessity of living for
Robert Tressell's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914)
is the only rival to The Jungle in its combination of realism with didacticism
and its willingness to impose a bit of theory on the readership. In both "proletarian"
novels the weapon often deployed is satire: the workers are too dumb, and too
grateful for their jobs, to consider the notions that might emancipate them.
Jurgis had no sympathy with such ideas as this — he could do the work himself,
and so could the rest of them, he declared, if they were good for anything.
If they couldn't do it, let them go somewhere else. Jurgis had not studied
the books, and he would not have known how to pronounce "laissez-faire";
but he had been round the world enough to know that a man has to shift for
himself in it, and that if he gets the worst of it, there is nobody to listen
to him holler.
But gradually, after being for so long the anvil and not the hammer, he awakes
from his bovine stupor and comes to understand that he has striven only to enrich
others. The book ends with the soaring notes of a socialist tribune of the people,
and the triumphant yell — thrice repeated — "Chicago will be ours."
Before this happy ending, however, there is a passage that I am surprised Jane
Jacobs does not discuss. A bitter strike is in progress in the stockyards, and
gangs of scabs are being mobilized. They are from the South, and they are different.
Indeed, the reader is introduced to "young white girls from the country
rubbing elbows with big buck negroes with daggers in their boots, while rows
of woolly heads peered down from every window of the surrounding factories."
The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since
then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled
by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free, free
to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves...
This is no slip of the pen on Sinclair's part. He elsewhere refers to "a
throng of stupid black negroes," a phrasing that convicts him of pleonasm
as well as of racism. It is often forgotten that the early American labor movement
preached a sort of "white socialism" and — though Debs himself didn't
subscribe to it — that this sadly qualified its larger claim to be the liberator
of the wage slaves.
The final way in which Sinclair's realism got the better of his socialism is
this: like Karl Marx in The
Communist Manifesto, he couldn't help being exceedingly impressed by the
dynamic, innovative, and productive energy of capitalism:
No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted in Durham's. Out of the
horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hair-pins, and imitation ivory;
out of the shin bones and other big bones they cut knife and tooth-brush handles,
and mouthpieces for pipes; out of the hoofs they cut hair-pins and buttons,
before they made the rest into glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide
clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatin,
isinglass, and phosphorus, bone-black, shoe-blacking, and bone oil. They had
curled-hair works for the cattle-tails, and a "wool-pullery" for
the sheep-skins; they made pepsin from the stomachs of the pigs, and albumen
from the blood, and violin strings from the ill-smelling entrails. When there
was nothing else to be done with a thing, they first put it into a tank and
got out of it all the tallow and grease, and then they made it into fertilizer.
This account of the magnificent profusion that results from the assembly line
and the division of labor is so awe-inspiring that Sinclair seems impelled to
follow it almost at once with a correct and ironic discourse on the nature of
monopoly and oligopoly: "So guileless was he, and ignorant of the nature
of business, that he did not even realize that he had become an employee of
Brown's, and that Brown and Durham were supposed by all the world to be deadly
rivals — were even required to be deadly rivals by the law of the land, and
ordered to try to ruin each other under penalty of fine and imprisonment!"
Thus, though it lives on many a veteran's bookshelf as a stirring monument
to the grandeur of the American socialist and labor movements, The Jungle
may also be read today as a primer on the versatility of the capitalist system.
But not all its "morals" belong to the past. The anti-Jungle ethos
lived on, in a subterranean fashion, through the League for Industrial Democracy,
founded by Sinclair and Jack London. (Its junior branch, the Student League
for Industrial Democracy, survived long enough to provide the auspices for the
first meeting of Students for a Democratic Society.) In Eric Schlosser's best
Food Nation (2001) the values and practices of the slaughterhouse system
were revisited. Most of the reviews, rather predictably, concentrated on the
shock effect of Schlosser's intimate — almost intestinal — depiction of "hamburger"
ingredients. But Schlosser also spent a great deal of time with those whose
lives are lived at the point of production. Recruited, often illegally, from
the Central American isthmus rather than the Baltic littoral, these workers
are sucked into cutting machines, poisoned by chemicals, and made wretched by
a pervasive stench that won't wash off. Their wages are low, their hours long,
their conditions arduous, and their job security nonexistent. The many women
among them are considered bounty by lascivious supervisors, who sometimes dangle
the prospect of green cards or safer jobs, and sometimes don't bother even to
do that. The health-and-safety inspectors are about as vigilant and incorruptible
as they were a century ago. The main difference is that these plants are usually
located in remote areas or rural states, so the consolations of urban and communal
solidarity are less available to the atomized work force than they were to Jurgis
and his peers. This nonfiction work is also a blow to the national gut; but
if properly read, it might succeed where The Jungle failed, and bring
our stomachs and our hearts — and even our brains — into a better alignment.
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