The Jungle (Dover Thrift Editions)
‘One of the most powerful, provocative, and enduring novels...’ is how Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is described in its blurb. The first three adjectives could not be more appropriate, but a novel – in my view, - it is not. I may be being pernickety, but a novel contains at least a reasonable balance between character and message. Some may disagree, but I would say that this is 'docudrama' – written in a style foreseeing the television age. Don’t let that put you off, its an amazing piece of work, and if you don’t know anything about Chicago in 1904, the stockyards, the meat industry, fertilizer factories, property rackets, worker exploitation, prostitution, summer hoboing around Kansas, gangsters, teamsters, and socialism, then - I was going to say - you’re in for a treat, but ordeal might be a more apt word as some of the descriptions are stomach-churningly horrifying.
Jurgis Rudkus the main character is a Lithuanian, who has emigrated from his mother country bringing with him some family members including his wife-to-be. Most of the family – and some of the children find work in and around the stockyards and meat production works. Conditions are by any human standards – harsh. Its a day-to-day fight for survival, avoiding injury, and all kinds of cheating and corruption by the bosses, and other workers. Sinclair does his best to endow his main character with a personality, but always the reader is seeing him from the outside, while being informed by a powerful authorial voice about the method, manufacture, and misadventure of the surroundings he finds himself in. There are other characters, such as Jurgis’s family members, but there’s no relationship development, just a series of disasters which befall him. My heart was in my mouth at first for the family, who are clearly going to be ripped off, but as I read on I began to realize that there is little hope of prosperity for them anyway, so I should just relax and marvel at the descriptions of mechanized food production. And perhaps this is where the book is clever. In a way, its villain is the ‘evils’ of the capitalist system, which chews at Jurgis as he – pilgrim like – tries to make his way through its unforgiving landscape. It chews him, spits him out, and chews him again. There’s a kind of hope at the end, and one does realize that journalistic literature of this kind did much to improve conditions for workers, and quality of products.
There’s a bizarre scene in which Jurgis, destitute as he is for most of the narrative, meets a weak-minded and friendless young toff, worse for drink. He takes Jurgis to his house, a ‘palace’ on Lakeshore Drive and feeds him, until the toff falls asleep and the servants throw Jurgis back out into the freezing winter. The patois of a drunk is rarely successful in literature – as it is difficult to do convincingly in film or theatre – but somehow Sinclair achieves a curious almost James Joyce-like rhythm and texture to the language. The Jungle is not for the faint-hearted!