The Jungle

posted in Books on Feb 3, 2007

You know what tastes good? Meat. Most of you probably eat some every day. A hamburger, a hotdog, some pulled pork. It’s delicious. Those dead animals taste like a celebration of flavor, like the prime minister of Tasty Town came to your house, threw a party, and you just woke up from a 24 hour meat bender. It has not always been this way, however, where the rivers could flow free with beef broth and the porkchop trees grew wild. No, not at all, in fact. About one-hundred years ago these meaty products where not at all sanitary, and the workers were treated almost as poorly as the animals they were ripping apart. Such poor conditions are given to us by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, and in all seriousness, the conditions that the people worked in and the products that came out at the end were disgusting.

The book follows Jurgis (yoor-ghis) Rudkus and his immigrant family as they come to America from Lithuania at the turn of the century. Hearing about how great everything was in America, how a person can be free to thrive as he chooses, convinced the family to make the journey. What they end up facing, though, is a torrent of hardships arrising soon after locating themselves in turn of the century Chicago. Jurgis, begins working for a meat packing company in the city, and everything pretty much goes downhill from there. The conditions for the workers are extremely poor. In the winters workers stood in the killing floors with no heat and in inches of freezing blood and other liquids, seeping into boots and clothing. In the summers, the blood from the animals ran through the packing floors like the river Styx, separating the living world from the dead. Nearly each worker on the cutting beds occupied their time with a cleaver or knife in their hand, creating the potentiality for daily mishaps when the managers keep quickening and quickening the pace of production. Once a worker happens to cut themselves or another, blood poisoning from the warm, dripping meat was almost a certainty, laying up a worker for months. In almost all aspects, the working man of the packing plants were merely waiting for thier luck to run out before they had an accident or got killed (which happened more than you’d think).

The families of these people, in our case Jurgis’, had just as hard a time. Swindling real estate dealers would sell homes to immigrants with contracts that would only show their deviousness later, and because wages were increasingly getting lower and lower in the packing factories, pretty much every member of the family that was cognizant of the troubles they faced were out working somewhere, whether it be in the factories or elsewhere.

The Jungle really does make you feel pretty bad for the thousands of people who went through all of those hardships. Before there were any laws to protect the worker, management would just wring them dry and toss them aside like a used Kleenex, and they didn’t really care about the quality of the product so long as the bottom line was in black. The book had a tremendous impact in the latter of those two, as it spurred legislation to ensure the quality of foods (Roosevelt read the book and within four months there were new laws), but unfortunately it did not really help the worker as much as Sinclair had hoped. The working man would have to face hardships for years more until unions were strong enough to fight big company business.

What I had always wondered before reading it is whether or not the book was written as just a story, or if it was merely documenting the things that occurred at these places. It turns out that it’s basically both. It’s definitely a story, following a man and his family, but the things written about the politics and factory conditions are as true to life as they are going to get. The only drawback to the novel is that Sinclair was a big, fat Socialist, and you can definitely get that vibe from the novel. In retrospect, a novel crying out for the reformation of the working conditions is pretty much poking you in the eye telling you it has Socialistic tendencies, but it never struck me until end portion of the book. You’ll definitely understand what I’m talking about if you read it.

The Jungle is not a light read, but it’s not too heavy either. If you want to read something important, that has had a pretty large impact on one facet American history, then definitely pick it up.