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Upton Sinclair: The Jungle

If you look at my homepage for Upton Sinclair, you will see an enormous bibliography. I am guessing that relatively few people will have read anything by him, except for this work. This work caused a huge furore when first published in the United States, exposing, as it did, the iniquities of the meat packing industry, and led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair took a job in the meat packing industry to learn more about what went on. Though it is definitely a novel, with a range of characters and plot, it is much more a political denunciation of what Sinclair and many others considered outrageous behaviour on the part of virtually all of those with any commercial or political authority in Chicago.

The novel tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, his teenage wife Ona and their extended family, who emigrate from Lithuania to Chicago in order to find a better life. Jurgis had met Ona in Lithuania but had initially been unable to marry her, as her father was rich and did not consider Jurgis a suitable son-in-law. However, when the father died, leaving debts, the family was much more willing to accept him. Jonas, Ona’s brother, suggested they go to the United States so Jurgis, Jonas, Ona, Ona’s stepmother, Elzbieta, Ona’s cousin Marija, and six of Ona’s siblings set out. Jurgis had earned some money working on a railway in Smolensk so they set out for Chicago, where, apparently, Jonas’ friend had got rich. They were cheated on the way but eventually arrived in Chicago, overwhelmed by the size of the city and, of course, not having a word of English. By chance, while wandering the streets, they came across the shop of Jonas’ friend and it was he who sent them to a boarding house. It was here that they realised how hard life would be as they are crammed into a small room. But Jurgis, as he is big and strong, manages to find a job as do some of the others.

Things go wrong when they decide to buy a house. They are offered a new house, on which they can pay a mortgage and which they will fully own after nine and half years. Of course, not understanding English, they do not fully grasp the terms of the contract, despite having the advice of two lawyers (who are in league with the vendors) and, only after they have bought it, do they realise that their costs will be much higher than they had anticipated. Moreover, they subsequently find out that their house is certainly not new. Indeed, it is shabbily made. The vendors have a trick whereby they sell such houses to workers, knowing full well that they will eventually be unable to pay the mortgage. As a result, the vendors will be able to repossess it (without paying back any of the money already paid), paint the house and sell it to the next gullible group. While Sinclair exposes the appalling practices of the meat packing industry in this novel, he also exposes the other ways in which the unfortunate workers are cheated, from adulterated food to corrupt policemen, from appalling public services to being cheated on public transport.

Jurgis and his extended family see the meat packing from within and so do we, as Sinclair spares no description of how awful it is. The workers are badly paid, work under appalling conditions of cold and heat, with health and safety completely ignored (and no redress when injured, except to be thrown out into the street to starve), made to work long hours, with pacemakers (workers paid to increase the speed of working) to make them work harder, unsanitary and dangerous premises and badly paid. We also see how diseased animals are used, how official inspectors are bribed to turn a blind eye and how every bit of the animal is used. Naturally, there is no job security and plants can close down with half an hour’s notice and employees can be fired for no reason. Any opposition or any hint of union activity can be grounds for instant dismissal and, as happens to Jurgis, blacklisting. Jurgis and his family go through very difficult times. The children have to work, the adults all lose their jobs at one time or another because of firms shutting up shop, injury and illness or other problems. Several of them get ill and die. In short, the paradise they were expecting turns out to be just the opposite.

Sinclair pulls no punches. The meat packing industry is appalling in every way but that is only the half of it. There seems to be, according to Sinclair, a general conspiracy by the rich and powerful to extort as much as possible from the poor workers. Chicago was then, as it has remained, totally corrupt. Virtually every police officer, union official, government official, alderman and businessman is corrupt. Sinclair gives us pages of details on this corruption and how it affects the ordinary man and woman. President Theodore Roosevelt felt that Sinclair was exaggerating and very much opposed Sinclair’s proposed solution, namely socialism, but he did accept that Sinclair had a point. I suppose for us, in the 21st century, it is interesting to see that a novel had an effect on social policy but still sad that, well over a hundred years later, corruption is alive and well in Chicago. This is not a novel to enjoy – it is too unremittingly sad – but certainly a novel to read to see how awful the situation was.

Publishing history

First published 1906 by Jungle Publishing and Doubleday, Page