Monday, November 30, 2009

The Jungle

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (Norton Critical Editions) is an iconic book, that everyone knows something about without even reading it. After reading Oil I felt compelled to read his earlier classic.

I had my qualms as I'd heard that it's a gory indictment of the meat industry in the early 20th century, but was relieved that the gore wasn't as bad as I expected. The novel follows Lithuanian Jurgis and his family who immigrate to Chicago hoping to prosper. He soon gets a job as does his fiancée and adult relatives. They get a house and check with a lawyer that everything's kosher. They're assured that the contract is good. No worries.

They don't really get the discontent and skepticism of their neighbors. They suppose they're just lazy. Well, the system begins to take its toll. They discover a load of hidden fees for the home, which they'll lose if they miss a payment. The kids must work. One by one they're plucked out of school. Back-breaking labor soon results in an accident. Lost wages, lost job. The women are shocked when they go to work and the factory's closed so there goes that much needed income. The family spirals downward.

The book doesn't just deal with the Stockyard environment. One learns a lot about the political machine, real estate scams, prostitution, sexual harassment, child labor, farming, of course food safety and saloon life. The bars were the one place one could get a cheap meal and a place to stay warm. Sometimes it was the only place a homeless person could go and the bartender would allow some congenial bums to linger if they could get a patron to buy them a drink and a meal out of charity.

The characters are rather flat and the story is quite polemical, but it's interesting historical fiction. Again I love the Norton Critical edition which has essays Sinclair wrote, editorials on social ills his contemporaries wrote and literary criticism. It is a book that should be read by more Americans. We should know more about this era than the glossy view we get from high school history.

The writing style isn't as good as Oil! but the events are riveting.

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