“Jurgis could see all the truth now – could see himself through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face.”
This brilliant novel by socialist author and journalist Upton Sinclair (he also wrote Oil!, which got turned into the far inferior film There Will Be Blood), gives a thoughtful, compassionate and compelling insight into the brutal life of ‘unskilled’ labourers in the United States a century ago. In doing so, it necessarily invites the question: how have things changed?
The Jungle follows the misadventures of Lithuanian migrant worker Jurgis, as he tries to make a new life with his family in early 1900s Chicago. Arriving a firm believer in individualism and the power of hard work in a ‘free country’, his objective circumstances deal him harsh lesson after harsh lesson, and he quickly becomes ‘disillusioned’, in the true sense of the word.
Jurgis’ travails give him a look at many different aspects of ‘the system’, from the semi-aristocratic life of the Illinois governor’s family, to the gangsterism behind popular politics, and of course the brutality of the meatpacking industry. A colleague tells him they use every part of the pig ‘except the squeal’, but he doesn’t grasp what this mean at first. Soon, however, he begins to understand that his life in the ‘killing beds’ is symptomatic of the wider society around him; a society that is organised against his interests, that will use him up and throw him away. Having achieved class consciousness, he gets involved in Eugene Debs-style socialism.
In the aftermath of the novel’s publication, the U.S. government stepped in to regulate the meat industry, with President Theodore Roosevelt realising that laissez-faire in food standards threatened the profitability of American capitalism as a whole.
Following the Russian Revolution and the end of World War One, Sinclair made two unsuccessful Congressional bids as a Socialist. With the decline of socialism as a political force in the U.S., and the onset of the Great Depression, he became a left reformist Democrat in the New Deal era. Despite the limitations of his later political activism – which were the necessary outcome of being a relatively wealthy man amidst a post-Stalin labour movement – his devastatingly perceptive novels still have great value today.