Modern times Chicago
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" shocked the world.
Sinclair told the story of Jurgis Rudkus and his extended group of family and friends emigrating from the countryside of Lithuania to industrial Chicago. Initially full of hope and energy, despite being cheated and conned on their way to the city, they get jobs in the factories of the Union Stock Yard and Packingtown and set out to live the American dream.
But that was not to be. Things go rapidly downhill, as they are brutalized by the work and exploited by the corrupt economic system. Socialist activist Sinclair used all the skills he had honed in writing popular pot-boiler novels to make Jurgis and his friends and family represent all the bad things that could happen to anyone in the factories, streets and saloons of Chicago. Illegal and unsanitary conditions in the packing plants are detailed, and disaster after disaster ensues. The immigrants die one after another, from work injuries or worse: one boy passes out in a remote corner of a factory and is eaten by rats. Jurgis' wife, Ona, dies in childbirth, and then his son Antanas drowns in a puddle in the street. The novel, even when it leaves Packingtown behind, is unrelentingly grim. Industrial Chicago was a man-made capitalist version of Dante's Inferno.
Sinclair's purpose was avowedly political: He wasn't trying to write a novel of subtle psychological sophistication. He wanted to expose the physical realities and moral evils behind industrial capitalism to inspire his readers to reform the system through political action.
Some industrial apologists have argued that Sinclair's literary strategy makes the novel bad history as well as bad literature, but investigations at the time bore out the facts represented in the novel.
In any case, Sinclair's literary world is no more. It's become commonly accepted by the literary establishment (and the many readers they educate) that, in Samuel Goldwyn's phrase, "If you have a message, call Western Union." Literary art is to be art first and foremost, otherwise it's dismissed as propaganda. But sometimes propaganda might be necessary, if some aspect of our culture is excluded from the realm of aesthetics. The realities of urban poverty were considered inherently not-literary, and Sinclair was well aware of that. He writes:
There is a poet who sings that
'Deeper their heart grows and nobler their bearing,
Whose youth in the fires of anguish hath died.'
But it was not likely that he had reference to the kind of anguish that comes with destitution, that is so endlessly bitter and cruel, and yet so sordid and petty, so ugly, so humiliating — unredeemed by the slightest touch of dignity or even of pathos. It is a kind of anguish that poets have not commonly dealt with; its very words are not admitted into the vocabulary of poets — the details of it cannot be told in polite society at all. How, for instance, could anyone expect to excite sympathy among lovers of good literature by telling how a family found their home alive with vermin, and of all the suffering and inconvenience and humiliation they were put to, and the hard-earned money they spent, in efforts to get rid of them?"
Beyond their horrific environment, Sinclair focuses on the bodily harm that industrial workers experience:
He is a beef-boner, and that is a dangerous trade, especially when you are on piecework and trying to earn a bride. Your hands are slippery and your knife is slippery and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone. Then your hand slides up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash. There are learned people who can tell you out of the statistics that beef-boners make forty cents an hour, but, perhaps, these people have never looked into a beef-boner's hands.
Sinclair makes his readers look at that beef-boner's hands. Contemporary cultural theorists interested in thinking about representations of the body in literature would do well to read "The Jungle."
"The Jungle" also should be read to remind us that Americans keep fighting the same political, economic and cultural battles over and over again, and while our factories might be cleaner and our food more pure, things haven't really changed structurally. "Socialist" is still a dirty word to conservatives, even as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont seeks the Democratic nomination for president.
On the economic front, workers and their unions are still the site of political conflict. One political party, including the current governor of Illinois, seems hell-bent on smashing the power unions have amassed since Sinclair's day. Workers in traditionally low-paying jobs are beginning to organize and fight for better pay and working conditions. While the employees of restaurants, fast-food chains, and retail stores might seem to have little in common with workers in railroads, packinghouses, or steel mills a century ago, their economic situation is structurally the same. Today's service employees work poorly paid and physically demanding jobs, at the pleasure of bosses who see them as disposable. In 2015, Jurgis Rudkus would be flipping burgers or stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart.
Chicago's corruption is another ongoing theme. Jurgis goes to jail twice for striking men with "pull" (today more commonly known as "clout"). After he descends into common criminality and then becomes a political worker and strike-breaker, he himself gets away with assault after his sponsor puts in a word with the judge. He even works on the illegally built system of tunnels beneath the Loop, now most famous for flooding in 1992, but once symbolic of corruption. The tunnels were built to break the Teamsters' union, and without proper city council approval. One of the work sites for entry to the tunnels was behind a saloon owned by an alderman.