BookClubSandwich is a online discussion group hosted by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness and Andi of Estella’s Revenge. This month, they are taking on The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and I couldn’t resist. You might want to check out Kim’s post to see what she is thinking so far.
The Jungle was first published in serial form in 1905, then was published as a whole in 1906 and they couldn’t keep the darn thing on the shelves. It was a smash hit.
The sad thing is that it was a hit for all of the wrong reasons, or at least not the reasons that Sinclair meant to get across. What, for him, was supposed to be a novel showing the plight of the working class turned out to be a huge headache for the meatpacking industry. Most descriptions of the book to this day call attention to its muckracing history. And while changes in that industry were certainly needed, I can’t help it feel a bit sorry that most of the readers missed the point entirely.
Yes, a majority of the story centers around a family that, for a while, works in the meat-packing industry. Yes, the descriptions of how said meat make it from pasture to the table are enough to make you want to become a vegetarian. You betcha, I am glad that the public outcry after reading the book led to the Meat Inspection Act which eventually became the FDA. (Which when you think about it is amazing because Teddy Roosevelt was in office at the time and he HATED any kind of government interference/regulation)
What got lost in all of the tubercular beef struggle was the story of the family, of many thousands of families really. People were living on the edge of starvation and homelessness constantly at the turn of the 20th century thanks to being what many call “wage slaves”. There were no workers rights, no unemployment insurance, no health insurance, no disability, no social programs, and let’s face it, a good portion of the immigrant population couldn’t even read English. If you got hurt at work and missed a day or fourteen, you were on your own. It was a hand to mouth existence and one day of missed work could mean that your family starve, froze to death and died on you. Poverty just wasn’t something that you could even dream of digging yourself out of.
So what did America gain from The Jungle at the time? They gained healthy meat that most of the people and definitely the family in the novel couldn’t afford. Don’t get me wrong, we are still reaping the benefits of what changed thanks to this book. For the most part, I know now that when I buy sausage, it isn’t going to full of fillers and whatever Joe the sausage guy found on the floor along with a helping of TB and God knows what else.
Still, it took years before any real social or economic changes happened and they are still happening today. What is worse, is that while America has benefited by leaps and bounds, there are still countries in the world where slavery happens. (Yes, I dropped the “wage” term, let’s just call a spade a spade)
What I got from The Jungle- a meandering tale of what it meant to be an immigrant in the Boom Town of Chicago and probably many other large cities at the time. The pain, the struggle and the loss was something that 99.9% of people today just cannot fathom.
What I didn’t expect to get- Hope. People are good at heart. They may not see the suffering in front of them, but when you make them look….really make them see, it can inspire them to be a part of the change for a better world.
I also caught the Upton Sinclair bug and have been on a kick about him and his work ever since. Did you know that he founded California’s chapter of the ACLU and ran for Congress? I sure as heck didn’t.
I need to thank Kim for getting me over my fear of chewing and digesting classics. I have never been afraid of reading them, but somehow felt that discussing them was a bit out of my league. It is nice to know that there is indeed a league of our own once in awhile. (pun totally intended)
I bet that you thought that this was supposed to be a review, not a political commentary. Sorry, I got on my soap box somehow. That is how I seem to roll these days.