Book Review: The Jungle

The Jungle
by Upton Sinclair

I checked out Upton Sinclair's Jungle mainly because I was waiting on another book to come in. I figured I'd read a little of it and then come back to it later after the book I was waiting on. Instead, I ripped through it in a few days. It was tremendous. Easily one of my favorite books and possibly on my top ten. Maybe top five.

The book is set in the beginning of the 20th century Chicago and follows a Lithuanian family's journey into the belly of the monstrous meatpacking industry. The tale shows us their optimism and hope in the beginning and their downward spiral as reality sets in. They live in poverty. The whole family works, people die and they never make enough to survive without worry. And that's just the tip of the misery iceberg. The main character goes through a bunch of different phases and then changes his way of thinking. I probably should have known where this book was going, but I didn't and really enjoyed the ending.

This book caught my attention many years ago when I was still working on my undergraduate degree. I was sitting in an American history class that I found boring. Then my professor read a few passages from The Jungle. Whoa. It stuck with me, but I didn't realize then that I would be into such literature (miserable, sad, doom and gloom literature, that is). There's poverty, prostitution, corruption, hobos and more hard luck than you can shake a stick at.

Many years later, a friend of mine saw I was on a big Chicago reading kick and recommended it to me. She said it had a lot of Polish in it (I'm Polish), but it was actually all Lithuanian. I'm used to hearing that the Polish were the bottom of the barrel in the early 20th century era, but in this book it was actually the Lithuanians, Slovaks, Greeks and black people. Finally, I picked it up and couldn't put it down. I read 50-70 pages at a time. You wouldn't think that a book written over 100 years ago would be written in such a timely and clear prose.

The Jungle is post-Zola and you can definitely see the influence in the story, especially when the animals are personified and the humans are described as beasts. Zola is actually mentioned along with Dante and his Inferno. The book kind of reads like the writings of Dante and those of Zola got together and made a miserable lovechild. The personifications are vivid and make the skin crawl, including descriptions of the factories, snow, wind and environment. It certainly does not remind me of the Chicago I know and love today.

It also provided a historical look at how corporations find ways to destroy little people. Sounds familiar, right? There is plenty of talk about the emergence and busting of unions. Graft is a common term and makes me believe that Chicago is the city that graft built. One gets to see the growth and dominance of the capitalism machine and watch how the man is treated as just a cog in the machine. If the machine's not working efficiently, then the cog needs replacing. Some things never change.

Also, because it was published in 1906, there are very vague, but interesting description of diseases and ailments. These sections of the book are not for the faint of heart, as it includes things like blood poison (infection), womb trouble, boils and soars. There are also frozen body parts, plenty of animal guts, fertilizer, vomit and rivers of blood that are called into the reader's imagination as well.

The book wraps up with socialism. I found it interesting to know that The Jungle was first published in a socialist magazine called the "Appeal to Reason". Near the very end of the book there's a religious socialist who said that Jesus was the first socialist. I leave you with that argument, because I thought it one of the most compelling descriptions of Jesus I've ever heard:

"Here is a man who was the world's first revolutionist, the true found of the Socialist movement; a man who whole being was one flame of hatred for wealth, and all that wealth stands for, --for the pride of wealth and the luxury of wealth, and the tyranny of wealth; who was himself a beggar and a tramp, a man of the people, an associate of saloon keepers and women of the town; who again and again, in the most explicit language, denounced wealth and the holding of wealth: 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth!' -- 'Sell that ye have and give alms!' -- 'Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of Heaven!' -- 'Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation!' -- 'Verily, I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of Heaven!' -- Who denounced in unmeasured terms the exploiters of his own time: 'Woe unto you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites!' ..."

Yeah, it goes on...

"Who drove out the business men and brokers from the temple with a whip! Who was crucified-think of it-for an incendiary and a disturber of the social order! And this man they have made into the high-priest of property and smug respectability, a divine sanction of all the horrors and abominations of modern commercial civilizations! Jewelled images are made of him, sensual priests burn incense to him, and modern pirates of industry bring their dollars, wrung from the toil of helpless women and children, and build temples to him, and sit in cushioned seats and listen to his teachings expounded by doctors of dusty divinity-"

And there the rant is cut off. Pretty intense, huh? Jesus as socialist - who would've thunk it?

Bottom line: this is one of the greatest books I've ever read. I almost considered becoming a socialist.

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