Fiction leads to change – “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair
Such is the case with Upton Sinclair’s 1906 “The Jungle,” which he wrote as a fiction novel that would shed light on the plight of the immigrant worker in America, but which wound up leading to a national uproar and the passage of laws regulating the meatpacking industry. Sinclair went undercover in the meatpacking plants of Chicago’s Union Stock Yards in order to get research for the book, and it paid off – though not in the way he intended.
The book’s literary value is now basically ignored, and it’s taught primarily as an example of journalism and in political arenas. (In response to the book’s political power, Sinclair famously stated, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”) Yet, there’s a story in there. Sinclair creates a family of Lithuanian immigrants who – having moved to Chicago with little money – are forced by circumstance to take disgusting jobs at the Stock Yards. Their life is hard, like their jobs, and despite working tons of hours a day in terrible conditions bad things still happen to them.
The story of the family is interesting, but let’s not lie – it’s about the meatpacking industry. The passages describing the work conditions are so vivid and stomach-churning that it’s really no wonder the family story got left behind in the middle of the fury the book caused.
Here’s one (of many, many) stirring passages that illustrate how horrid the conditions of the factory were.
Warning: Don’t read if you’re queasy.
One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it—it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life. And now was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog personality was precious, to whom these hog squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: “Dieve—but I’m glad I’m not a hog!”
The carcass hog was scooped out of the vat by machinery, and then it fell to the second floor, passing on the way through a wonderful machine with numerous scrapers, which adjusted themselves to the size and shape of the animal, and sent it out at the other end with nearly all of its bristles removed. It was then again strung up by machinery, and sent upon another trolley ride; this time passing between two lines of men, who sat upon a raised platform, each doing a certain single thing to the carcass as it came to him. One scraped the outside of a leg; another scraped the inside of the same leg. One with a swift stroke cut the throat; another with two swift strokes severed the head, which fell to the floor and vanished through a hole. Another made a slit down the body; a second opened the body wider; a third with a saw cut the breastbone; a fourth loosened the entrails; a fifth pulled them out—and they also slid through a hole in the floor. There were men to scrape each side and men to scrape the back; there were men to clean the carcass inside, to trim it and wash it. Looking down this room, one saw, creeping slowly, a line of dangling hogs a hundred yards in length; and for every yard there was a man, working as if a demon were after him. At the end of this hog’s progress every inch of the carcass had been gone over several times; and then it was rolled into the chilling room, where it stayed for twenty-four hours, and where a stranger might lose himself in a forest of freezing hogs.
“The Jungle” doesn’t portray my beloved Chicago in a good light, and that’s really okay. Tomorrow, July 30th is the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Union Stock Yards in Chicago, and it’s a good time for reflection. Granted, I’m not vegan and I don’t purely eat organic things, but it’s easy to see how far things have come since 1906 having now read the book. Yes, the American food system is still jacked (corn-fed beef isn’t a good thing – cows don’t naturally eat corn! gah!) but things have been worse. Recently, I took the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour and was grossed out to hear how, thanks to the meatpacking industries, the river used to be classified as “toxic.” Happily, it’s been downgraded to simply “polluted.”
“The Jungle” is a disturbing look at a darker time in history. If History is going to not repeat itself, the book should be re-read and studied by new generations.
Whether it was Mr. Sinclair’s intention or not, he did good.
*Read the book free at Project Gutenberg.