Revisiting the Classics: “The Jungle”

The epigraph of the introduction to my copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a quote from Sinclair himself: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit in the stomach.” The effect of The Jungle is well-known in America’s historical consciousness. We have Sinclair to thank for the public outrage that sparked new acts, policies, and laws (specifically, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906) for the regulation of food production. And if we don’t read The Jungle closely, we, too, might mistake Sinclair’s objective to be to alert the general public as to the precise level of disgusting their meat truly was.

But the book was not published to offend the sensibilities of the voting middle class of the Progressive Era. It was immediately serialized in order to reach the very people it was written about: working class immigrants. And despite the horrors surrounding the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, he lives to the very end of the book in order to become a Socialist – Sinclair’s answer to the plight of the immigrant.

Surprise! This “American Classic” is actually a piece of raging Socialist propaganda! Whoooohoooo!

Sinclair very carefully traces Jurgis’ journey for the reader, so that we can see the arc: hopeful arrival; the increasingly speedy descent into abject poverty; the three strikes that knock Jurgis out (jail, the subsequent deaths of his wife and son); Jurgis’ fall into moral depravity as he turns to petty crime and then political fraud; and eventual homelessness. So, the reader sees that the poverty and injustice of the life of the immigrant results in the physical and moral degradation of the individual.

That’s fair.

That’s a decent enough reason to write a book.

So… why does Sinclair introduce Socialism at the very last second? Why does he give his main character (and thus, the reader), a hope for a better tomorrow, a real “answer” to the “physical and moral degradation” that he has so beautifully laid out for his reader? Why does The Jungle end with Jurgis becoming a card-holding member of the Socialist Party instead of… well, frankly, instead of being killed off to prove the point that “immigrant life is hard”?

According to A. B. Chitty and Priscilla Murolo in their book From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend, Socialism was not the reliable answer in the Progressive era, but it was a radical one. Despite the apparent draw of the Socialist Party (SP) and the Industrial Workers of the World, the two groups combined “were less than a tenth the size of the AFL [American Federation of Labor]” (Chitty 160) at their peaks. I suppose that in 1906, Sinclair couldn’t have known about the eventual demise of the SP; but he could have hoped for something specific.

Thanks to Chitty and Muolo, we can kind of understand what Sinclair was observing about Socialism during his time, and could have hoped that Socialism would achieve. Chitty and Murolo describe the Party’s goals as aiming “to use the ballot to build a new social order based on public ownership of industry and thoroughgoing democracy” (Chitty 151). Ideologically, the SP “‘bored from within’ the Federation, where Socialists promoted industrial unionism, organizing the unorganized, and political action,” and “identified Socialism with American history and values” (Chitty 156). Basically, they focused on “unionism and electoral politics” (Chitty 157).

So, despite the flawed unions that Sinclair imagined for Jurgis to join and maneuver within, he introduces Jurgis to Socialism anyway, almost as an antidote for “plain, old unionism.” For an entire chapter, Jurgis sits listening to a long debate between a socialist preacher and a socialist professor (which serves well as a lecture for the reader, and not so much as a way to enhance the plot), where the two speakers agree that “First… a Socialist believes in the common ownership and democratic management of the means of producing the necessities of life; and, second, that a Socialist believes that the means by which this is to be brought about is the class conscious political organization of the wage-earners” (Sinclair 280). Socialism wants to “free” the workingman, not placate him.

That is what Sinclair wants to offer the reader with this particular ending. The final few chapters are iterations of Socialist ideology via Jurgis’ indoctrination to the SP (which is so obviously a pandering to the reader that it’s almost painful). The last two pages of the book are dedicated to a detailed assessment of the Socialist progress in the latest election, and the speech given by an unnamed young man. We see the Socialist party making unprecedented electoral gains, and are given a final snapshot of a triumphant crowd, and a “young, hungry-looking, full of fire” (Sinclair 290) young man chanting “CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!” (Sinclair 290).The “end” of the book is not quite a “conclusion,” because the invigorating feeling of the vote is tainted by the young man’s call to arms. The workingman has to organize, and continue to work to free himself; the fight is not over by any means.

As we all know, Sinclair’s “call to arms” didn’t work – he hit the “stomach” of the public, not their hearts. The Jungle is a call for a shift in American sociopolitical ideology, and ought to be remembered and contemporarily read as such.


Categories: Arts and Entertainment, Talkin' Bout a Revolution, These United States

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