Peter's Reviews > The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
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May 18, 09

bookshelves: social-issues, fiction, classics, canon-in-genre
Read in May, 2009

I learned about The Jungle in American History class back in high school. It was taught as being an expose about the meat packing industry. It's true that it's tangentially about the Chicago stockyards, but only as an introduction to the failures of capitalism; the analogy between the animals, who are wanted only for their meat and whose sentience and suffering are utterly irrelevant, and the workers who are wanted only for their labor with the same lack of caveats, is made quite clear.

The disregard of the packers for any standard at all of health or hygiene is shocking (the factories expel grease and offal into the river until it becomes a filthy solid shell, then scrape it off and add it to the food products), and the book played a large part in the creation of the FDA. Still, Sinclair would say the firms' lack of decency was just a symptom, and would be disappointed to see the world of 2009, in spite of the modern food standards (though our generation has its own problems concerning corporations and food production).

It's now over a century old, but at parts I felt like I was reading a contemporary political writer. The author complains of two parties that both serve the same masters, and victims of the system who wouldn't oppose it because they would rather be powerless than offend their own ethereal notion of individualism. Still, a hundred years is a long time; a decade before the Russian Revolution, Sinclair seems to have been advocating what I would call communism. He might have had a more nuanced view with the benefit of the lessons of the 20th century.

As I read, I tried to guess whether the events portrayed could happen in the world of today, and my gut says that on most counts things have gotten better. The trusts, great cartels of firms that colluded so deeply that they could barely be called distinct from each other, have been broken up, at least to some extent; laws have been passed that make it impossible to exploit workers to the extent depicted; political corruption is not as dire a problem as it once was. But to whom have these changes applied? This unchecked exploitation hasn't ended, but has been exported to the mines and sweat shops of Africa and Asia. The evil that Upton Sinclair wrote about hasn't been defeated. The Jungle is still relevant.

Incidentally, the copy I got from the library appeared, against all odds, to be an original 1906 printing, and someone had penned anime smilies in the margins next to insipid commentary like "wow!" and "sad". So, LOL.
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