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Thursday 25 September 2008

The Jungle

I finished Upton Sinclair's The Jungle just a few days ago. It's about a family of Lithuanians that has immigrated to the USA in the early 1900s, lured by the American Dream's promises of wealth and happiness, only to end up working in the infamous factories of the Beef Trust in "Packingtown", Chicago.

I was looking forward to the novel as I expected it to be a bit like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath : both authors were investigative journalists and Socialists. Unfortunately Sinclair isn't as skilled a novelist as Steinbeck is : his characters are rather flat, so when the book's working-class hero,
Jurgis Rudkus, loses everything, it doesn't move you as much as when Tom Joad sees his family disintegrate. The plot isn't very solid, but it serves the author's purpose : to expose the gritty reality of life for the American underclass. And it's shocking : some of the things Sinclair describes are so horrible that he couldn't have made them up. He saw them during his investigations.

His muckraking novel shocked the nation, but not in the way Sinclair hoped for. Instead of striving to improve working people's conditions, all that the readers cared for were the parts in the books which dealt with the terrible lack of hygiene in the meat factories. (The public outcry actually led to a Pure Food Act).
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach", Sinclair lamented.

But what interested me the most about the Jungle was the fact that it's a Socialist book, written by a dedicated Socialist in 1906, just a decade before the Russian Revolution. It's a socialism that hasn't yet discovered the excesses it would lead to under Soviet rule, and yet you can already detect some of the seeds of this future state-socialism. For example, the ''people" are always referred to in a very paternalistic, patronising manner.
Yet Sinclair isn't completely utopian either; he very honestly states that Socialism won't solve all of the world's problems, that there will still be conflict, but he argues that it would be a better alternative to capitalism.

In the last chapters, once Jurgis has seen the light (Socialism is clearly described as a new "dispensation", a new "revelation"), he witnesses several discussions between Socialists with very different ideas : for example a debate about religion between a Swedish professor and anarchist and an American ex-minister. The latter argues,
in Tolstoyan fashion, that Christianity has been distorted by the institutional church and that Christ's message of peace, love and social justice has been forgotten. (It is worth noting that Upton Sinclair was himself some sort of a Christian socialist.) Something which was true in Sinclair's time, and which is equally true in Western christianity today, where the Church-body has become the church-institution, where spiritual and material salvation are seperated and where man-made rules become more important than compassion and love.

I'll finish with a quotation from the novel. Referring to a bunch of rich christians trying to evangelise the starving poor, the narrator exclaims:

"They were trying to save their souls- and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?

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