Book Break: The Jungle

A few weeks ago, I attended a day-long training to become a home visitor for our local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The most compelling part of the training was the section on what poverty looks like, from the perspective of the person living through it. This segment of the training was led by a man who was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, who was hired by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a teen and loved and accompanied for years, through numerous trials and triumphs. Today he is a college-educated husband and father, a successful manager and talented speaker on the state and national level, and a Vincentian for life.

The training was thought-provoking and convicting; it, along with learning more about my own ancestors’ struggles with poverty before I was born, led me to want to dig deeper—which in turn led me to another unread book on my shelf: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair was an influential muckraking journalist, author, activist, and political candidate at the turn of the 20th century. The Jungle is his fictional but detailed and realistic account of power, corruption, and poverty during this time, particularly in the stockyard district of Chicago. The book follows one immigrant family from Lithuania, who moves to America on the promise of plentiful work for good wages, and finds a corrupt system of capitalists and politicians of every stripe, at every level, keeping prices high and wages low, controlling everything from housing and food supplies in the neighboring slums to law enforcement, inspections, and elections—and driving workers to desperate measures to avoid death by illness, exposure, or starvation.

The main character, Jurgis, moves with his father, his fiance, and her family to America with the goal of making his fortune and earning her hand in marriage. He is a healthy, strong, hard-working man with great confidence in his own abilities and the promise of America, and little sympathy for preceding immigrants who complain about work, wages, and the stacked deck they claim to encounter daily. Slowly, tragically, Jurgis begins to see that the company he works for is manipulating everything, from the rumors he heard in Lithuania about good jobs in the U.S., to the shoddy home and shady terms he is conned into accepting, from the waste food and contaminated milk for sale in local stores to the readily available liquor (e.g., free food offered to starving men if they buy a drink) and other pleasures keeping others like him addicted and in debt.

Jurgis descends from capable working man to broken-down “wage slave,” criminal, and tramp, before ascending again through the Chicago underworld and political machine. Even from the inside, the machine destroys men; when he is rescued again, it’s the emerging socialist movement that does so.

The final chapters, on Jurgis’s conversion to socialism, are especially interesting to 21st century eyes. From the book’s introduction, it’s clear that at the time of his writing, Sinclair was a believer in socialism, but to me, the idealism of the final chapters read like another yawning trap: a system of intellectuals instead of capitalists, taking in the working class and promising more than they could ever deliver.

But the captivating part of the novel, in its twisted way, is the relentless degradation—physical, psychological, spiritual, and moral—of the human condition when humanity is disregarded, when workers become widgets, a cog or commodity to be bought at the lowest price, then worn out and replaced. Often those in need are in day-to-day survivial mode, with only poor choices presented to them, and little to no hope that tomorrow can be any better. They aren’t lazy, but isolated, hopeless, and ashamed. The community that finds them (if anybody does) is the community they embrace—for better or for worse.

Like the last book I wrote about, Hope Is the Last to Die, The Jungle is a difficult and harrowing read. It includes heartbreaking passages of loss and despair and stomach-churning descriptions of what was turned into “affordable food” in turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses and factories. Once again: not an easy read, but I’m glad to have read it. Once.

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