‘Chicago will be ours!’

The kind of anguish that comes with destitution, that is so endlessly bitter and cruel, and yet so sordid and petty, so ugly, so humiliating – unredeemed by the slightest touch of diginity or even of pathos. It is a kind of anguish that poets have not commonly dealt with; its very words are not admitted into the vocabulary of poets – the details of it cannot be told in polite society at all. How, for instance, could anyone expect to excite sympathy among lovers of good literature by telling them how a family found their home alive with vermin, and of all the suffering and inconvenience and humiliation they were put to, and the hard-earned money they spent in efforts to get rid of them? After long hesitation and uncertainty they paid twenty-five cents for a big package of insect powder – a patent preparation which chanced to be ninety-five per cent gypsum, a harmless earth which had cost about two cents to prepare. Of course it had not the least effect, except upon a few roaches which had the misfortune to drink water after eating it, and so got their inwards set in a coating of Paris. The family, having no idea of this, and no more money to throw away, had nothing to do but give up and submit to one more misery for the rest of their days.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

In this book, ‘the best and most powerful proletarian novel ever published in the United States,’ (according to Ronald Gottesman) Sinclair tells the story of Jurgis, a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to Chicago with his family to find work and live the American Dream. However, Jurgis soon finds that work is simply a poverty trap. His job at the meatpacking plant is back-breaking and physically dangerous, and doesn’t pay enough to live on. One by one his family are picked off by preventable accidents and disease. By the first half of the book, Jurgis has lost his home, and the novel’s second half deals with his travels and careers as a beggar, a convict, a drunk, a criminal, a political fixer and finally as a campaigning socialist.

Sinclair was an unashamed ideologue, of course: his synopsis for The Jungle claimed that ‘it will set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labour of men and women for profits.’ The novel was a success. On reading it, Theodore Roosevelt immediately contacted Sinclair and promised to improve the horrific conditions in the meatpacking industry. Sinclair himself was politically active, and ran for governer of California in the 1930s. From Gottesman’s introduction:

[Sinclair’s] campaign, with its espousal of production for use rather than of profit, was bound to provoke powerful opposition, and once Sinclair had won the primary, the major newspapers, the movie industry, and large corporate interests combined forces to attack him with unprecedented ferocity. In the end, Republican Frank Merriam won, but California politics were permanently changed, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was encouraged to move national Democrat policy to the left.

And they say literature changes nothing.

The overt agenda of this book did not prevent Sinclair from bringing alive the human cost of work. He paints deprivation with an almost sadistic sensuality. The endless exhaustion, the millions of little compromises, the multitude of hidden costs – Sinclair brings it all home. It’s a harrowing book, and you’ll get angry reading it. Sinclair could turn Milton Friedman into a socialist.

Needless to say, The Jungle still has resonances today. Eric Schlosser read the book before writing Fast Food Nation, his expose of the corporate food giants. This is Schlosser describing a Nebraska slaughterhouse operation:

The animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and he stands over them and shoots. For eight and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air. I watch the knocker knock cattle for a couple of minutes. The animals are powerful and imposing one moment and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready for carving. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and gets its head caught in one end of a conveyor belt. The production line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but alive, from the machinery.

And this is Sinclair:

There were cattle which had been fed on ‘whisky-malt’, the refuse of the breweries, and had become what the men call ‘steerly’ – which means covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared with blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so he could see?

Had I not identified the authors of these passages you would only be able to tell them apart through language and tone.

Only a nihilist would say nothing has changed since the 1900s. Yet throughout the novel, I kept finding startling parallels not just with modern industry, but with contemporary working life in general. There are still high death rates in industry, particularly in construction. There are still people dying from industrial diseases accumulated from decades of toil. There are still people who never see daylight in the months of winter. There are still unscrupulous recruitment agents who herd people into dead-end jobs for massive commissions. There are still desperate men and women queuing for day labour before dawn. There is still the bitter credo that ‘when you have once got a job… you hang on to it, come what will.’

All this is overseen by a supine government that allows the rich to pay less tax than their office cleaners, while taking hard-earned cash from Britain’s working poor. And, as Irvine Welsh said, people will still stampede over each other to catch the scraps from the rich man’s table.

If nothing else, Sinclair’s book will destroy all romantic illusions about work: for work is not something that is character-building, or a force for social mobility; work is humanity’s curse, and takes away time you could spend living.


One Response to “‘Chicago will be ours!’”

  1. Reading at work « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] centres: The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, or Carl Hiaasen’s Nature […]

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