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April 15, 2009 / howardmestas


Everything But The Squeal

Everything But The Squeal

It was a Jungle out there!

Ever since Upton Sinclair’s, “The Jungle” first came into print in 1906, it has been has been used by generations as a tool to illustrate the corruption of the beef industry in turn-of-the-20th-Century Chicago. No doubt readers of every genre have cringed at the torturous descriptions of wailing animals and the spectacle of filthy, disease ridden disassembly lines producing every product imaginable including lard, sausage, glue, and fertilizer. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was shaken by this story and questioned whether-or-not tainted meat products were responsible for deaths in the Spanish American War. The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were the result of The Jungle. And although, the book’s notoriety may have made Sinclair famous, the resulting healthier meat products and increase in the number of vegetarians were unintended consequences.

Sinclair’s goal in the novel was to create an awareness of the greater human tragedy of urban slums and the factory systems throughout the world. He once wrote, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” For this reason the book’s effectiveness as a work of propaganda may not have been completely realized.

Sinclair was an ardent Socialist, and his goal from the beginning was to bring attention to the plight of workers. The book was commissioned by the largely circulated Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, with the goal of bringing attention to working-class liberation. He made his intentions clear when he first arrived in Chicago to research for the book 1904 and declared, “Hello! I’m Upton Sinclair, and I have come to write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the labor movement.” And although the book is a work of fiction, its content was based on indisputable facts about the ubiquitous graft and corruption dominating Chicago at the time. Only the names were changed to protect the innocent.

Sinclair used as his prop, an unfortunate and misguided group of Lithuanian immigrants to showcase the inequities of capitalism or the “wage slave” system. The story is seen through the eyes and mind of Jurgis Rudkus, a boldly ambitious young man, who despite his incredible strength and work ethic becomes a casualty of greed and avarice at a place called “Packingtown.” The villains of the story are the American Beef Trust, the corrupt political machine of Chicago, and capitalism altogether.

Rudkus brings with him to America, his aging father Antanas, his young fiancé Ona, and members of her family including her mother Elzbieta. When they arrive in Chicago Jurgis seeks employment in Packingtown, and because of his brawn, immediately finds work to the chagrin of the hordes of onlookers who fruitlessly wait daily for the opportunity of employment within the slaughterhouses and processing factory. Before long the realities of many desperate situations set in, and despite Jurgis’ pledge to “work harder,” the family goes deeper into a cycle of debt and poverty until every capable member of the family is forced to work in deplorable and dangerous conditions for paltry wages. The biggest contributor to their demise was being conned into purchasing a home they could not afford.

Before long, Ona dies in childbirth because they cannot afford a doctor and eventually their only surviving son drowns in a mud hole in a street near their tenement boarding house. In exhausted frustration, Jurgis abandons the family entirely and leaves for life as a hobo in the heartland. Eventually he returns to Chicago where he takes up every means of employment available; from being a criminal to a political operative, which in most cases by Sinclair’s description, are one and the same. His political shenanigans lead him back to Packingtown, where many betrayals leave him unemployed and eventually imprisoned. Ultimately, he ends up as a high risk beggar on the streets where nightly he faces death from freezing or starvation.

One particular evening he went indoors to join an audience listening to a speech, something he did frequently as a way of seeking refuge from the cold. This time, however, he was spellbound by a charismatic Socialist orator whose words seemed to be describing the agony of Rudkis’ travails on a personal level. From that point on, he became a Socialist “Comrade” with his life finally taking a positive turn and becoming all he had hoped for in coming to America. This is the part of the story that was supposed to be the epiphany of Sinclair’s book, that Socialism was the answer to all societal evils. Unfortunately for Sinclair, most reader’s minds were already more fixated about not eating Tubercular beef than on the plights of exploited workers. So, based on Sinclair’s original intent of promoting Socialism, his work of fiction was less effective as a work of propaganda.


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