I’ve spent the majority of my 28 years with a vague notion of the book that is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I think I first learned about it in middle school, in relation to early 19th century American history and how it caused a ruckus with food safety regulations. Years ago, I picked up a copy of the book (a free Kindle edition) out of a faint desire to read it. Unfortunately (or fortunately for you, dear reader), I didn’t actually act on that desire until a week or so ago.
In order to understand my review of The Jungle, it is pertinent to understand the history of the book, as I took this knowledge on the journey through the stockyards of Chicago. I viewed the book as both a story and historical work.
Sinclair was a muckracker, a journalist who specialized in exposing corruption. His goal in writing The Jungle was to showcase the plight of immigrants to the US, as well as the working class of Americans at this time. Perhaps the most telling aspect of what the public actually took from the book (food safety reform outcry) is Sinclair’s own quote: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
To summarize the novel, a group of immigrants from Lithuania heads to Chicago, having heard of the large fortune to be made working in the stockyards that prepare most of America’s meat products. Unsurprisingly, there’s little wealth to be had for unskilled foreigners, and Jurgis and his family become a cog in the machine of poverty. The book generally follows the rule of “if something bad can happen, it will happen,” so it isn’t exactly a cheerful read. In the end, Jurgis joins the socialist party and begins to almost maybe survive in a way that is somewhat tolerable. The end.
As a story, the book is a bit bloated and odd. Most likely a sign of the time period in which it was written, certain aspects of the story seem long winded, especially when it comes to recounting different political speeches. If you’re a fan of descriptions, the book does a great job of setting the scene for what it’s like living and working in the stockyards in this time period, which is most likely what drove people to clamor for food safety regulations. The parts of the book describing the stockyards practices and procedures (chock full of corruption) aren’t suitable for the faint of heart.
The ending of the novel is odd, slowly tapering to a stop like a soapbox derby car reaching the end of what friction will allow it to accomplish. In the end, there’s simply a series of multiple-page conversations with one person speaking, followed by a single speaker making a call to action about socialism. The entire last 5% of the book is really socialist rhetoric. As such, it isn’t much of an ending. I guess the hero of the book wins, maybe?
From a historical point of view, the book was fascinating. The depiction of life, poverty, and the overall horrific conditions in which people worked, lived, and ate from are pretty horrendous and seem like they must be hyperbolic, but that isn’t the case. It’s pretty crazy to think that life and work in this area was actually like this at one point in time, and it’s hard to comprehend from today’s standards. It’s also horrible to think that there’s a lot of things about today’s standards and practices that we probably don’t know about, or that we do condone, that might horrify future generations.
Overall, I’d call this book a READ WITH CAUTION. As a historical research read, it’s pretty fascinating, but the story is bleak and isn’t much of a plot aside from heartache and death after heartache and death.