Many people read this book in high school, and if they didn’t, they should now. Not only is Upton Sinclair a phenomenal writer, but he’s also an inspiring political activist. At a time when workers had little to no rights, protections, or collective bargaining abilities, Sinclair brought cultural awareness to the food production epidemic in America. The Jungle is not only important for its critique of the industrial farming and food processing industry, however. It also brought attention to the significant problems of an ever-expanding wealth gap between the rich and poor. For anyone who thinks it’s economically sustainable to permit a small percentage of individuals to control the majority of the wealth in a country, please read The Jungle before opining any further.
The Jungle is about the story of Jurgis Rudkis, a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his family and fellow immigrants chasing a dream we all know too well – “The American Dream.” The book takes place in the early 1900s, before the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), or any other government body existed that recognized worker’s rights. The government inspectors who were there to check the meat processing in Packingtown (Chicago, IL) where Jurgis worked were often bought off, the police and courts were in the pocket of the industry, and the “Beef Trust” effectively ran the town. These captains of industry, following in the footsteps of Rockefeller and Carnegie, were ruthless businessmen who treated their workers like the cattle they were ordered to kill. The vivid descriptions Sinclair provides of the killing process is horrific and heinous, often including descriptions of diseased, rotted meat going into sausage or canned goods (all for human consumption). The working conditions were dreadful with streams of cattle blood often spilling to the floor. And God forbid one of the workers injured himself in the production process. Worker’s compensation were two words that had never before been seen together in the English language. And forget finding relief in the judicial system, for any judge hearing a lawsuit against the company was likely on the corporate payroll. In essence, the company ran the town, and everyone like Jurgis (who had to fight tooth and nail even for a spot on the production line) were slaves of labor to the company. If anyone had a problem working for the company, or if they could not keep up with the production line, there were hundreds waiting outside the facility waiting to try, and eager to feed their family.
A telling quote that described the general rule of Packingtown descriptively stated, “if you met a man who was rising in Packingtown, you met a knave. That man who had been sent to Jurgis’ father by the boss, he would rise; the man who told tales and spied upon his fellows would rise; but the man who minded his own business and did his work – why, they would “speed him up” till they had worn him out, and then they would throw him into the gutter.” As was the case for poor Jurgis, an immigrant who could barely speak English, but was fortunately as strong as an ox. He could outwork almost any man on the production line, but even the strongest did not survive the working conditions of Packingtown.
This book really makes the reader question “the American dream.” How could a country that espoused and promoted principles like freedom and equality for all continue to permit working conditions not even acceptable for barn animals? How could a country founded on the underlying philosophy, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of HAPPINESS”, allow immigrants and citizens alike to suffer and endure the worst working conditions imaginable? I haven’t even had a chance to describe the fertilizer plant Jurgis worked at after the meat production facility where fertilizer would cover his body, seep into his pores, and kill his senses of smell, taste, and sight by the end of a typical work day. He could not venture out into public without causing a scene of people trying to escape his pungent and foul bodily odor. You might think to tell Jurgis to find another occupation, or maybe stay in his home country, but as a nation built on immigration and given the low supply and high demand for jobs in Chicago, there were no other options for him. His life was threatened everyday in Packingtown from the dangerous working conditions. He did not have the liberty to find other work, and he could hardly pursue happiness because he had to work all day just to feed and provide shelter for himself, his wife, and some of the other immigrants in his care.
If The Jungle is not the most important book of the 20th century, then it’s definitely in the top 5. Not only did it create social awareness of working conditions in America that transcended class levels, but it also pressured the United States government to protect the rights of the working man. The Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act was passed shortly after its publication, creating the FDA, and the New Deal legislation further expanded the administrative state, creating entities like the NLRB to protect workers. Antitrust enforcement picked up in the early 1900s with Teddy Roosevelt fighting the corporate cartels with a strong central government capable of taking them head on. And while socialism never caught on (contrary to what Sinclair probably would have liked), a social safety net was created to protect the less fortunate among us.
Hundreds of paragraphs could be written on the cultural and historical significance of The Jungle. It spurred action in our country and helped us work toward a balance of capitalist pursuits and socialist concerns. The book is a great reminder that in a Capitalist economy there will always be winners and losers. While Socialism is probably not the answer, it’s important to be cognizant of worker’s rights and their ability to make a living wage in a healthy working environment. America was not founded on the principle that only those who succeed in the economic system can pursue happiness. Everyone, from Jurgis to any other disadvantaged person in our country, deserves a chance to enjoy their life, raise a family, and live well. That’s what freedom is all about.