Banned Book Club: The Jungle

Title: The Jungle

Published: 1906

Author: Upton Sinclair

Challenge status:  #45 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and frequent target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #13 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: I think this is the first book I’ve read on the list that was banned/challenged due solely to the political philosophies espoused by the book, or attributed to the author. Specifically, Sinclair was a socialist.

  • Challenged interestingly, ALA doesn’t provide any info on US-based challenges.
  • Removed/Banned Yugoslavia (1929), East Germany (1956), and South Korea (1985).
  • Burned in the Nazi bonfires because of Sinclair’s socialist views (1933)

First line: “It was four o’clock when the ceremony was over and the carriages began to arrive”.

Synopsis: The book starts badly and each chapter that follows gets worse. Set in Chicago’s “Packingtown” at the turn of last century, the novel tells the tale of Jurgis Rudkus and his family, recent immigrants from Lithuania. The Rudkus family finds themselves trying to make a living in the shocking conditions of the profit-maximizing, corrupt, and disinterested meat-packing industry.

The book has the tonality of an investigative journalist who wants to communicate something big, brutal, and shocking to an audience that is surprised by nothing and thinks of facts as abstractions. In this way, the characters feel like simple devices to string one set of horrors to another. There is another interpretation, of course, that the character’s are never able to develop depth because their environment grinds them down and they are not able to survive, much less thrive.

Before reading the book, I thought the emphasis was on the unsanitary conditions of the meat-packing business, and the sweatshop-type employment practices. Oh no, it is a far more graphic underbelly shot of poverty. Every contract (including their mortgage) has fine print, every event leaves the family in debt, every job they can bribe their way into has working conditions that will ultimately kill them, if they don’t starve to death the poor quality of food available to poor people will poison them (baby formula bulked out with toxic chemicals). Children forge ID’s to allow them to work longer hours. Unions and elections get bought wholesale, the criminal element willfully pays for their freedom with stolen goods – as long as they don’t cross the wrong person. And then in the workyards themselves – sewing casings for hams in the dark, breathing in the airborne death of the fertilizer plant, walking knee-deep in eviscera, washing hands and tossing cigarette butts into still-water that will eventually be used as an ingredient in sausage, simply knowing the ingredients in “potted spiced ham”. Yes, it’s pretty freaking gross. Here is a typical passage (takes place when the strike-breakers are living in the stockyards, to keep the business open and the workers safe while the union is protesting/on strike):

The “Union Stockyards” were never a pleasant place, but now they were not only a collection of slaughterhouses, but also the camping place of an army of fifteen or twenty thousand human beasts. All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations, upon tends of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks, and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them; and there were not merely rivers of hot blood, and car-loads of most flesh, and rendering cats and soap cauldrons, glue factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell–there were also tons of garbage festering in the sun, and the greasy laundry of the workers hung out to dru, and dining f=rooms littered with food and black with flies, and toilet rooms that were open sewers.

Through this narrative style, Jurgis lives out several points-of-view (all dark, all dead-ended) until accidentally finding himself seeking shelter from the cold at a socialist rally. This “worldwide brotherhood” gives him something he’d never really had before – a connection into a bigger picture, with role models and colleagues (comrades) he could relate to. Here too, the author sets-up characters and situations as strawmen so he can quickly and easily tear them back down and continue his plotline (example, the professor of philosophy who “wins” the debate at dinner, but with a point of view completely unmoored from any practical reality: impressive to hear but not useful).

That is not to say that the book isn’t interesting, but it is mostly useful as a snapshot of reality. Immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe living in the Chicago metropolitan area, isolated and with limited employment opportunities, end up self-destructing on the wheel of industry/capitalism. A parallel story to Native Son, which takes place in another Chicago neighborhood 25-30 years later. Both questioning – what makes freedom? And what are the effects of capitalism – and all that come with it – on a democracy?

What do you think?

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