1906: The Jungle

To the working men of America.

Upton Sinclair originally conceived what would become his classic exposé of the American meat packing industry as a book about “wage slavery.”

In The Jungle‘s Lithuanian protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, he recognized both an immigrant everyman and the raw material from which a new America would be born, a country that actually lived up to the principles it espoused by embracing a uniquely American brand of socialism.

Sinclair fervently believed not only in the working men to whom he dedicated the book but in an innate human drive to labor, and he captures at once the collision and fusion of two elemental forces – the fortress of industry and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – with a grace and heartfelt liveliness that make the book’s opening chapters as thrilling in the present day as they were for subscribers of the Midwestern socialist weekly Appeal to Reason, which first serialized the Jungle in 1905. In 1906, the published book reached a far wider audience, including the young MP Winston Churchill and then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

In the following excerpt, Jurgis and his family approach Chicago by train. Their first impressions of the city, captured in the vivid, swirling prose characteristic of Sinclair, mimics what it describes:

…along with the thickening smoke they began to notice another circumstance, a strange, pungent odor. They were not sure that it was unpleasant, this odor; some might have called it sickening, but their taste in odors was not developed, and they were only sure that it was curious. Now, sitting in the trolley car, they realized that they were on their way to the home of it – that they had traveled all the way from Lithuania to it. It was now no longer something far off and faint, that you caught in whiffs; you could literally taste it, as well as smell it – you could take hold of it, almost, and examine it at your leisure.

They were divided in their opinions about it. It was an elemental odor, raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid, sensual, and strong. There were some who drank it in as if it were an intoxicant; there were others who put their handkerchiefs to their faces. The new emigrants were still tasting it, lost in wonder, when suddenly the car came to a halt, and the door was flung open, and a voice shouted – “Stockyards!”

That unforgettable odor is only the first in the catalogue of (true) horrors that Sinclair serves up in The Jungle, but just a few pages later he also makes clear just how much he admires the awesome spectacle of industry and the role it has to play as an engine of human potential:

They stood there while the sun went down upon this scene, and the sky in the west turned blood red, and the tops of the houses shone like fire. Jurgis and Ona were not thinking of the sunset, however – their backs were turned to it, and all their thoughts were of Packington, which they could see so plainly in the distance . . . All the sordid suggestions of the place were gone – in the twilight it was a vision of power. To the two who stood watching while the darkness swallowed it up, it seemed a dream of wonder, with its tale of human energy, of things being done, of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity and freedom, of life and love and joy. When they came away, arm in arm, Jurgis was saying, “Tomorrow I shall go there and get a job!”

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