What a fine time to read “The Jungle,” published in 1906. Not only was Chicago in economic straits way back then, but the answer—at least as posited by Upton Sinclair—was Socialism.
I’ve known of this book all my life, but it had never been on a class list and for casual reading I tend to pick up bouncier works. This story is the heavy tale of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, who brings his family to Chicago’s Packingtown. They land jobs, find a house, and seem to have bright prospects. But the system exploits them, and they lose health, wealth, jobs, filial bonds, even honor and life. (One character is eaten by rats.) Jurgis plows from one point in the abyss to the next, and the reader gets a tour of the underside of Windy City capitalism. Quite amazingly, Sinclair writes so well that the ghoulish imagery is somehow palatable and the polemics remain within bounds. “So he went on, tearing up all the flowers in the garden of his soul, and setting his heel upon them,” writes the author in a line that pretty well sums up the whole approach.
Halfway through the book, some light shines (on Christmas) in the person of “genial freebooter” Jack Duane, the safecracker, who introduces Jurgis to alternate means of survival. Now the immigrant briefly flourishes, and the tour shifts to Chicago’s hotbeds of vice and politics. Jurgis even gains admittance to a meat packer’s resplendent mansion and tastes Champagne: “[He] took the bottle and turned it up to his mouth, and a wonderfully unearthly liquid ecstasy poured down his throat, tickling every nerve of him, thrilling him with joy.” The businessmen and their families are presented as naught but parasites. It’s today’s equivalent of pointing a finger at the corporate chieftain who flies to Washington on a business jet. Damn them all!
Finding himself ultimately injured, unable to work or maraud, the starving Jurgis throws himself onto the bosom of family and the lap of Socialism. The reader’s reward is an antiquated harangue about the Socialist Utopia. Or maybe it’s the Socialist future. Jurgis is redeemed, and Sinclair has ensured that the bitter personal losses have slipped away into the shadows of the Capitalist past.