Industrialization, Capitalism and American Dream
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a novel whose veracity actually became a topic of federal investigation, provides another interesting example of the complex relation between fact and fiction and between naturalism and other literary and nonliterary discourses. The Jungle in many ways presents the appearance of a conventional novel: it has character, event, theme. Yet it is also profoundly shaped by the documentary strategy.
Although the novel is organized biographically, the course of the protagonist Jurgis Rudkus’s life follows a path which ensures that he will observe phenomena that interest Sinclair; he is conducted through a series of experiences that are not only representative but comprehensive, for this account of the meat-packing industry and the conditions of life for immigrant workers attempts to be encyclopedic.
When the Rudkuses arrive in Chicago the first thing they do is tour the packinghouses, giving occasion for sentences like this one: “The chutes into which the hogs went climbed high up — to the very top of the distant buildings; and Jokubas explained that the hogs went up by the power of their own legs, and then their weight carried them back through all the processes necessary to make them into pork. ” As Jurgis and other members of his family take jobs in various parts of the plants, the different operations — slaughtering, processing, canning and so on — are described in more detail.
Jurgis also works in a harvester factory and a steel mill, passing through periods of prosperity and of unemployment and want; eventually almost every vicissitude of working-class life befalls Jurgis or one of his relatives. Jurgis himself begins as a strong and successful wage earner, but he is injured on a job and has great difficulty supporting himself while recovering, spends time in jail after a conflict with a foreman, tramps in both the country and the city, joins a union but later works as a scab and then as a foreman, reaps the benefits of corrupt machine politics, and finally becomes a Socialist.
His wife is sexually exploited by her boss and dies in childbirth without competent medical care. His son drowns in a muddy street in Packingtown. His father dies of an illness caused by a job. His cousin becomes a prostitute. What Jurgis cannot experience at firsthand he learns about from others; for example, his cousin tells harrowing stories of women forced into prostitution and explains why she cannot save any money working in a brothel: “‘I am charged for my room and my meals and such prices as you never heard of; and then for extras, and drinks for everything I get, and some I don’t.
‘ . . . Seeing that Jurgis was interested, she went on: ‘That’s the way they keep the girls — they let them run up debts, so they can’t get away'” (p. 352). Jurgis even rounds out our map of the social order when he “chances” to meet the drunken son of a packing-house owner and is taken into a mansion built by a meat fortune to see how the other half lives. The novel is episodic, even disjointed, if one attempts to organize it in terms of plot; its coherence derives from the documentary strategy.
Its events are linked not directly to one another but through their common connection with the abstraction of the “jungle” and their relevance to the topic of the Chicago meat-packing industry and the lives of its “wage slaves. ” The Jungle demonstrates the metonymic, accretive nature of the documentary strategy, for despite its aspiration to provide a totalizing map of Chicago its most characteristic procedure is to pile horror upon horror just as London does in The People of the Abyss.
The action of The Jungle is produced less by the characters’ choices than by their reactions as one disaster after another bursts upon them. When Jurgis and his family buy a house, they discover that “it was not new at all, as they had supposed; it was about fifteen years old, and there was nothing new upon it but the paint, which was so bad that it needed to be put on new every year or two. The house was one of a whole row that was built by a company which existed to make money by swindling poor people.
The family had paid fifteen hundred dollars for it, and it had not cost the builders five hundred, when it was new” (p. 77). They find that they owe not just the monthly payments they have been told of but interest, so that it will be almost impossible for them to keep up the payments, and “when they failed — if it were only by a single month — they would lose the house and all that they had paid on it, and then the company would sell it over again” (pp. 77-78).
Portraying a political awakening is one way of suggesting the possibility of profound social change without violating the conventions of realism, and it is a strategy that emerges still more strongly in a later genre that has many affinities with naturalism, the proletarian novel. Jurgis’s transformation strikes the reader as such a dissonant and discontinuous element in this novel because it so obviously requires him to leave his native realm of victimage to become a character who exercises free will.
There is no pretense in The Jungle that the group Sinclair is writing about is the same or even has much in common with the group he is writing for. In a gesture we have encountered before, we find the narrator and reader clearly marked off from the characters by the very languages they use: Sinclair prefaces one description with the remark that “the reader, who perhaps has never held much converse in the language of far-off Lithuania, will be glad of the explanation that . . . ” (p. 2).
Although the only things that are recognizably Lithuanian about the Rudkuses are their names ( Sinclair even provides a footnote to tell us how to pronounce “Jurgis”), they are certainly foreigners. One might debate the exact degree of irony in that “perhaps” — I think it is considerable — and attempt to measure the exact width of this chasm between classes, but its existence is taken for granted. Throughout the novel the naturalist plays the role of the readers’ guide and interpreter in an alien land. But he is not a native of that land either.
Sinclair tells us in his autobiography that his own painful experiences of want — that is, his confrontation with proletarianization, to which his autobiography testifies at length — imbue the book with anguish, but that he is a stranger to the “jungle” of Chicago. The book is based on his research during “seven weeks lived among the wage slaves of the Beef Trust, as we called it in those days. People used to ask me afterward if I had not spent my life in Chicago, and I answered that if I had done so, I could never have written The Jungle; I would have taken for granted things that now hit me a sudden violent blow.
I went about, white-faced and thin, partly from undernourishment, partly from horror. ” 25 Despite the novel’s affirmation of the possibilities for change, the realms of knowledge and experience, the worlds of the observer and the participant, remain polarized, joined only by the narrator’s pity and good intentions. Nevertheless, The Jungle is famous as a novel that changed the world: an important progressive reform, the passage of the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts in 1906, is widely attributed to the public furore over conditions in the meat-packing industry that it created.
(It was this that motivated the intense scrutiny of Sinclair’s facts. ) But as Sinclair himself recognized, the movement for the inspection of meat had originated with the big packers themselves and ultimately benefited them by providing a guarantee of quality at government expense and removing obstacles to meat exporting. 26 And the reforms demanded by the horrified readers of The Jungle addressed not the condition of the workers but the menace of the unsanitary practices Sinclair reported — what bothered them was less the claim that men fell into the cooking vats
and died agonizing deaths than the revolting idea that “all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard! ” (p. 117). Sinclair wrote, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach. ” 27 He was neither the first nor the last socialist to set out to write of the iniquities of class society and find himself enmeshed in the mysteries of consumer society.
In a characteristic naturalist gesture, Sinclair appeals to his readers to pity the miserable, thwarted lives of the other half; yet he also pays a great deal of attention to unclean meat and does not distinguish the two concerns so clearly as his lament would seem to suggest. The revolting truth about meat revealed an avenue by which the unclean horrors of a world outside the campfire found their way into that well-lighted, respectable circle and exposed a potentially contaminating contact between the disorder of the slaughterhouse district and the haven of the middle-class home.
Although it clearly did not capture Sinclair’s full intent, the impulse to regulate and rationalize the meat-packing industry was a perfectly consistent response to Sinclair’s plea for reform. The connection illustrates the fundamental structural similarity, seen here in miniature and in Chapter 4 at length, between naturalism and progressivism. The social problems of Industrialization As depicted in The Jungle this century has seen dramatic changes in this pattern.
With the advent of legal equalitarianism, Industrialization, and a general rise in humanitarianism, social fixity has been succeeded, for thousands of groups, by a high degree of mobility. With the blurring of traditional social class lines and the removal of the more flagrant legal and economic privileges of certain classes, there has been marked change in the whole status structure of modern society. With a culture in which the ethic of success is compelling, it is only to be expected that status striving will become obsessive for large numbers of persons.
The struggle to succeed, to belong, to influence, lies behind remarkable achievements in all areas of our society. But it also lies behind some of the tragedies: lives broken by the struggle; individuals driven to means that are not tolerated by society, even though the ends which dictate the means are tolerated; children, as well as adults, who seek status security where they can find it, even when it lies in illegal or unmoral contexts. There is wreckage as well as achievement written in the story of social mobility.
Wherever the world’s population is experiencing Industrialization, family systems are also undergoing some changes, though not all these are being recorded. This means that at least some of the elements of the old family patterns, such as arranged marriages in China, are dissolving. Of course, if a family system is undergoing change, the rates of occurrence of these forms of disorganization, such as divorce, separation, illegitimacy, or desertion, may change. However, the new system may have lower rates of occurrence of certain forms of disorganization.
For example, the divorce rates in Arab Algeria and in Japan have been declining for half a century. In several Latin American countries, the rate of illegitimacy has apparently been decreasing. Prolonging life in industrialized countries has meant that fewer children must face orphan hood. Aside from these facts, the main structure of a family system may be altered only slightly by such changes in rates. Finally, though the old set of patterns is in part dissolved, it is usually replaced by a new set of patterns which is as determinate and controlling as the old one was.
Despite the importance of these forms of family disorganization for the individuals in the family, and thus for the society, the legal and formal structures of the society reflect little concern with these problems. If a couple in the United States decides to separate, no agency of the society acts, or is even empowered to find out that a separation occurred, unless the wife seeks financial support. There are few customs to guide the illegitimate mother or father, and once again the state moves only in narrowly defined circumstances (e. g.
if the mother wants to get on the relief rolls). If a wife becomes schizophrenic, or a child is born an idiot, few customs exist to help guide the family members and the formal agencies of the society do not act unless asked to do so. How Capitalism is hostile to the American Dream? The American Dream has been that every generation could look forward to a better life for its children. Is the dream becoming a nightmare? It is now actively discussed that Capitalism can not avoid a housing crisis that makes the word home a mockery to millions of families.
Capitalism can not avoid laying off men in favor of more profitable machines. It can not avoid depressions, when consumers can not buy, nor threats of war to stimulate business. Capitalism can not avoid edging to the brink of war, constantly, to secure raw materials and markets, and to exploit the labor power of other countries. Capitalism makes a travesty of political democracy when a poor man’s vote gives him choice only among candidates and polices which may be good for the largest corporations, but not for him. We have a noble traditon of democracy in this land.
The changes, as it has moved from an economy of scarcity in an undeveloped country to high production in a mechanized economy, demand that democracy be brought up to date. The rule of a few families controlling the nation’s resources is not the same thing as the rule of the people of the United States over themselves. Either we must have economic democracy, or we shall lose the political democracy our fathers fought and died to win. References Acemoglu, Daron. 2003. Cross-country inequality trends. Economic Journal 113 (February): 121–49. Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson.
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