Monday, March 1, 2010

The Jungle

Our focus on immigration and workers in Chicago during the past few weeks has constantly reminded me of issues present in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Written in 1906, The Jungle was meant to be an exposé of the unfair working conditions of Chicago meatpacking workers, but it ended up causing more outrage at its description of the horrors found in the meat factories of Chicago. Though the book is fiction, Sinclair lived in Chicago while doing research for the novel and experienced the actual conditions that real workers dealt with and used that for his depictions in the novel. While most readers may have focused on the disturbing things being done to their meat, the novel did bring some attention to the plight of the working, and mainly immigrant, class in Chicago. The Jungle and investigations into the meatpacking industry that followed led to the creation of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and eventually helped bring about the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Sinclair was disappointed with the lack of improvement for the working class that the novel caused and said that "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

The primary characters of The Jungle are Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago and would have faced many of the same hardships as the White and African Americans immigrants from the South did. They came to Chicago to improve their lives just as all immigrants did and also found that life did not live up to their expectations. Many characters in the novel, including the main character Jurgis, are involved with the Socialist movement as they struggle for improvements in their working lives, just like many immigrants did in Chicago at the turn of the century during the height of the labor movements. Sinclair was given money from a Socialist newspaper to write The Jungle and was a political activist himself, both of which could have contributed to the Socialist themes present in the novel. Along with the articles we’ve been reading, The Jungle helps us see another individual view of the history of Chicago and how the forces of immigration and labor have shaped that history.

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