Christopher Phelps: How Should We Teach 'The Jungle'?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Christopher Phelps is an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University at Mansfield and editor of a 2005 edition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (Bedford/St. Martin's).]

... Originally published by Doubleday, Page in 1906, and celebrating its centennial in February, The Jungle describes a callous America in which the dollar trumps justice. It famously exposed the American meatpacking industry's loathsome practices and prompted federal consumer-protection laws. It is, however, primarily a sympathetic sketch of the foreign born, those fabled "masses yearning to breathe free" that Americans welcome in our poetry and disdain in the breach. Sinclair declared The Jungle the first American "proletarian novel," and he may have been right. What major work before it focused upon an immigrant worker's quotidian efforts to keep head above water?

The hard-knock experiences of the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus in turn-of-the-century industrial Chicago seemed at far remove from my and my classmates' experience. Jurgis's misery was as foreign to us as the agonies of Ivan Denisovich, the fictive Soviet prison-camp victim whose bleak predicament Alexander Solzhenitsyn portrayed in a novella we also read.

Even as The Jungle appealed to the social conscience, then, it fostered complacency. Our teacher framed the novel within a comforting narrative of liberal progress. Enlightened social policies and economic growth had checked corporate abuses and widened the country's range of economic beneficiaries.

Teachers have not been alone in positioning the novel within a mythos of progress. Sinclair himself did. "There is now," he wrote in 1956, "adequate inspection of all meat products, and the workers in all the stockyards have strong unions and are able to protect their rights."

Already by the 1950s, however, the gains won by the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s were being undermined as union density and wages began to erode with the first plant closings. By the 1970s, working-class incomes had flatlined. In Mansfield, Ohio, where I now teach, a steel mill and a GM plant remain, but the employment horizon is dominated by the Wal-Mart model: low wages, few benefits, and rapid turnover.

Symbolic was the 1971 closing of Chicago's Union Stock Yards, that immense maze of pens described in The Jungle where cattle and hogs were unloaded and run through chutes to the top floors of the giant meatpacking concerns. The shutdown, however, did not herald "deindustrialization" or "postindustrial" America. It merely signified a change of venue.

As companies abandoned urban packinghouses, they erected state-of-the-art plants in rural locales in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. The objective was to break the unions, drive down wages, and speed up processing. Trailblazing this "competitiveness" of the 1960s and 1970s was Iowa Beef Processors (now absorbed into Tyson Foods).

None of this was visible to me when I — in Iowa, no less — first read The Jungle as a tale from some America long extinct.

What's more, President Ronald Reagan and succeeding Republican presidents gutted the interventionist state by deregulating the meat industry. Today inspection is at an all-time low, and agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture are difficult to distinguish from the agribusiness conglomerates they oversee.

The result is a reversion to the conditions of The Jungle. Processing lines now move 350 heads of cattle per hour, a rate far faster than Sinclair witnessed. Consequent splattering of fecal matter increases the occurrence of E. coli and other food-borne threats. Meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in the country, with workers suffering high rates of laceration and disabling injury....

In an interesting, if disregarded, article published in American Studies in 1991, "The Problem With Classroom Use of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle," Louise Carroll Wade, a social historian, finds the novel entirely without historical merit. Because Sinclair was a member of the Socialist Party, she maintains, he "loaded the dice" by ignoring "how millions could consume Chicago meat without ill effects." The demise of the Rudkus family, she argues, is far-fetched, given the statistically improbable series of disasters that befall it within a few years' time. Finally, she objects, the novel overlooks religious and ethnic institutions such as the Catholic Church that provided a safety net for working-class immigrants.

While few historians share Wade's categorical dismissal of The Jungle, her article serves as a helpful reminder of the distortions that will result from literal-minded readings of a document that is, after all, a novel. Wade is entirely correct, for example, that no single worker would experience every calamity that besets Jurgis. If, however, we consider Jurgis a literary personification of the whole immigrant working class, then The Jungle illuminates social history. Scholars of Lithuanian culture admire the opening scene in which Jurgis marries his childhood sweetheart, Ona, because it poignantly conveys the difficulty of preserving Old World traditions in the New World. Labor historians find the book insightful about such very real phenomena as mass production, cyclical employment, disease, disability, low wages, weak labor unions, and explosive strikes.

The Jungle, to be sure, is far from flawless. Sinclair portrayed African-Americans in a racist manner typical of his time, making them mainly into strikebreakers. Similarly, Sinclair's temperance outlook, shaped by his childhood trauma of watching his father descend into drunken oblivion, renders alarmist his treatment of alcohol. Finally, as literary critics note, the novel suffers from undue sentimentality and political didacticism.

How, then, should we teach The Jungle today? If we grasp that history need not imply an unbroken arc of progress, and if we accept that realism is constructed, we should be able to present the novel to students in more sophisticated ways. It ought to be possible to consider The Jungle as both a transcription of social life and a work of literary imagination, as both reportage and social criticism....

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