Missing the Jungle for the Trees

When it comes to technology, I feel like I fall somewhere on the spectrum between savvy and Luddite. I have been faithfully using a Kindle Fire throughout this year, mostly for light web browsing and listening to various podcasts. But to date I have been too reluctant to actually buy any e-books for the Kindle Fire, even though that really is what the device is optimized to do. There is just something that does not seem right about dropping cash for a file so small that it could fit on a floppy disk, and in ten or so years has the potential to end up in the same graveyard of obsolete technologies.

But there is a work-around. Amazon offers a bunch of “classics” – popular books whose copyright has expired – for free. Enticed by the sound of free, I first read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy this winter and then moved on to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for the spring and summer.

Deciding to read The Jungle was a bit of a whim. I knew I had been in Chicago for some time and felt like I was overdue to read something that was from and about Chicago. Between high school U.S. history and a number of vintage posters hanging around the city, I knew that Sinclair’s 1906 novel had a significant impact on Chicago history. Convinced as anyone getting something for free needs to be, I clicked to download another e-book written before the advent of the computer.

Like many non-English majors starting out to read a classic novel for fun, I probably spent more time the first few months telling people I was reading The Jungle than actually sitting down and reading it. Often the conversation went something like “Oh, isn’t that the book that exposed the meatpacking industry?” I nodded yes, because by Chapter 3 Jurgis Radkus, Lithuanian immigrant and newlywed, had already gotten his first job at Brown’s slaughterhouse in the Packinghouse district, and I figured the gruesome depiction of twenty-five thousand cows, pigs and sheep being turned into food with mathematical efficiency was only going to get worse.

“The shriek was followed by another, louder and yet more agonizing — for once started upon that journey, the hog never came back; at the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley, and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy — and squealing.”

“They don’t waste anything here,” said the guide…”They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”

“The floor was half an inch deep with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men who kept shoveling it through holes…”

“The people of Chicago saw the government inspectors in Packingtown, and they all took that to mean that they were protected from diseased meat; they did not understand that these hundred and sixty-three inspectors had been appointed at the request of the packers, and that they were paid by the United States government to certify that all the diseased meat was kept in the state.”

Not even halfway through the book, however, Jurgis finds himself fired from the meatpacking plant, Chicago corruption being such that he has been blacklisted from the entire industry. The machine he was so excited to be a part of is now grinding against him. I was baffled – “if he’s not working the meatpacking industry anymore, then what is this book really about?”

Every jungle has rivers.

Each plot arc, I began to realize, was another episode in a disappointing cycle of hope hitting frustration into despair. A rent-to-own housing plan turns into a penniless eviction, a free man in the free world winds up in jail, his teenage sweetheart dies giving birth, and his precious three-year old son falls off the wood-plank sidewalk and drowns in a mud puddle. Heartbreak pushes Jurgis to escape the city, but the Illinois countryside spits him back out to the city. A fun night as the entourage of a millionaire playboy turns into humiliating verbal abuse, an entry into political cronyism ends with one misstep. Even Jurgis’ close relation, the confident and capable Marija, caves in to the pressures of “just getting by” and turns to prostitution.

And somehow, this story of immigrant life in and against the city got missed. The book that inspired the masses to support the “Meat Inspection Act” and the “Pure Food and Drug Act” was not about the food on our tables or much less the humane treatment of animals, but rather the humane treatment of humans. While certainly these consumer advocacy programs were good things, how was it that we were not equally moved to do stand up for the rights of people like Jurgis?

Sinclair, I recently discovered, lamented the public hermeneutic of selfishness through which The Jungle was received – “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

One character of note is the pretty young lady (found on Location #3158 on the Kindle edition) who, as a person of privilege and could easily of stayed in her own high-class bubble, choose to listen to stories of grit instead of escapist fantasies or the 1906-equivalent of reality TV foolery.

“They were rich people who came to live there to find out about the poor people; but what good they expected it would do them to know, one could not imagine…Elzbieta was glad to have somebody to listen, and she told all their woes–what had happened to Ona, and the jail, and the loss of their home, and Marija’s accident, and how Ona had died, and how Jurgis could get no work. As she listened the pretty young lady’s eyes filled with tears, and in the midst of it she burst into weeping and hid her face on Elzbieta’s shoulder, quite regardless of the fact that the woman had on a dirty old wrapper and that the garret was full of fleas.”

This is no 21st-century novel. Sinclair espouses an outdated breed of socialist thought, and the portrayal of Chicago’s African-American community shouldn’t have been cool then and isn’t cool now. Neither of these inadequacies disturb me as much as how many people read this best-selling book and how few seemed to have gotten the larger point.

What will happen when the 21st-century equivalent of The Jungle is published? For those of us who have the choice – are we going to be “pretty young ladies” (or gentlemen), willing to listen, cry alongside, and speak up for the oppressed voiceless? Or are we going to repeat the incomplete sympathies of the past, glimpsing into slaughterhouse horrors and thinking only about our own kitchen tables?

That equivalent may be a book, a movie, a live performance, something downloadable onto a Kindle, or even a person met on the street.

It would be shame if, once again, we missed the jungle for the trees.

Missing the Jungle for the Trees