Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle" is an incredible book that is well known for its condemnation of the unsanitary conditions of meat packing plants, but many people today don't know that this book had a much wider, immense scope, and ambition. He also dealt with issues of racism, immigration, poverty, capitalism run rampant, and social injustice.
It's not out of line to say that Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle" is arguably one of the best American books of the 20th century. This book is written like fiction while displaying the actual real conditions of America for immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, who comes looking for the American Dream in the early 20th century and finds nothing but pain, heartache, and terrible conditions for everyone in oppressive poverty.
Upton Sinclair shows that even as the immigrants struggle to survive, that they come to realize that it's a hopeless battle. They work in the packinghouses which take advantage of their slave-like labor while bringing poverty, disease, death, injury, injustice, rape, jail and hopelessness. With no other options and a thousand men clamoring at the gate for their job, they are held in their position with no chance at improvement or escape.
Upton Sinclair uses the story of Jurgis to show the first hand experiences of a system where capitalism runs amuck without any checks or balances. In the drive for even a half-penny extra of profit, spoiled meat is bribed past inspectors, men are crushed and killed, waste is driven wholesale into public drinking water and people are made sick by the tens of thousands so a few very rich guys at the top can get a little richer.
This is an amazing book, though its main weaknesses are the same that are brought up with the majority of Upton Sinclair novels. One is that the opening is slow. It takes a long time in the early chapters to introduce all the characters, and the other is that the ending reads like propaganda. Upton Sinclair believed that all literature was propaganda, so this isn't surprising.
These are minor weaknesses to an overall amazing book that was one of the most influential in American history. Many believe that only Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin" had more of an influence on the United States than Upton Sinclair.
"The Jungle" is the perfect example of a lost art: an amazing fictional story illustrating a point far more greatly than non-fiction could hope to. Most fiction nowadays trying to do the same comes across as preachy, and doesn't spend enough time on the story. Upton Sinclair's novel is amazing, and should continue to be read today as a reminder of what literature can do to help society, and to not forget about how bad things used to be.
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