Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on The Jungle

Upton Sinclair's aim in writing The Jungle was to call attention to the terrible plight of laborers in early 20th century America. His accomplishment was to call attention to the disgusting processes employed by an unregulated food industry to acquire livestock, slaughter it, can it and ship it to dinner tables across America. While Sinclair's initial readers didn't seem to grok the human costs of industrialization, they certainly understood the health risks posed by an unregulated food industry and demanded that the government take action to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, those risks. Sinclair's book did a lot of good, it just wasn't the good that he intended it to do. Sinclair summed it up well when he said, “I aimed for America’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The story (like Mario Puzo's The Godfather (was Puzo inspired by Sinclair?)) opens with a wedding reception. Sinclair uses this scene to introduce the reader to his characters and their culture. The bride and groom, their family members and various other attendees are Lithuanian immigrants who have arrived at the Chicago stockyards in pursuit of the American Dream. After the wedding feast, Sinclair follows his characters as they find jobs in the stockyards, purchase a home, have children, endure work slowdowns and unemployment, lose their home, health and loved ones, and slowly accept that the American Dream that drew them to this country was not going to be realized in their lives. Jurgis, the newlywed husband, begins the story with confidence and vigor, endures tragedy and hardship, leaves the stockyards to take up migrant farming, gets involved in petty crime and beggary, and only finds renewed hope when, at the end of the tale, he accepts and preaches the gospel of Communist socialism. Marija, a family member who emigrated with Jurgis, begins as a proud, hard-working woman and ends as a morphine-addicted prostitute. She doesn't find salvation in any ideology; like many other characters throughout the story, she simply resigns herself to her tragic fate. In Sinclair's capitalist jungle, there is only one way to redemption - and it's not Jesus Christ.

The Jungle, having inspired the reform and regulation of the American food industry, was a significant book in American history. Looking at what has transpired since its publication in 1906 (and recollecting that Sinclair's primary concern was to uplift the poor) and observing the plight of the American poor today, one can only wish that he had accomplished his primary mission more successfully. To cite just one example of how America's poor continue to suffer, nearly 48,000,000 (roughly 16%) of 303,824,640 people living in the USA in 2008 had no health insurance. This, in my view, is outrageous. I'm not convinced that the wealthiest country on the planet cannot do any better than this to promote the health of its citizens. I believe we have just lacked the political will and compassion to do so. Lack of decent health care services is not the only issue that matters to the poor (homelessness and absurdly low wages are just two of many others one can cite) but it is a critical one. Left unaddressed, particularly as baby boomers age, the human and financial costs of a dysfunctional health care system could cripple the American economy within 20 years (perhaps far less).

Speaking more broadly, it's time for us to recognize that the plight of the poor in America is not "their" problem or "someone else's" problem; it's our problem. It doesn't matter whether the issue is health care, education, obscene wage gaps or something else. Living in a society committed to equity entails sharing burdens as well as benefits. Upton Sinclair's jungle didn't disappear with the rotten cattle and swine of the past century; it's still with us. Our task is to tame it.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I totally agree. The plight of the poor can't be just ignored. It is our respnsibility as fellow human beings to do what we can.