Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

I didn’t expect this novel to be that good frankly. Upton Sinclair investigated Chicago’s meat packing district as a journalist, and rather than write up his findings in a series of expose articles, he decided to make a novel out of it. Sinclair was only in his late twenties when he wrote The Jungle, which was serialised in the socialist weekly paper Appeal To Reason. It was published in complete novel form in 1906.

The most famous aspect of this novel is how it prompted changes in hygiene laws for slaughtering and packing meat. The descriptions of what goes into meat will make you dizzy with nausea. But by far the great achievement of the novel is how Sinclair describes in unrelenting detail the merciless aspects of the capitalist system for those who work at its bottom. Sinclair shows how people are turned into fodder for the capitalist machine.

Is it art or propaganda though? I don’t know to be honest.
To this reader, it came across quite well as a novel. You sympathised with the characters and became quite indignant at all they endured. Yes, you realise as you read that it is socialist propaganda. Perhaps the reason that this novel endures is because the exploitation of the weak by the strong is something that continues to happen. How many free market, anti-globalisation protestors are there today?

So no, it’s not Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare or Proust. But still I’d call it literature.

The other book it reminded me of was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressel. Or even the films of Michael Moore, which are really a mix of art and propaganda, perhaps a genre different to either art or propaganda and requiring a title of its own.

The Jungle still deserves a wide readership today. For aspiring journalists it should be mandatory reading.

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