Talk about badly dated.
Earlier this year, I called Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn “poverty porn”. I had no idea what I was talking about. No character in esteemed literary fiction, to my knowledge, has been through more trauma than Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—a novel which, in the hindsight of a century plus, seems more muck than muckraking. For Sinclair, it isn’t enough that Rudkus and his family emigrate from Lithuania to 1900s Chicago and sink into the inferno of the meatpacking factories. They also have to get robbed, starved, ostracized, sacked, blacklisted, jailed, prostituted, raped, drowned, diseased, backstabbed, subjected to deadly childbirth, conned out of every last penny, drenched in booze, stuck in blizzards, and killed (not in that order). I have nothing against narratives about despair; case in point, I’ll be reading The Painted Bird shortly. I do have plenty against narratives without nuance, in which one is either completely good or completely evil, either a total perpetrator or a total victim, with no ethical complications and no insight into the ways that iotas of humor, ritual and hope can assist people in surviving the direst holocausts. The characters of Sinclair’s Packingtown are zero-dimensional. Rudkus is Baltic muscle, and nothing else. These people have no agency; they are less people who do than people to whom shit is done. And Sinclair the novelist’s exclusive interest is assuring that as much shit is done to these poor suckers as possible. The Book of Job had a point to make about faith in God. Sinclair’s point is…what, exactly?
I was honored to see Slavoj Zizek speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia almost two years ago. He told an anecdote about a lecture he was giving to a group of ethnic Somalis in Minnesota (I believe), during which he stated that if someone came up to him and starting imploring him to help “the starving children in Somalia,” he’d reply—in his über-thick Slovenian accent—“Fuck off! I’m trying to write my book on Hegel!” How do you think the Somali audience reacted? Let me tell you: they applauded him, because they understood that talking about Somalia like that is manipulative and exploitative, and more often than not loaded with toxic careerist intentions. The belief that Somalia is only what the news shows us about it—depraved, backwards and miserable—is racist, and any charity that reverts to the old colonialist rhetoric about how these guys “need our help” deserves to see their condescension mocked with relish. This generation of Somalis have seen a share of trauma and uprooting and have been without stuff we in the West take for granted, true. But those who have survived and not fallen prey to ideological crap—and most of us do survive—have formed unseen social structures by which they care for themselves and each other, and it is their incremental changes to the Somali political infrastructure, not greater access to Western resources, that will change their circumstances in the long run. Of course, I could be discussing any Third World nation, failed or otherwise.
Sinclair was a Socialist. Zizek is a qualified Marxist. I proudly voted for Bernie Sanders. I cannot imagine Zizek or Sanders liking this book any more than I did. Its naked manipulation puts it right at home with today’s caged puppy infomercials and guilt-inducing doomsday clickbait. (Maybe this hasn’t dated so badly after all.) I can at least respect Sinclair’s effort to expose every back alley on the map of corruption in the Chicago of his time. As nonfiction, that might work; as literature, in execution, it’s preposterous. This author spends three hundred plus pages unloading every single catastrophe he can think of onto the Rudkus family, in ways increasingly contrived and implausible. Every time Jurgis’ prospects are raised, Sinclair crushes them by the beginning of the next chapter at the latest. The effect is repetitive and numbing. Not that said prospects matter. It isn’t so much that Jurgis’ happier moments weren’t a relief because I, the reader, figured out they’d be fleeting. It’s that when the novel is happy, it’s a fairy tale, and when it’s mired in its characteristic gloom, it’s maudlin, self-indulgent, self-serving, and totally ignorant of the complex personalities that created and sustained Gilded Age capitalism, so many of whom were shamed into philanthropy towards life’s end. (Assuming that exploitation of labor for profit is done for sadism is historically irresponsible.) Throughout, the initially promising view into Lithuanian culture turns glib quickly and remains so, and the only aesthetic concern evident in the prose is the infinity of ways in which agony can be detailed.
Much of this novel’s abject failure stems from Sinclair’s inability and unwillingness to decide just what he ought to write. Jurgis has no definition and no identity. Depending on the author’s whims, Jurgis is alternately a sweeper of cow entrails, an assembly line worker, an unemployed drunkard, a vigilante, an imprisoned victim of injustice, an orphan, a widower, a father to a dead child, a hobo, a witness to American ostentation, a petty burglar, a bellhop, a political activist…and so forth. The sense of genre thus becomes deeply muddled. The best counterexample I know is John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a socialistic account of America and Europe in the years before the Depression that achieves its panoramic scope by conglomerating a cross section of characters from different literary genres and regions. The hobo, the capitalist huckster, the war vet, the socialite, the Hollywood star, the aspiring artist—these and more are all well defined by the literary conventions they embody, and they play off each other as Dos Passos scathingly attacks those conventions as part and parcel of consumerist capitalism’s stultifying mode of production. Desperate to capture the zeitgeist of Chicago with similar ambition but less space, Sinclair crams all of his favorite archetypes into an everyman vessel, meant to represent a whole society while really being a cipher. Halfway through, I stopped keeping track of Jurgis’ shifts and gave up on trying to delineate the other characters. I didn’t care.
No ending could have saved this unfocused, pandering, steaming guano heap of a book, but I was at least hopeful that Sinclair would see his pessimistic vision through to its logical end and have Jurgis martyred, hackneyed as it would be. Not the case—the final chapters are a cop-out. Socialism saves and redeems Jurgis, nabbing him a stable job and income, and the last few paragraphs portend a Eugene Debs presidency. (Never mind that to get there, Jurgis has to abandon his family in an act of cowardice—a convenient means for Sinclair to dump characters that he was making up along the way and that thus weren’t working, where the mounting death toll simply won’t do. Man, this book.) It took me a while to finish reading this, and as a result, my yearlong project was nearly derailed. In that hiatus, I thought a lot about how some youths go into the arts to strike it rich, while others aim to create actual fucking Art and/or to make a difference in the world through their Art. And because the young are frequently demeaned as stupid and naïve, their urges for creativity and invention are cruelly labeled pretentious, their idealism interpreted as evidence of a political agenda, and their output dismissed—hence the market domination of genre fiction and vapid Alice Munro wannabes. This begs the question: how can literature change the world if experiment and agenda are frowned upon? Here’s what I’ve learned: you start with the story and characters, and let everything stem organically from there. Remember the immortal last lines of Middlemarch: excessive ambition breeds disappointment, best laid plans backfire, and the ones who leave a mark on history are the ones you least expect. The Jungle got us the FDA; its importance in letters stops there. As we trundle around in a new Gilded Age, gearing up for yet another lesser-evil-versus-greater-evil election year, we need authors who can wrestle with the dilemmas of capitalism and socialism more honestly than Upton Sinclair ever did.