documentary fiction

Remembering Upton Sinclair's 1906 exposé of meat trade, The Jungle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm

Next time you have a bad day at the office, just be glad you don't work in the slaughterhouse described in the exposé The Jungle.

"The meat would be shovelled into carts, and the man who did the shovelling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one - there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit," wrote Californian social crusader Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair's fictionalised account anchored in journalistic research is grim, gross and even disgusting, but you have to respect his unflinching stance.

Meet Sinclair's dysfunctional hero, Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, who is trying to survive in Chicago. In desperation, Rudkus starts working at local meat-packing plants, but still falls into debt and is preyed on by confidence tricksters.

Determined to buy a house, Rudkus and his wife squander their savings on the down-payment for an unaffordable hovel. Evicted, they lose the investment and sink deeper into debt and wretchedness.

The nadir comes when Rudkus' wife reveals that her boss has raped her and made her tenure dependent on sexual favours. Enraged, Rudkus exacts his revenge and is jailed but eventually released, leaving him free to seek redemption after flirting with crime and temporarily becoming a drink-sodden hobo.

At The Jungle's corny conclusion, the wayward slaughter-hand finds himself through socialism. The power of the novel with the glib medieval-morality-tale ending lies in its gutsy, graphic description that reeks of the author's reportage.

In its day, Sinclair's take on the meat industry caused such a stir that it resulted in legislative change, despite US President Theodore Roosevelt's initial contempt for Sinclair. In fact, Roosevelt saw Sinclair as a crackpot because of the muckraker's socialist stance, which only makes The Jungle's impact even more impressive.

The exposé, which cited workers falling into rendering tanks and being chewed up into lard with animal parts, appalled the public.

The angry, widely misunderstood masterpiece surfaced after the socialist weekly newspaper Appeal to Reason assigned Sinclair to scrutinise working conditions in the meatpacking sector.

Obliquely, the carnage chronicled in The Jungle presaged the then-impending orgy of slaughter meant to end all mass slaughter: the first world war.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (Doubleday, Jabber & Co)