Monday, December 16, 2013

Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle"

One of the most infuriating tribulations of being an English major is answering the ignorant question: “What’s the point of analyzing literature?” Even more infuriating is the follow-up question: “How do you know the author really meant that?”
My main answer—among many—to this question is: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).
The book is, at face value, a scathing exposure of the abject poverty in which American immigrants had to live at the turn of the twentieth century. From its discussions of hazardous working conditions to his condemnation of financial and social hierarchy, The Jungle was among the first texts to inspire change in governmental treatment of its workers.
The Jungle’s most crucial “subversion” was putting meat-packing practices in the limelight. Sinclair illustrated portraits of adult and child workers falling into rendering tanks and being ground with animal parts, which would then be packaged and sold to the public.
Sinclair cynically observed that the only reason his book garnered attention was “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”
The public’s reaction spurred The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 – a United States Congress Act that forces supervision of meat processing and prevents meat produced in unsanitary or unhealthy ways to be sold to the public. Even more, the book opened America’s eyes to the filthy, unpleasant living conditions of the poor, as well as obstacle to social mobility. The treatment of immigrants waned painstakingly slowly, but The Jungle was indeed a protest that made change possible.
That, my friends, is the contribution of literature. The Jungle is a fiction novel, and therefore not as straightforward as an essay or newspaper article would be. The novel required close readings, analysis, dissection. And without any of these, the meat you eat on a daily basis might very well be laden with a human appendages.
-Alex Hajjar 

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