(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Jungle (1906)
By Upton Sinclair
Book #64 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
(Much of today's plot recap was cribbed from Wikipedia, for reasons that will become clearer below.) Originally published in 1906, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is a sprawling look at the typical immigrant experience in America back then, before most of the laws regarding things like workplace safety, minimum wage and city zoning had been created; following a family of twelve who have recently arrived in Chicago from their troubled home of Lithuania, Sinclair's main point is to show that, unlike the rose-tinted tales of gold-paved streets and self-determination that were the common narrative among capitalists back then, in fact an unregulated free-market system is designed from its very core to exploit the poor and uneducated, that in fact such a system wouldn't even work if it wasn't for the ease in which such people can be manipulated and taken advantage of. And so do we watch in growing horror as our hapless English-challenged hero Jurgis Rudkus first gets swindled out of all his money, then gets evicted from a slum, then faces a living nightmare in his job at the infamous Chicago Stockyards, then has his wife die during childbirth because they can't afford a doctor, then has his son die by literally drowning in mud in the middle of a public street, then becomes a bitter drifter and hobo, before finally having his soul saved by almost accidentally falling in with a group of socialist agitators, the book ending on a bright note as our author stand-in envisions out loud a future world that is fair and equal to all.
The argument for it being a classic:
There's a simple argument to be made for why The Jungle should be considered a classic, claim its large cadre of passionate fans, which is the massive influence it had on the real world -- namely, people at the time were so horrified by its stomach-churning accounts of the meatpacking industry, the US formed the Food & Drug Administration directly because of it, which over the decades has become one of the most important and powerful government agencies in the entire country. That's an astounding reaction to a simple, small melodrama by a semi-obscure writer, the equivalent perhaps of a random tech-blogger in North Dakota singlehandedly convincing Congress to declare the internet a public utility and ban all private cable companies; and the reason the book managed to accomplish this, they say, is because of being so powerful and heartbreaking, one of the best examples you'll ever find of the then-new "Social Realist" literary style which would go on to inspire pretty much an entire generation of politically motivated authors in the 1920s and '30s. A book that does exactly what it aims to do -- that is, make its readers angry and disgusted at the appalling way blue-collar workers were treated in an age before social-welfare laws -- The Jungle is a prime example of the novel format's ability to do things besides just tell an entertaining tale, an ability that was only being seriously explored in this format for the very first time in these years, yet another reason this groundbreaker should be considered an undeniable classic that every person should read before they die.
The argument against:
To understand the problem in general with The Jungle, say its critics, simply look at that specific tale its fans tell about it inspiring the formation of the FDA, and how that's not really all of the story when you stop and examine it; how as even Sinclair himself lamented many times in his later years, the whole point of his book was supposed to be to show off the inherent evil of a capitalist middle class and to inspire a violent socialist revolution to overcome them, while the reaction from the actual capitalist middle class was to be horrified at the condition of the food they were putting into their mouths, while continuing to not give a toss about the people who actually worked at these factories, or about any of the other 75 percent of this novel that doesn't have to directly do with the subject of workplace cleanliness. And so while it's admirable that the book had the kind of real-world influence that it did, its critics claim, that's really something more for history class than the world of the arts; and that the novel taken just on its own is actually pretty terrible, an overly serious doom-n-gloomer that never just makes its points when it can instead write those points down on a wooden two-by-four and then beat you in the back of the head repeatedly with it as hard as humanly possible. ("CAPITALISM IS BAD!" WHACK!!! "CAPITALISM IS BAD!" WHACK!!! "CAPITALISM IS BAD!" WHACK!!! And sheesh, the less we talk about the twenty-page literal sermon on socialism that Sinclair uses to end the book, the better.) A writer who these days would be just as unknown as the hundreds of other hacky schlockmeisters churning out "poor lil' immigrant" stories in those same years, if it hadn't been for its accidental success in exposing the meatpacking industry at the exact moment in history when it needed to be, The Jungle is certainly a book to be admired but not necessarily to be read anymore, say its critics, and it's the perpetual assigning of this badly-written book in high-school lit classes that's partly to blame for so many Americans despising literature by the time they're done with school.
So leaving aside today the question of their actual politics (which to be clear, I'm also not a fan of), I've discovered over the years a big common problem with most of the artistic projects made by radical liberals, an issue that came up yet again while I was reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for this essay series last year; namely, that radical liberals tend to lack even the slightest understanding of subtlety or humor, which makes nearly every artistic project ever made by a radical liberal (from Great Depression novels to Michael Moore documentaries) a joyless, patronizing chore, not enjoyable on its own but something we're usually literally forced to endure, because it's supposedly important and good for us and beneficial to society. (Although to be fair, most artistic projects by radical conservatives suffer from the exact same problems; it's not the left or right I have a particular problem with, but rather those who claim that a political purpose excuses an artistic project from needing to have any artistic merit.) And so it is with The Jungle as well, which I plainly confess is one of the handful of books in this essay series I eventually gave up on long before actually finishing, after first spending an entire month reading it and still not being able to choke down even fifty pages of the dreck.
And to make it clear that I'm not the only one who feels this way, let's remember that no less than TIME magazine once called Sinclair "a man with every gift except humor and silence;" because that in a nutshell is what reading The Jungle is like, a ponderous accidental self-parody that is just so unrelenting and overly obvious in portraying the inner sweetness and outer misery of its main characters, you can't help sometimes but to laugh at inappropriate moments at its sheer sense of outrageousness. Like I said, there used to be literally thousands of such writers, and hundreds of them once nationally famous, back when the entire "Social Realism" movement reached its height in the 1910s through '30s, and now with all but a handful of them completely forgotten by society and history at large; and that's for the same reason that only a handful of poetry slammers from the 1990s and early 2000s will be remembered a hundred years from now, the same reason that we humans compile these kinds of "classics" lists in the first place, because ultimately what entertains a crowd of contemporaries in the heat of the original moment is far from the same thing that makes a piece of writing stay relevant for years and decades afterwards. The simple fact is that The Jungle is not even an ounce better than any of those other hundreds of forgotten melodramas that were cranked out in those same years, and that it really is only remembered at all anymore because of the effect it had on the real topic of workplace hygiene; and I agree with its critics that this isn't nearly enough of a reason to consider a book a timeless classic, which is why I firmly come down in the negative on the subject today. Definitely check it out if it sounds up your alley, but feel more than free to skip if you don't and still consider yourself a decent human being.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)