Thursday, September 28, 2006

Heart Versus Stomach

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books LLC, 1995

If The New Yorker is to be believed, it is entirely likely we are about to see a revival of Upton Sinclair, a writer (they note) who has never entirely gone away, his most famous novel still a classroom classic. Fashions of this sort come and go, today’s belle of the ball tomorrow’s nobody, then Fortune’s Wheel turns and up-ends the whole business once more.

Whether or not an author can survive the new critical appraisal is, of course, almost never open to debate. Rarely is a writer’s old work dug up with the plan to traduce it; rather, musty old volumes are pored through for rare, forgotten treasures, while the dross usually remains behind (ultimately to be picked over by less marquee publishing firms who are merely interested in riding a public domain coattail while the buzz is in the air).

The quality material not of stand-alone-volume-quality will be collected in Best Ofs and Collecteds and Uncollecteds, and should the material be rather scanty page counts can always be upped with a few letters, some diary entries, and a long-winded essay from Harold Bloom who can always be counted on to add his name to yet one more work. Should a publisher get truly lucky, a long-thought lost manuscript will turn up or a letter confessing to long-suspected homosexual affairs or at the very least a few rough draft scenes that never made it into the final edition of the best loved book.

At any event, it is either the approaching Sinclair renaissance in the air or merely Recorded Books plowing through their catalog on cassette and providing listeners with CD versions of same at virtually no cost to themselves that brings us this 1995 reading of Sinclair’s most famous classroom classic, The Jungle. It is widely known that Sinclair himself considered the book rather a failure, stating, “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” a statement which tells you that you are entering the world of polemic.

Only, a funny thing happened on the way to Sinclair’s socialist uprising: the polemic turned out, against almost all of that genre’s track record, to be damned good. For indeed the novel is partly a call to arms, the corruption of the meat packing industry merely a stand-in for the corruption of capitalism as a whole, the Rudkus family a stand-in for every immigrant (that is, every American) exploited by the system, and it is partly an expose. That the expose should be about food is its unintentional genius. Indeed Sinclair (and to a greater and lesser extent so many liberal politicians who would follow him) failed to learn the lesson The Jungle’s sensation created: when you want to galvanize the public, you should always aim for the stomach, never the heart.

The heart, it must be said, is a noble organ of sentiment. For centuries, poets have sung its praises as the seat of the soul, the seat of love, the bodily tissue responsible highest of all our earthly emotional urges, love. All this has not only given the heart an exaggerated sense of itself, but has hoodwinked the poets and artists themselves into believing it. “I would die for love,” the wooer thinks of himself, spurred on by all this art and poetry, clutching at his breast. Alas, how often we find that what one feels that one feels (or thinks one thinks, for that matter) is far, far different from reality. The exact number of those who die for love most certainly pales in comparison to those who die of hunger. One can live an adult life without love, sad to say; one can not live an adult life without daily bread.

None of this should be taken to mean that love is an unimportant part of life or of swaying people to your opinions. Rather, the point I’m driving here toward is that Sinclair, like so many floundering politicians one sees today in my own particular political party believe that voters and the general public at large can be swayed by nifty graphs, statistical analysis, and thoughtful cogent argumentation. Indeed, our last two candidates for President have been intelligent, coherent, thoughtful men, filled with ideas, men who cherished solving problems by applying intellect to them. Men who, idiotically, believed, and surrounded themselves with others who believed, that the vast bulk of the American public could likewise be won over to the force of their rationalism dressed up in the noble clothes of sentimental warm fuzzies.

And so, when we read The Jungle, we read this wrenching account of an immigrant family, beset upon by all sides, by the business leaders, the politicians bought by business leaders, by thugs, by death and disease, by filth and decay. Any one passage would sicken you:

There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was mouldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.

Sinclair winds up the novel with his noble hero, Jurgis Rudkus, after much up and down, after being a victim and victimizer, finally working for the good. At a Socialist party rally listening to election day returns, he hears the speech that closes the book: “And we shall organize them, we shall drill them, we shall marshal them for the victory! We shall bear down the opposition, we shall sweep if before us — and Chicago will be ours! Chicago will be ours! CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!” The novel ends and Sinclair believed this argument would persuade people of the good and rational nobility of Socialism, that unselfish love of humankind would lead to a workers’ revolution.

Instead, what happened was public outcry for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, leading to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. A palpable good, even if the FDA has been often used as little more than an industry rubber stamp. It would be ridiculous to argue that good didn’t come of this — food is indisputably cleaner now than it was at the turn of the century. Almost without meaning to, Sinclair, with the novel’s completely horrific and disgusting depictions of the conditions in America’s food supply, rallied the public around an idea that works out to a greater good, the FDA’s conditions for sanitation in the food industry, but through each person’s individual stomach — I don’t want to be eating rotten, consumptive meat.

Through the stomach, Sinclair created a space for Americans to demand something for themselves that benefited everyone else as well. Through emotional appeal he managed to create social change, the kind of beneficial to the little people of the world change denied him to his hopes of hitting a higher organ. That most Americans could name only one novel of his demonstrates that he failed to learn this lesson, that not one subsequent novel capitalized on what was successful and lasting in that most remembered one. Yes, he had a subsequent series of best-sellers, but where are they now? Who, other than Sinclair scholars, can name them now? He inadvertently aimed for the stomach without realizing it and he scored a direct hit.

And you know what? The heart took notice.

Reader George Guidall delivers the works here in his usual style. Impeccable, assured, familiar. I don’t think he’s capable of a dud merely because he’s perfected an almost effortless sounding flawlessness.

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