Many people from myriad nations have heard that America (the USA) was a land where one could come and prosper. Like the ancient Hebrews searching for a country flowing with milk and honey, many immigrants traversed sea and land to reach the golden shores, seeking those opportunities of which the stories spoke in this vast land from sea to shining sea.
“In that country, rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally officials—he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man. So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed. If one could only manage to get the price of a passage, he could count his troubles at an end.” THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair (1906)
At the turn of the century (1900) many immigrants found the troubles which they sought to leave in the old country were replaced by new harsher ones in America. As Upton Sinclair stated about one Lithuanian family’s disillusionment upon their entry to this land of opportunity and promise,
“A very few days of practical experience in this land of high wages had been sufficient to make clear to them the cruel fact that it was also a land of high prices, and that in it the poor man was almost as poor as in any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis. What had made the discovery all the more painful was that they were spending, at American prices, money which they had earned at home rates of wages—and so were really being cheated by the world! The last two days they had all but starved themselves—it made them quite sick to pay the prices that the railroad people asked them for food.”
Jurgis and his family had settled in Chicago. As immigrants they had to endure the malodorous conditions of the factories, living conditions, low wages, and prejudice; their physical health, mental well-being and morals suffered.
The family of Jurgis was a group of decent individuals who became victims of this system of atrocities in order to survive in the unrelenting jungle of Chicago. Their fictional story has been all too real for many families over the generations, not only in this country but in other countries where human dignity and decency are wiped away like cleaning a plate from a restaurant table.
Without reading THE JUNGLE, many people assume it is about the horrid and unsafe practices of the food processing plants and the butchering of cattle, pigs, etc. This is true in that Upton Sinclair lays bare the practices of the rich and powerful who controlled the production of food in very unsanitary conditions.
In addition, it is about how the workers and their families suffered in the various industrial plants and their living conditions. Salubrious conditions did not exist in the great city where the masses of humanity lived, struggled, and worked—death came too often, especially to the young and the old.
As Sir Winston Spencer Churchill stated, “The Jungle is a human tragedy.”
The human tragedy of THE JUNGLE is how dispensable people were. There were more men, women and children waiting in line to grasp the gold ring.
After a worker was used and worn out by the laborious hours, injured or contracted a disease, a replacement was always ready to fill the place. The mass assembly line of humans was never exhausted for the profiteers who resided in their stately residences and enjoyed the American dream which their employees were so desperate to achieve.
Jack London stated about THE JUNGLE:
“It is alive and warm. It is brutal with life. It is written of sweat and blood and groans and tears. It depicts, not what man ought to be, but what man is compelled to be in this world in the twentieth century. It depicts, not what our country ought to be, or what it seems to be in the fancies of Fourth-of-July spellbinders, the home of liberty and equality of opportunity; but it depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.”
Today as thousands seek a refuge in this country, will they find the land of opportunity or a jungle where exploitation is a common practice and where a person’s self-worth is judged by how much they can produce for their overlords? Unfortunately, the fires of adversity still burn for those who seek to live and to provide for their families on this planet traversing the cosmos.
G. D. Williams © 2019
THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair (1906)
What of Jurgis and his family?
Jurgis had looked into the deepest reaches of the social pit, and grown used to the sights in them. Yet when he had thought of all humanity as vile and hideous, he had somehow always excepted his own family that he had loved; and now this sudden horrible discovery—Marija a whore, and Elzbieta and the children living off her shame! Jurgis might argue with himself all he chose, that he had done worse, and was a fool for caring—but still he could not get over the shock of that sudden unveiling, he could not help being sunk in grief because of it.
The depths of him were troubled and shaken, memories were stirred in him that had been sleeping so long he had counted them dead. Memories of the old life—his old hopes and his old yearnings, his old dreams of decency and independence! He saw Ona again, he heard her gentle voice pleading with him.
He saw little Antanas, whom he had meant to make a man. He saw his trembling old father, who had blessed them all with his wonderful love. He lived again through that day of horror when he had discovered Ona’s shame—God, how he had suffered, what a madman he had been! How dreadful it had all seemed to him; and now, today, he had sat and listened, and half agreed when Marija told him he had been a fool! Yes—told him that he ought to have sold his wife’s honor and lived by it!—
And then there was Stanislovas and his awful fate—that brief story which Marija had narrated so calmly, with such dull indifference! The poor little fellow, with his frostbitten fingers and his terror of the snow—his wailing voice rang in Jurgis’s ears, as he lay there in the darkness, until the sweat started on his forehead. Now and then he would quiver with a sudden spasm of horror, at the picture of little Stanislovas shut up in the deserted building and fighting for his life with the rats! Chapter Twenty-Seven
Working Conditions in 1900
By 1900, 18 percent of all American workers were under the age of 16.
For employers of the era, children were seen as appealing workers since they could be hired for jobs that required little skill for lower wages than an adult would command. Their smaller size also allowed them to do certain jobs adults couldn’t, and they were viewed as easy to manage.
In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee formed in the hopes of ending the horrors of child labor. Teams of investigators were sent to collect evidence of the harsh conditions children were working in. One of these investigators was the photographer Lewis Hine, who traveled across the country meeting and photographing children working in a variety of industries.
Lewis Hine quit his job as a New York City school teacher to join the National Child Labor Committee. His goal was to open the public’s eyes to the exploitative nature of children’s employment, and to help ignite legislative change to end these abusive practices. Although the effects weren’t immediate, the appalling scenes he captured with his camera succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of children in the workforce.