Book Review: The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

I recently revisited Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—the original edition published by a socialist newspaper in 1905, not the shorter version published by Doubleday, Page (after Macmillan ultimately rejected it) in 1906.

It wasn’t surprising to see what had been left out of the original book (though the censored version was horrific enough) and I’m glad I had the chance to read the book in its entirety, as it was meant to be read. Most interesting to me, reading it for the first time as a vegan, is how much of an animal-rights book it is.

One odd thing that animal-rights activists are often asked is why they don’t help humans before animals. Animal Liberation author Peter Singer says it best: “There is nothing to stop those who devote their time and energy to human problems from joining the boycott of the products of agribusiness cruelty. It takes no more time to be a vegetarian than to eat animal flesh. In fact…those who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for that reason alone.”

And in The Jungle, Sinclair likewise shows us links between animal rights and human rights. There are few industries more abusive to human workers than factory farms. The undercover footage we see of workers abusing animals is appalling, and of course there is never any justification for this sort of cruelty—but would this happen if these workers had decent conditions in which to work, if they were treated with any dignity at all themselves? It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to know that abuse only leads to more abuse. (This interview with an undercover investigator by Our Hen House and Peter Orner’s wonderful book Underground America both reveal a lot about what the humans in this industry endure.)

And Sinclair’s The Jungle, too, portrays it well. Yet while things have certainly improved when it comes to food safety, reading The Jungle brings to mind some of the human and animal abuse that still goes on today.

This passage, for example, could have been written about a factory farm of the twenty-first century: “That day they had killed about four thousand cattle, and these cattle had come in freight trains, from far states, and some of them had got hurt. There were some with broken legs and some with gored sides; there were some that had died, from what cause no one could say; and they were all to be disposed of here in darkness and silence.”

Sinclair, while focused on the plight of the poverty-stricken immigrant workers, was not at all blind to the suffering of the animals. “Each one of these pigs was a separate creature,” he wrote. “Some were white pigs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some were young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway.”

It’s impossible not to be moved by this book, and even if you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting. As groundbreaking as it was back in the early twentieth century, The Jungle still feels groundbreaking today, for it tackles issues that are, sadly, all-too-relevant: the abuse of factory workers, and the abuse of animals at the hands not only of the workers but even more so of the corporations that run these factories. As Sinclair writes, “… murder it was that went on there upon the killing-floor, systematic, deliberate and hideous murder—and there was no other word for it, and nothing else to be said about it. They were slaughtering men out there, just as certainly as they were slaughtering cattle; they were grinding the bodies and souls of them, and turning them into dollars and cents.”

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