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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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Book Review: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals

I recently discovered (and ordered) a book that focuses on Mark Twain and his writings and views about animals. Edited by Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, focuses on the many ways Twain not only wrote about animals but advocated on their behalf.

Here’s an article that summarizes the book. And an excerpt:

Fishkin was inspired to undertake the project after realizing how central animals were to Twain’s works and that his views on animals revealed a great deal about how he viewed people.

Fishkin was surprised by what she found during the course of her research. “ I had not realized when I embarked on this project that Twain was the most prominent American of his era to throw his weight behind the animal welfare movement.”

Mark Twain was greatly influenced by the ideas that Charles Darwin laid out in his groundbreaking publication, The Descent of Man (1871), a book that “startled the world,” as Twain put it. She examined copious notes that Twain wrote in the margins of his copy of The Descent of Man (housed with the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library) and analyzed their significance.

In particular, Fishkin found that that Twain was affected by Darwin’s idea that man and animal were in reality, much more similar than people liked to believe. “The topic he was dealing with was emotional and intellectual continuities between humans and non-human animals. Darwin wrote that the lower animals were capable of experiencing the same emotions as people and that they were capable of rudimentary reasoning, as well. ”

I look forward to reading this book.

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Book Review: Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

 An inside look at the life of an outsider

Elizabeth Costello is a challenging novel, just like the namesake character. This is a book that alternates between brief scenes between mother and son, mother and ex-lover, mother in purgatory — and extended lectures on many topics.

Including animal rights.

In one lecture which began as an essay — The Lives of Animals — Costello lectures on the cruelty of killing animals. It is a lecture not exactly met with enthusiasm and it’s an experience that many vegans and vegetarians have probably shared at one point or another.

The experience of an outsider.

Costello is an outsider, partly because of her trade and mostly because of her lifestyle.

Coetzee has written about outsiders for many years now. Based purely on his relative silence when it comes to book promotion, my guess is that he has a great deal of experience in this area.

Is he a vegan? Vegetarian? I have no idea. All I do know is that he has captured in this book a feeling that resonates with me.


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