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I've bemoaned my failure to read all the classics before in this column. When I was in high school and they assigned some book like Tess of the D'Urbervilles, I always found myself thinking why now? Why now when the sun shone so bright, the grass grew so green, the day promised endless adventure? I have an entire life ahead of me, I told myself, I can read Thomas Hardy whenever I like. And I would pick up my bat, go out in the yard, and knock walnuts over the back fence till the sweet spot on my Rocky Colavito Hillerich & Bradsby was stained a beautiful grainy brown.
Well I'm sixty-eight now, and while I still have the rest of my life ahead of me, that span is beginning to look a heck of a lot shorter than it did at sixteen … and Tess, Sartor Resartus, and Jane Eyre remain as yet unread. Who knows what mysteries they hold, what ancient worries of mine they might have relieved, what fears comforted, what losses consoled?
Which should, I hope, go some way toward explaining why I was so chagrined the other day when Melissa replied, “Yes, of course, I read The Jungle … in ninth grade I think.” I could have throttled her. But I didn't, because I love her madly, love her despite the fact that, unlike me, she was wise enough to read every book every teacher ever assigned … the little goody-two-shoes. We were watching PBS, an American Experience about Dr. Harvey Wiley's efforts at the turn of the last century to clean up America's food industries. According to the film, it was pretty heavy going for the good doctor until 1906, when Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out to rave reviews. The book's revelations about the way in which their food was prepared and adulterated outraged the American people and helped send the Food Trusts, spluttering and defiant, to the woodshed (where Teddy Roosevelt would shortly give the lot of them a good hiding). It isn't every day that a novel seriously affects the course of a nation's history (Uncle Tom's Cabin being the only other example that springs immediately to mind), and I resolved to read the book and plug yet another hole in the gap-toothed underpinnings of my education.
The Jungle tells the story of one Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian who has immigrated to this country, like every immigrant since the Pleistocene, in search of a better life. In America—having turned his back upon the agrarian existence that has sustained his family since time immemorial—Jurgis finds himself in an alien landscape where people speak a language he cannot understand, the production of food has been industrialized for the first time in human history, and unbridled capitalism is, to say the least, feeling its oats.
It is through Rudkus's naïve, trusting, uncomprehending eyes that Sinclair shows us the horrors of America's food industry circa 1905, and the political and market forces that preyed upon the workers that processed and packaged what that industry produced. I will be the first to admit I have, from time to time, resented government regulations that often seem to serve little purpose other than to entangle one, à la Laocoön, in red tape, so it was probably good for me to be reminded like this of what the good old, pre-regulation days were really like.
In the brave new world of early twentieth century America that poor, bumbling Jurgis Rudkus enters, the dairy industry routinely adds borax and formaldehyde to milk, meat packers slip sausage rejected by the European markets as unfit for human consumption into fresh casings and sell it to Americans as “Special,” and most of the honey and maple syrup sold in our country is little more than corn starch thickened and colored with noxious additives. The workers that serve these industries are viewed as expendable, paid a pittance to toil at inhuman speeds on blood-slicked floors and in damp, unheated conditions until, inevitably, they find themselves ill (consumption) or maimed (traumatic amputation), at which point they are summarily fired and fresh young workers hired to take their places. For all intents and purposes, there are no protections against these evils—there is no OSHA, no FDA—and the Beef, Sugar, and Dairy Trusts that own and run the hellish facilities where these abominations occur, predictably own their local governments as well.
The Jungle is not a happy book, but it is, I believe, an important one, a cautionary tale that reminds us that we all are human, and, being human, any system of governance we create must inevitably prove imperfect, that every -ism from capitalism to socialism has its cracks, its flaws, through which corruption may seep … and that, finally, it is incumbent upon those of us who wish to be good to remain forever on the watch for fraud and deception, and to defend those age-old crimes' many hapless victims.
These are the lessons of the classics. Like myth itself, they touch us at our most human, at our weakest points, and at our most noble. The Talbot County Free Library is where the classics live. I still hope to learn everything I can from them. I invite you to join me.
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