‘The Jungle,’ Upton Sinclair & ‘The Road To Wigan Pier,‘ George Orwell
The most thrilling, unexpected event at this year’s Hay Literature Festival wasn’t even supposed to be book-related, but a screening of a short movie: ‘Ragged,’ the story of a young Liverpool worker, based in Wales, taking on the authorities for better conditions and the rights of the unions. That young worker became one of Britain’s best-loved character-actor comedians, Ricky Tomlinson, and the short was directed by one of my favourite alternative comedians, Johnny Vegas.
There was a literary connection, however, as according to Johnny the film was “a love-story to ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist,” Robert Tressell‘s tale of the exploitation of the working class in Edwardian Britain. After the presentation I had the fortune to chat to Mr.Vegas, a man genuinely interested in discussing ideas and sharing his opinions, and I told him how much I had enjoyed Tressell‘s novel when I had read it immediately after finishing university, as it was on the list of ‘Top 100 Books of the Century‘ which I had found in my local Oxford bookshop.
I promised to re-read it, and blog on it, but since I currently buy twice as many books as I find time to read I didn’t know when this was going to happen. And then, in my first week in Buffalo, NY, I stumbled upon two related volumes which led to a new plan, and to this blog entry.
First, at the wonderfully chaotic and impressively stocked second-hand Rustbelt Books in Allentown, I found Orwell‘s ‘The Road To Wigan Pier,’ and soon after in one of Buffalo’s ever-present garage sales, I picked up Penguin’s gorgeous, updated edition of ‘The Jungle,’ Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-century exposé of the US meat-packing industry. Why not read them both, blog on them, and recomend ‘…Philanthropist‘ at the same time?
‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists‘ and ‘The Jungle‘ were both written within a few years of each-other at the start of the 20th century, and Orwell‘s mid-1930’s exploration of working-class life shows that little had changed in the meantime: squalid living conditions, unsafe work environments, (his description of the effort it takes a minor merely to get to his place of work leaves you exhausted just reading it), and the antagonism between the owners and the workers which only ever seems to have one winner.
I had mainly been tempted into buying ‘The Jungle‘ as it came in a beautiful edition with the old-fashioned, rip-effect page edges which I find so hard to resist, (a genius marketing tool to encourage people to invest in the tactile nature of real books in this e-age). I soon discovered that it was a set text in American high schools, as everyone who saw me reading it told me that they vaguely remembered reading it back in the day.
It is a wonderful book to be introduced to at a young, impressionable age: the endless trials faced by Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus and his young bride newly-arrived in Chicago force you to think about the world behind our everyday lives, especially where our meat comes from. This is the prime thrust of the book, and was so influential that it convinced the US President of the time, Teddy Roosevelt, to implement new food safety laws which are still, (allegedly), in place today. Its vivid descriptions of unclean, often stomach-churning practices is almost certainly responsible for creating more than one vegetarian, (ironically, vegetarianism was one of the traits Orwell found most unpleasant and objectionable in his fellow Socialists!).
From the first chapter, we learn of the sacrifices families must make just to be able to afford a wedding, and the load on the protagonist just becomes heavier and heavier with each chapter until it seems life among the working classes is all-but impossible. However, Sinclair famously ended his novel with a sermon, rather than the almost inevitable tragedy which had been building, expounding on the glories of Socialism in a far from realistic way, but reaching the only conclusion he, as an author, could countenance.
Three hugely influential social books, each as relevant today as they were when they came out.