Monday, February 10, 2014

The Fall of the House of Rudkus

Most of us learned from the political scientist Theodore Lowi that for the first hundred years or so after the founding of the American republic, domestic policy was profoundly distributive.  Thanks to federal ownership of vast tracts of land (and a willingness to stick it to the American Indian), government busied itself by doling out a valuable resource to white people.  As for revenue, for the first century or so that was provided mainly by land sales, duties on imports (the tariff), and excise taxes.

Government regulation of the economy, the signature activity of the Progressive Era, began with the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, and reached its apogee perhaps with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, legislation that was inspired by publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle earlier the same year. 

Everybody knows that The Jungle was an exposé of the meatpacking industry, and never was there a more sordid or revolting tale than the one he tells.  Sinclair certainly succeeded in focusing the nation’s attention on the Beef Trust and the Pork Trust and the sundry horrors of the stockyards, where “they use everything of the pig except the squeal.”  In a passage that may remind us of the democratic process of legislation, Sinclair lingers over the details of sausage making:

There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausages; there would come all the back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was mouldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption.  There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs.  There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it.  It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats.  These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together (p. 151).

I never knew that The Jungle was a work of the creative imagination—that is, fiction—or that Sinclair’s protagonist was a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States.  As Ronald Gottesman puts it in his introduction to the edition I have been reading for the past few weeks, “The story The Jungle tells is of the Fall of the House of Rudkus—of how a peasant family from Lithuania comes to America determined to make a better life, and of how it is ineluctably drawn into the gears of competitive capitalism, and chewed up by what Sinclair characterized as predatory greed”—the flip side, Gottesman says, of “the Horatio Alger myth of success” (p. xxxiv).

Chewed up is about right.  Soon after their arrival in Packingtown, Jurgis Rudkus and his family are duped into purchasing a house they can’t afford, and then all the women and children have to find jobs to have even a chance of making the mortgage payments.  Ultimately, people get sick or laid off; the house is lost; Jurgis’s young wife, still a teenager, dies in childbirth; and so the Rudkuses descend into the underclass.  They are no worse than all the rest.  In Packingtown, workers are routinely killed or disabled; children are lost to degrading toil, or they are beaten and sodomized; the male proletarians yield sooner or later to the lures of alcoholism, and the females are left with nothing much to sell aside from their bodies.  In the end, Jurgis loses his sister to opium and prostitution.

I bought a used copy of The Jungle several weeks ago when I learned that the novel has a Lithuanian immigrant protagonist.  But it turns out that Jurgis Rudkus is a cardboard Lithuanian at best.  Sinclair’s hero is a generic Old World farmboy.  He appears never to have had strong Lithuanian roots, not even to his region or village.  His seems not to have been a “chain immigration” story.  And he is evidently a lapsed or indifferent Roman Catholic, and in that respect, too, not at all typical of Lithuanians.  You will, in short, not learn much about Lithuania or Lithuanian Americans from The Jungle.

Jurgis’s story is nevertheless affecting in so far as he and his family are consumed by America’s second industrial revolution, during which productivity and profits soared while the union movement was ground beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital, aided and abetted by cynical politicians and policemen—and sometimes by corrupt labor leaders, too.

Much has been made of the last 75 or so pages of the novel, in which Jurgis becomes a born-again and wide-eyed Socialist.  As literature it is naïve, even weird, with the author introducing three or four major new characters in the very last chapter; one wonders whether he was intending to write a sequel.  In real life, the challenge of devising redistributive policies would have to await passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (the federal income tax) in 1913, and then the New Deal of the 1930s.  By that time Sinclair was a veteran candidate for public office on the Socialist ticket in California—the Ralph Nader of his generation.

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