Old Books, New Lessons at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
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.