The Jungle vs. Twenty Years at Hull-House: The Greatest Ever Chicago Book Tournament round one

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  • Sue Kwong
This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges' rulings will win a trip to Mexico.

This week, in round one, bout one, Reader staff writer Aimee Levitt chooses between The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams.

After spending a couple of weeks in the literary company of Jane Addams reading her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull-House, I feel like I've gotten to know her a little bit, and I do not think she would have approved of her book squaring off against Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel The Jungle to determine which should advance in a tournament to decide the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written.

Addams, as she wrote in a letter to her friend the University of Chicago professor and philosopher John Dewey, believed antagonism was always unnecessary. It arose "from a person's mixing in his own personal reactions" instead of thinking of the common good. If Addams were judging this contest, I'm pretty sure she would say that both Twenty Years at Hull-House and The Jungle were efforts to solve the problem of urban poverty and corruption in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century and both essentially wanted the same things: better living and working conditions for the poor (particularly poor immigrants) and to give them a say in the way their city is run.

Addams's method was the settlement house, where wealthy people would live among poor people, their house providing a refuge from the city. Factory workers could discuss art and literature, immigrants could learn English and practice the crafts and eat the foods of their homelands, and settlement workers, many of whom were, like Addams, sheltered young women from wealthy families, could have a purpose in life outside of being good daughters, wives, and mothers.

Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull-House in 1889 on what is now the UIC campus. Within a few years, they realized that providing a refuge for their neighbors was not enough. They started getting involved in city government and organized labor and, after that also proved insufficient for improving the lives of their people, launching their own investigations into civic corruption. (After one such investigation, Addams was appointed garbage inspector for the 19th Ward, a responsibility she took very seriously.) Many of these ventures are described, sometimes in great detail, in Twenty Years at Hull-House.

Hull-House, Addams emphasized repeatedly, was not a charity. "Private beneficence," she wrote, "is totally inadequate to deal with the problems of the city's disinherited." For Hull-House to work, people from all levels of society would have to contribute. Even more importantly, they would all have to listen to each other. The powerful couldn't just impose rules and reforms, no matter how well-intended, upon the powerless.

For Addams, reform was a slow process. There was no one magic solution. Systems had to be tailored to accommodate different situations. Endearingly, in Hull-House she confesses to her own doubts and failings and second thoughts. As I plowed through the book, I grew quite fond of her and started to wish I could travel 100 years back in time so I could drop in on her in her study at Hull-House for a cup of tea.

I did not feel much fondness for Sinclair. He just wanted to be right. After The Jungle became a best-seller and helped inspire the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which called for more accurate food labeling, he complained, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

In The Jungle, Sinclair had hoped to illuminate the plight of the workingman and demonstrate that socialism was the way of the future by telling the story of an ordinary man crushed by the system. Almost from the moment Jurgis Rudkus and his family arrive in Chicago from Lithuania, they are besieged by catastrophe: a predatory mortgage, a house infested with lice and roaches, dangerous jobs in the stockyards that lead to lost toes and broken limbs and tuberculosis, rape, starvation, unemployment, drunkenness, forced prostitution, jail, and death in various horrible ways (childbirth, drowning in a flooded street, being eaten alive by rats, dissolving in a vat of lard). This might be moving if Sinclair didn't seem so gleeful about piling on the calamities. Or if the characters didn't have the depth and personality of lousy cartoons. Like, say, Garfield.

I guess it's not Sinclair's fault that history turned against him and that socialism has started to seem like an impossible ideal, at least here in America, but still, the last few chapters of the book, which are full of inspiring socialist speeches, are ridiculous. His depictions of black people, who appear only as scabs and then disappear, are cringeworthy.

The only parts of The Jungle that feel real are the descriptions of the city. While Addams's appeal to her readers' better nature is cerebral, Sinclair's is visceral. Sinclair did intensive reporting on the stockyards and the chapters set there are filled with disgusting details that will make you never, ever want to eat meat again. Particularly sausage. But he also makes sure you can smell the blood in the slaughterhouse and hear the buzzing of the flies that infest the city in the summer and feel the warmth of a bowl of stew after wandering around all night in the middle of winter without an overcoat.

Somehow that's enough. As much as I agree with Addams's methods and philosophy, and maybe even with the idea that it's wrong to have to choose between these two books which both set out to accomplish the exact same thing, the dictates of this tournament force me to make a decision. The Jungle is a better Chicago book. It is Chicago.

UPDATE: 73 percent of you, the voters, agreed that The Jungle is the superior Chicago book. Be sure to vote in round two beginning January 13.

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  • Sue Kwong

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