LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 3 - Fall 2007
Editor of this issue: M.G Slavėnas
Giedrius Subačius, Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle, Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2006, 113 pages, $31.00.
Upton Sinclair is getting a lot of attention these days. There are two new Sinclair biographies on the bookshelves1, professors are assigning The Jungle with increasing frequency (and students are reportedly reading it avidly)2, and a renewed debate about the author’s politics recently engaged even right wing maven Ann Coulter, whose current polemic3 paints Sinclair, who died in 1968, as the “incarnation of leftist duplicity.” Undoubtedly, the legacy of the quintessential muckraking writer is under revision.
Among a number of new academic studies of Sinclair’s life and work, Giedrius Subačius’s Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle is notable for its meticulous research into issues that are certain to be of interest to literature scholars as Sinclair’s stock continues to rise. This careful study explores the Chicago settings and events that provided Sinclair with background material for The Jungle, focusing specifically on the elements of culture and language that give the novel its Lithuanian aura.
Subačius argues that Sinclair’s decision to focus on Lithuanians in The Jungle resulted from a combination of accident and traceable literary influence. Before he began work on the book, Sinclair received advice about the ethnicities of Packingtown from Ernest Poole. He probably also read a wellknown article of Poole’s about Lithuanians in the stockyards. But when Sinclair immersed himself in his research, living for seven weeks among the wage slaves of the Beef Trust, he did not set out to write about Lithuanians per se. While exploring the Packingtown neighborhoods one Sunday afternoon in November of 1904, however, the author stumbled fortuitously upon a Lithuanian wedding celebration. Watching and listening, asking questions, recording impressions, and apparently even joining in the singing of Lithuanian songs, Sinclair realized that he had found both his main characters and his novel’s vivid opening scene.
After reconstructing the circumstances that led up to Sinclair’s choice of a cultural setting for The Jungle, Subačius addresses a series of related issues. First, he undertakes a detailed cataloging and linguistic analysis of the novel’s Lithuanian words and phrases (see William Schmalstieg’s related review in Lituanus Vol. 52, No. 4, 2006, p. 70). Of particular interest to literary researchers are the reasons and methods governing the novel’s incorporation of Lithuanian, including Sinclair’s personal feelings about the language. Piecing together old and new sources, Subačius is able to convey something of Sinclair’s insatiable linguistic curiosity, his evident pride in learning some Lithuanian, his understanding of how the language helped to concretize his story and tie it to the immigrant nature of his characters.
Digging tirelessly into century-old census records, newspapers and city directories, Subačius next unearths an apparent pattern in Sinclair’s use of Lithuanian names. The possibility that Sinclair paid tribute to Lithuanian socialists by using their surnames for major and minor characters in The Jungle is fascinating and well-argued. Sifting through more Chicago history, Subačius locates the exact street-corner where Sinclair encountered the Lithuanian wedding feast and even manages some informed speculation about the real couple whose nuptials may have provided the model for the veselija (wedding) of Sinclair’s Jurgis and Ona.
Subačius notes that in writing The Jungle Sinclair used oral rather than written sources, doing field work as opposed to library research. This does not contradict our existing sense of how the book was composed or how Sinclair worked on his many other novels in other historical contexts. But Subačius’s conclusions add meaningfully to our knowledge of the relation between fact and fiction in Sinclair’s art in general. Sinclair often claimed that history itself was the great novelist; Subačius helps to lay bare the logic of this assertion.
The more we understand about how forces of social history, circumstance, and an artist’s personality cooperate to produce a literary work, the better we are able to translate that work’s energy and power from its context to ours, making it relevant to the present day. In the case of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which seems to be acquiring new significance to both researchers and casual readers on the centennial of its publication, Giedrius Subačius’s book is useful and well-timed.
1. Anthony Arthur, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair
2006) and Kevin Mattson, Upton
Sinclair and the Other American
Century (Wiley, 2006).
2. Christopher Phelps, A How Should We Teach The Jungle, (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 3, 2006): B10-12. Phelps, a history professor, finds that students love The Jungle and argues for its relevance to both literature and history curricula.
3. Ann Coulter, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Crown Forum, 2006).