12 March 2012
Sinclair and Dante: Packingtown, Chicago and the Nine Circles of Hell
Chicago in 1906 was considered ‘hell.’ Is that a coincidence, or did Sinclair get inspiration from Hell itself? The workers of Packingtown may have felt that they were experiencing Dante’s Inferno and the punishments with it. Sinclair noticed this as well, as he made many allusions to Dante when describing their lives and the environment.
When thinking of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, many immediately picture the grotesque meat that was being packaged and sent out to the families all over the state and country. That is because of the paragraph about the meats, where Sinclair writes of the spoiled meat used as sausage; the many chemicals used to change color, flavor, and odor; and removing the bone from bad smoked hams, where a white-hot iron was placed instead. The bad meats were sold under false pretenses, and most of the time it worked. Boneless hams were odds and ends of pork, California hams were shoulders and knuckle joints, and skinned hams were made from old hogs (142). That passage so angered President Roosevelt that he had the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act passed, which had harsher laws regarding the meats that could be used. “‘I aimed at the public’s heart,’ said Sinclair, ‘and by accident I hit in the stomach’” (McCage). He said that because he was instead hoping to expose the poor working conditions and hopefully promote socialism. The workers in Packingtown were given very low wages; not even eighteen cents an hour (Sinclair 44)! They were treated very poorly and were given no sympathy for sickness or death. For example, Ona was dislike by her forelady after asking for a holiday to get married (112). Although it was not allowed to happen, bosses would blacklist workers, keeping them from ever getting a job (208). The working conditions were so poor, that many diseases and injuries were sustained from the various jobs:
Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle rooms, and he might have a sore that would put him out of the world; all the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one. Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it. The hands of these men would be criss-crossed with cuts, until you could no longer pretend to couth them or to trace them. They would have no nails,- they had worn them off pulling hides; their knuckles were swollen so that their fingers spread out like a fan. There were men who worked in the cooking rooms, in the midst of steam and sickening odor, by artificial light; in these rooms the germs of tuberculosis might live for two years but the supply was renewed every hour. There were the beef-luggers, who carried two-hundred-pound quarters into the refrigerator-cars, a fearful kind of work, that began at four o’clock in the morning, and that wore out the most powerful men in a few years …” (Sinclair 105)
The list goes on. Sinclair hoped that he would be starting a powerful socialist movement for these workers, but the readers’ attention was instead focused on the meats that were briefly described (Kolko 103).
The Inferno focused on the punishments of Hell, but it also told what life was like after death. This was Dante’s way of showing the various sins of the world and their punishments. The Inferno was meant as a teaching tool to show the reader where he or she is in comparison to the Universe. It was also meant to prepare the world for death, and what follows (Napierkowski).
The packing plants of Chicago were vulgar, and...