Pizer’s Companion, Part 3

March 3, 2007 at 5:11 pm 5 comments

I was pleased to see that the Companion has an essay entitled “The Call of the Wild and The Jungle: Jack London and Upton Sinclair’s Animal and Human Jungles.” Sounds promising enough, and the first part of the essay conerned with The Call of the Wild is fine, though hardly going to shift anyone’s paradigm. London is historicized; Carl Yung is invoked to explain Buck’s instinctual knowledge. Here’s a bit of her essay:

“Many of the themes London dramatizes easily in The Call of the Wild are present but transformed in his other fiction, where he never condones loss of moral principles for his two-legged characters. In fact, in his stories of the North, human survival demands virtues such as courage, integrity, and brotherhood. Like dogs, men must change both physically and morally, as only the strong survive; but they must change for the better morally as well as physically, substituting “unselfishness, forbearance, and tolerance” for the courtesies of ordinary life. Those who fail usually die a useless and shameful death after having lived without dignity . . . Indeed, in London’s northern wilderness, a man’s world and a dog’s world have much in common, and both are ruled by naturalistic laws; but in the “dog stories” London could go further, for he was not hindered by the moral requirements of his audience, and perhaps of his own nature. He could never quite handle human protagonists with the same amoral, objective stance” (249).

I’m suspicious of the “amoral, objective stance,” a club that Tavernier-Courbin will use to bludgeon Sinclair’s lack of “objectivity.”  Her argument is almost reductive to the point of saying here are some animal-human jungle metaphors, but The Jungle is superior because “the sympathy and pity one initially experiences eventually give way to exasperation, as Sinclair manipulates his protagonist out of character for socialistic purposes” (250).

No. Sinclair’s character is purposefully thinned, a confirmation of the theme that  capitalism makes animals of men. Jurgis is not manipulated so much by his author, as by the system Sinclair would expose. Jurgis, and the workers he represents are subject to the  capitalist Jungle; they are equivalent to the animals being slaughtered in the stockyards of Chicago.

We are told that “when Sinclair indicated that he had attempted in The Jungle to “put the contents of Shelley in the form of Zola,” not realizing that his political idealism was doomed to destroy his naturalism, he could only have had in mind Zola’s emphasis on detailed and accurate descriptions of the milieu” (252).

I’d argue that political idealism is deeply imbricated in most literary naturalism, and that Zola’s fiction did not quite achieve the stringent objectivity he called for in The Experimental Novel.  Zola could only have had in mind Zola’s emphasis on detailed and accurate descriptions. Tavernier-Courbin doesn’t like Sinclair’s politics, and her distaste gets transcribed into an argument about how Sinclair failed to write a naturalist novel along the lines of Zola, but also failed to write a bourgeois novel (though she doesn’t call it that) emphasizing character development: “there is no satisfying brawling [actually, there’s quite a bit of brawling, though it is never portrayed by Sinclair as “satisfying”] or physical release of tension in The Jungle [actually, the drinking in various bars is described as a way to stay warm, get something to eat, and as a temporary release]. There is little fun, dancing, or loving except during the wedding feast. There is no ecstasy of being, no passionate love or will to live, no sensual pleasure–only a desparate and dumb endurance arising from dulled senses. An aura of puritanism also pervades the book” (258).

Give us a realistic “human” working class to romanticize–that would be good naturalism. No. Tavernier-Courbin represents only the expectations of her class. She has misread the novel. Sinclair’s prudish “puritanism”is the reason we have no “ecstasy of being.” It wouldn’t have anything to do with the capitalist grind, say.

Indeed, we’re told in an endnote that “James R. Barrett’s excellent introduction and notes provide much useful background information, documenting the one-sidedness of Sinclair’s description of Packingtown” (262). How could Sinclair have written about a Jungle in part sympathetic to the capitalist interests? Isn’t that what the bourgeois press is for? Tavernier-Courbin will not countenance the exploitation of the  Jungle. Fortunately, Sinclair does.

“After the remarkable unity of the first section of The Jungle, with its climax in little Antanas’s death, and the emotional intensity of the relentless suffering of Jurgis and his family, which transcends the relative weakness of the characterization and leaves one emotionally drained, the reader is almost relieved to be able to dissociate his sympathies from Jurgis in the remainder of the novel, where Sinclair tries to make him into a thinker” (258).

Capitalism makes Jurgis think. The Socialist party helps. Tavernier- Courbin appears to find a thinking worker unsympathetic,  more difficult to romanticize.

Additionally, Tavernier-Courbin gives the reader a nice bit of boss-logic to mull: “Jurgis is offered a hand by a farmer who needs help in the fields, including a decent salary and board with plentiful food — all of which should be welcome to a man in his situation. Instead, Jurgis turns the offer down contemptuously because the work will not last past November, never considering that he would be better off facing the winter in good physical shape and with over two hundred dollars saved than with nothing at all, or the pitiful fifteen dollars he manages to save before going back to Chicago after a spring and summer of tramping and occasional work. From a disciplined work-beast, Jurgis turns overnight into a pseudosocial critic, and Sinclair’s approving commentary — “Jurgis was beginning to think for himself nowadays” — leaves the reader baffled.”

No. It leaves Tavernier-Courbin baffled. Jurgis has by this point in the novel lost everything to the capitalist Jungle. He has enough money to get by for awhile. The woods remind him of the woods in Lithuania he left. Jurgis’ critical thought is entirely in concert with his character, his class, and the novel more generally.

Tavernier-Courbin concludes that “Sinclair, unlike London, rejected man’s animal nature and therefore only dimly perceived that survival, in both a complex human jungle and an amoral animal one, requires finely tuned animal instincts” (260).

Had Jurgis sufficiently dehumanized himself, he’d have faired better in a exploitive capitalist environment. This is clearly a ridiculous conclusion that functions to blame Jurgis and implicate Sinclair rather than the mode of production Sinclair was exposing.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, Call of the Wild, Jack London, Literary Criticism, Pizer, realism, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair.

Pizer’s Companion, Part 2 Pizer’s Companion, Part 4

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. anaj  |  March 3, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Carl Yung = Carl Gustav Jung?

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  March 3, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Yep, the same. Famed for his shadow, and collective unconscious.

  • 3. cerebraljetsam  |  March 3, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    @skunk: there is a great section in Bloch’s _The Principle of Hope_ that is singularly devoted to ripping Jung a new one (Jung’s archetypal shite marking him as a quasi-fascist, anti-dialectical anti-utopian). Short but saucey and simply good fun.

  • 4. skunkcabbage  |  March 4, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    @jetsam: Ooh, fun! I’ll look for it. I’ve wanted an excuse to head in that direction for awhile.

  • 5. baggyparagraphs  |  November 23, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Nice piece!


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