What a Beating Feels Like: Authorship, Dissolution, and Masculinity in Sinclair's 'The Jungle.' (Upton Sinclair)

Article excerpt

American naturalism owes much of its contemporary power to the success of its efforts to depict a thoroughly decentered subject. The naturalist text typically represents the determining impact of various and sundry social and natural forces on its characters and diminishes the importance of consciousness as the cause of the actions it records. Naturalist style, long criticized for lacking high modernist polish, actually tributes through its rawness to this effect. Rather than presenting themselves as intricate products of careful craftsmen, naturalist fictions such as Sister Carrie or The Sea-Wolf often seem hammered directly into being by a remorseless reality. Such novels ask for interpretation in terms of the broad social, political, and historical contexts favored by contemporary critical practices.

In addition to such broader contexts, however, attention to the figure of the author and to the structure of authoring are crucial to an understanding of the operation of gender in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which contains an unconscious narrative of Sinclair's self-creation as an author. This narrative does not obviate the social, historical, and political content of the text, but it suggests that a complex set of literary dynamics mediates the relation of text and world. These dynamics must be articulated with respect to the specific historical position of the author.

The Jungle is strikingly faithful to some of the most powerful contemporary critical accounts of naturalism, particularly in terms of naturalism's well-known relationship to Darwinian evolutionary thought and its complex genderings. Numerous commentators have argued that Darwinism substantially disrupted inherited patriarchal narratives of the structure of creation. As Christine van Boheemen concisely puts it, Darwin raises the possibility of "a suddenly powerful and prolific Mother Nature dethroning the ancient figure of God the Father."(1) The Origin of Species in many ways conducts an effective dispersal of masculine authority, not only in its stunningly successful promotion of Mother Nature as the engineer of life's forms, but in its own manifold indeterminancies, its imaginative waywardness, its willingness to record and consider even conflicting positions within its own textual borders. In passing into cultural currency, however, Darwinism lent its authority to other constructions of gender, creativity, and selfhood. A potentially feminine "Darwinism" -- using Darwin's proper name as a snyecdoche for a host of cultural forces that Darwin's work both responded to and altered -- generated a host of masculine authorities, among them canonical male naturalist authors like Sinclair, who countered its dispersals with synthesis, who found in its whimsicality and play iron social doctrines which supported aggressive, competitive masculine behaviors.

In Sinclair's The Jungle, "nature" seems characterized by the threatening fecundity one finds in Darwin's vision. Nature in Packingtown is characterized by an anxiety-inducing profusion of life, especially of children. In the first paragraph of the novel, for example, as Marija argues with a carriage driver in two languages, she is pursued by a "swarm of urchins."(2) At the wedding of Jurgis and Ona, Sinclair tells us that the number of babies in attendance was "equal to ... all guests invited." In a "collection of cribs and carriages ... babies slept, three or four together" (p. 5). Later, Sinclair indicates that even the city dump, a place with "an odor for which there are no polite words," is "sprinkled over with children" (p. 29). Odors form a part of this profusion, as do the animals. One can smell Packingtown from miles away, with its "elemental odor, raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid, sensual, and strong. There were some who drank it in as if it were an intoxicant; there were others who put their handkerchiefs to their faces" (p. 25). The ubiquity of odor is mirrored by the vast number of cattle, described in a way that suggests the vastness and heterogeneity of humanity itself: "as far as the eye can reach there stretches a sea of pens . …