Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Sinclair and Engels: Two Views of Urban Society

This is a paper I penned a couple of weeks ago for American Cities comparing the urban insights of Upton Sinclair and Friedrich Engels.

Sinclair and Engels: Two Views of Urban Society

Upton Sinclair and Friedrich Engels have contributed greatly to the discussion of the ills of urban society. Though their models for comparison, Chicago and Manchester, respectively, are separated by thousands of miles, the conditions suffered by each city during a period of heavy industrialization were similarly tragic. However, each man clearly obtained a different view of city problems in his personal observations, and this was reflected in the descriptions each penned in reflection. Sinclair chose fiction, and all the benefits available to a fiction writer, to advance his warnings, while Engels chose non-fiction narrative to reinforce his observations.

Sinclair's The Jungle has become one of the most recognized works in the world, thanks in great part to the tremendous outcry it raised over working conditions. Specifically, the slaughterhouse industry in Chicago was singled out by Sinclair as being a bastion of unfair, unjust, and debilitating work conditions. His observations, though penned as a fictional third-person narrative, nonetheless showered the situation of workers with enormous strength of compassion and blasted industry for allowing such dangerous and inhumane conditions to continue in furtherance of greed and apathy.

Engels, whose work The Great Towns detailed community conditions in Manchester, England, made detailed and dramatic observations of the growth of slum conditions in an industrializing city. As industry poured into Manchester, open spaces became overgrown with poorly-designed housing and fetid refuse, endangering the health and hopefulness of its residents. As Engels pointed out, many of the advancements such as logically-arrayed streets and water pipes were readily available in many neighborhoods in Manchester, but were noticeably absent from slums such as those of the Irk.

The primary difference between these two observations of urban life stem from the perspective of each author. Sinclair attacked the problems of city life from a top-down approach which started with a failure of industry to oversee reasonable working conditions, just treatment, and fair compensation. From Sinclair's view, this led to the degradation of conditions for workers as they traveled back home each evening. What was lost physically and emotionally at the slaughterhouses could not be revived by the return to a personal living space. The overwhelming and overpowering negativity present in industry work forced social conditions on workers which transcended simple employee-employer relationships, and led to the degradation of many neighborhoods as a result. Workers, struggling each day to keep a minimally compensatory job, had little at home to raise hopes and belay depression.

Engels, on the other hand, blamed government for lack of planning and oversight in the workers' neighborhoods. While nicer communities possessed the essential civil services, such as toilets and street cleaners, the working-class areas, overburdened by unchecked growth, could not access services which would prevent many of the problems growing out of the industrialization of Manchester. The neighborhoods lacking essentials received little or no assistance from the government, and as Engels saw the situation, could not be saved without a concerted effort by elected officials to provide the basic necessities.

While it could certainly be argued that Sinclair's industry and Engel's government scapegoats are one and the same, it is clear that, at least at the time, each man believed in a natural separation. Sinclair absolutely faulted slaughterhouses for encouraging unhealthy and dangerous practices which harmed workers, and by extension, destroyed their neighborhoods and lifestyles. Engels, while acknowledging the role of industry, nonetheless saw the ultimate failure as that of the government which offered support in an uneven way to the growth of industry instead of supporting an equal stake in sustaining communities. The filth of Manchester, through Engels' eyes, was a direct result of an apathetic government which took no interest in the success and health of its own citizens.

The usage of non-fiction by Engels clearly offered a dry look at urban conditions, and allowed him to present a documented account of what he observed. Though his applied opinions are certainly debatable, his presentation left little doubt as to what he personally experienced. Sinclair, in an opposing strategy, used his eloquent narrative to present a fictionalized account of the Chicago slaughterhouses. This allowed Sinclair to develop the story with details which would have been terribly difficult to document accurately. Also, the fictional account allowed Sinclair's research subjects to remain anonymous, a necessary requirement in an era when any misstatement could lead to a lost job.

As such, Sinclair's narrative is more personal, has greater impact, and offers a view of the situation that could not be available with Engels' choice of non-fiction. Sinclair was able to take the conditions he researched and incorporate his observations into a moving, and ultimately damning, account which could never have been transferred so directly to a reader with a non-fiction rendition. Engels' work, though no less important, was unable to offer a direct, personal link which affected the reader to become involved.

Though tragic, the story Engels told was likely common knowledge, and without the personification of the tragedy, as Sinclair presented, his message was lost in the grinding details of dry journalism. Without a doubt, Sinclair involved the reader in his message a great deal more directly than Engels was able to accomplish, and because of this, the reaction to Sinclair's call to action in Chicago was heeded more heavily, and ultimately, more successfully, than Engels was able to achieve.

The usage of foreigners by Sinclair added a point of interest that Engels noticed by did not emphasize. Sinclair, an obvious proponent of the basic tenets of the "American Dream", wanted to show that many of the people who most wanted to believe such a life could be earned through hard work were the same people being exploited by uncheck capitalist interests. Foreigners, whose contribution to the labor pool was very significant for industrial growth, were often the people whose ignorance and naivety of their new community allowed industry to abuse the employer-employee relationship for monetary gains. With so many foreigners entering the country, and a great deal doing so in northern cities such as Chicago, industry officials knew that market labor pressures would allow them to exploit the community for great personal gain. Sinclair emphasized this abusive relationship by symbolizing the exploitation as between a cruel industry and an "innocent" immigrant to America. Immigrants, with little or no financial reserves to fall back on, were unable to fairly bargain with industry for more fair conditions.

Engels recognized the contribution of foreigners to the labor pool and communities such as Irk, but did not draw a distinct relationship between the immigrants and urban ills. Instead, Engels' focus was on the neglect of government which, in his view, was responsible for all people under its care, regardless of national origin. Engels pointed out Irish immigrants in his Manchester account, but asserted that filth was a result of societal neglect, not that of immigrant ignorance or naivety. Engels, being a natural immigrant during his time in Manchester, did not have an "in-house" view of the situation that Sinclair could offer in Chicago. Engels saw the situation as an outsider looking in, and as such, did not make the distinction between immigrant and natural citizens and the condition of urban society.

These two men's views, though contrasting in blame and perspective, compliment each other in one basic way. They assign the destruction of urban communities to the growth of industry. Sinclair makes this a direct and dominating relationship, with industry the most obvious to blame for societal degradation. Engels, while acknowledging the role of industry, faulted a governmental system which allowed communities to self-destruct in an effort to build industry. While it should be noted that each man advocated the need to change course, the solutions implied were very different. Engels wanted a socialistic system to oversee and correct disjointed community support measures, but Sinclair wanted direct responsibility to fall on industry officials for exploiting workers. Sinclair ultimately succeeded in involving the government in this effort, but unlike Engels, he did not directly fault the government for the abuses of industry.

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