Monday, February 25, 2013

Sinclar's The Jungle at Chicago History Museum

I recently participated in a book review class at The Chicago History Museum on Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  The book was on my list to read this year and I thought participating in a book group would be fun. In a way taking me back to high school or college days when I probably should have read this classic.  Years ago I tried reading The Jungle and hated it; this time I loved 2/3rds of it! (This blog is not a review of the book, rather a review of the offering by The Chicago History Museum and my experience taking the book club.)

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book - focus on a period of time in Chicago that I find fascinating. On a recent trip to The Dreihaus Museum (blog review here)- I became very interested in how the majority of the populace in Chicago lived at the time. That's why The Jungle got onto my reading list. The juxtaposition of the lives portrayed in the book versus the Marble Mansion is quite stark.  The facilitator from the Chicago History Museum added good commentary on the historical inaccuracies or questions that exist in the book. That was perhaps my favorite part of the book group.

The book group was attended by about a dozen people - the average age was in the middle 60's. There were three sessions; the last session being a bus tour of the Back-of-The-Yards. For me there were two highlights of the Book Club - the use of historic photos and exhibits to supplement the imagery from Sinclair's book, and the tour. The discussion of the group itself was not significant.

The discussion sessions were not quite satisfying. The agenda and schedule for the group classes was:

The Jungle Book Club Session 1)
  •          Introductions / photo show (45 minutes)
  •           Walking through CHM exhibits (public) (45 minutes)
  •           Break (15 minutes)
  •           Group Discussion (15 minutes) "Who is your favorite character?”

These photos below show some of the artifacts from the CHM relative to the period of The Jungle.  The knives themselves helped me see how challenging those jobs must have been. The copper vessel I just happened to like because I have one very similar in my antique collection :)

Implements from the Stock Yards - Chicago

Copper Vessel - Settlement House Work - Chicago

The Jungle Book Club Session 2)
  •         Intros/ Photos (15 min)
  •         Attendee show and Tell (15 min)
  •          Discussion -  (30 min) a few participants asked a question for group discussion.
  •         Archive tour (30 min)

The show and tell portion of this session was spontaneous it seemed. People brought in old family items, work memorabilia or shared stories they had heard from friends. For me it wasn't particularly value add to the session, however the others in class seemed to enjoy it.   The group discussion was a bit chaotic as the questions raised by the participants spanned several themes and sections of the book. Folks kept circling back to prior discussions. That said, there were a few interesting points.  The photos below are from our visit to the back-of-the-house in the museum archives. The facilitator had pulled several documents that were related to The Jungle and the period in Chicago history. Many of the items were the photos that had been displayed in sessions 1 & 2, there were also journals from the Meat Packing association and Lithuanian texts. The journals of heads processed and prices paid was awesome.

Journals from the late 1890's Chicago
Archives / Storage at Chicago History Museum

The Jungle Book Group Session 3)
  •           Intro / Photos (20 minutes)
  •           Discuss socialism (10 minutes)
  •           Trolley tour (90 minutes)
Entrance to the Stock Yards - Chicago
Seemed like everyone was disappointed with the sections of the book that pertained to socialism. Which is a similar reaction to the readers at the time The Jungle was released. This discussion was very short. Then we loaded into the trolley for the tour. Parts of the tour were disappointing - as we looked were something might have stood 100 years ago. Other aspects were very nice - like seeing the entrance to the stockyards, the old still standing meat packing buildings, and bubbly creek. It was helpful to judge some of the distances in the book. There were several period buildings still standing in the area - grey stones and the like. However the details on these were not known.  It was a good trip through an area of Chicago that I probably would not have gone to on my own. 

For future classes I would suggest condensing to one classroom discussion and the tour. 
Check out other Book Club Discussion offerings on their site.

Singing Ragtime by Scott Joplin today (well humming it)

Teresa Marie


  1. Every Chicagoan should read The Jungle, I think, even though it may not be great fiction. The vanished stockyards are a very important part of our history, and we should remember what the immigrant workers went through there. Unfortunately, conditions are still pretty terrible in the meat packing industry today, we just don't see it in Chicago any more.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree, one of the participants was a CPS teacher who uses sections of the book in his class. Other older participants recalled going to the Stock Yards (when operational) as school field trips. I can't imagine that!