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Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” Through Giedrius Subacius’s Lithuanian Lens

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Most people have probably heard of the Pulitzer-prize winning author Upton Sinclair. Aside from avid readers, professors often include his novel “The Jungle” on their syllabi, and the author’s politics have engaged modern politicians like Ann Coulter. But if you haven’t ever indulged in his work, you’d never know that his most popular novel “The Jungle” centers around a Lithuanian protagonist and heavily references Lithuanian language and culture.

The Jungle is a 1906 novel portraying the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. However, most readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century. The book depicts working class poverty, the lack of social supports, harsh and unpleasant living and working conditions, and a hopelessness among many workers. These elements are contrasted with the deeply rooted corruption of people in power.

The main character in the book is Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant trying to make ends meet in Chicago.  In his legendary novel, Upton Sinclair included a conspicuous number of Lithuanian words, phrases and surnames.

Giedrius Subacius, Professor, Endowed Chair of Lithuanian Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago, has spent many years studying this complex text by Sinclair, including aspects of Lithuanian linguistic and historical data from “The Jungle”. Sinclair discovered the Lithuanian language in Chicago and explored it with pleasure. Subacius’s studies target Sinclair’s motives for choosing Lithuanian characters, his sources and his work methods in “field-research” conditions in Chicago. Subacius’s research and findings are of interest to American literary historians, sociolinguists, language historians, and those interested in the history of Lithuanian immigration to America and the immigrant experience in Chicago.

The more we understand about how forces of social history, circumstance, and an artist’s personality cooperate to produce a literary work, the better we are able to translate that work’s energy and power from its context to ours, making it relevant to the present day. In the case of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, at the very least, Subacius’s book is useful and lends perspective. Armed with Subacius’s research and insights (available on Amazon), why not pick up “The Jungle” and give it another read.

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Giedrius Subacius leads a group of students from the University’s Lithuanian Culture class on a field trip to the former Chicago stockyards, following in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel “The Jungle.”

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Giedrius Subacius

Giedrius Subacius (PhD Vilnius University, Lithuania) is a professor and the Endowed Chair in Lithuanian Studies in the UIC Department of Slavic and Baltic Languages and Literatures. His primary scholarly interests are historical sociolinguistics, development of standard languages, history of linguistic thought and history of Lithuanian immigration. Subačius has prepared and published several critical editions of the nineteenth century Lithuanian linguistic manuscripts, and is the author of several monographs including Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle (2006) and The Experts of Lithuanian in Service of the Russian Empire (2011). The founder and an editor of the annual scholarly journal Archivum Lithuanicum (vols. 1–12, 1999–present), Subacius has received several important distinctions from the Republic of Lithuania. In 2009, he was honored by its Ministry of Education for his active role in promoting Lithuanian culture and studies and his achievements in related humanities and social science research.

“Džiunglės” – lietuvių emigrantų gyvenimas nežmoniškomis sąlygomis

Prof. Giedrius Subačius, Ilinojaus universiteto Lituanistikos katedros vadovas veda universiteto lietuvių kultūrus kurso studentų ekskursiją po buvusias Čikagos skerdyklas, aprašytas Uptono Sinclairo istoriniame romane “Džunglės”. Ameriką sukrėtęs 1906 m. romanas pasakoja apie lietuvių emigrantų gyvenimą ir darbą nežmoniškomis sąlygomis Čikagos mėsos skerdyklose, uždarą ir įbaugintą bendruomenę, dėl išlikimo ir geresnio kąsnio priverstą besąlygiškai taikytis su esama padėtimi.

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