Paretsky’s mysteries often build on historical wrongs, such as McCarthy-era blacklisting and the Holocaust, and she’s tackled social issues such as homelessness and spousal abuse.
And then there are the heirs of Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, Aristophanes in Lysistrata, Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charles Dickens in multiple works, Jack London in The Iron Heel, and so on.
Sinclair’s heirs today are writers of literary nonfiction, who derive their drama from facts. It almost seems a shame that Sinclair couldn’t have written that way, for the story of the actual family whose wedding inspired his opening scene would probably have contained more surprises and more nuance than his ideologically driven plot.
But it wouldn’t have been as popular. In the way that Sinclair used fiction to get his facts across to a broad audience, The Jungle‘s closest contemporary counterparts are films like Dead Man Walking or Maria Full of Grace, whose stories illuminate aspects of the death penalty or drug running for audiences much larger than any equivalent book could be expected to have. (And now that Fast Food Nation has been made into a narrative movie, it’s likely to do the same for the meat industry.) Meanwhile, surely The Jungle has endured in large part because it’s a novel. How many high-school English teachers assign Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company or Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of Our Cities, nonfiction works by Sinclair’s muckraking contemporaries? Judged for its style or insight into character The Jungle may leave something to be desired. But it lays bare a place and a time and an industry, registering injustices which, as Schlosser notes in a foreword to the Penguin Classics edition, we have yet to fully remedy. So, go ahead, read The Jungle for its documentary power—just be warned that, as with Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard, the label is a little misleading.
Joe Strummer…was an artist profoundly shaped by his time and place. In a 1970s Britain wracked by racism and unemployment, Strummer chose to put himself squarely in opposition. The newspapers called the Clash “degenerates,” “hoodlums,” “anarchists.” To young people, they were “the only band that matters,” and it wasn’t because they sold a million records or made the most money. They mattered because they were the first band in a great long while that tapped into how the majority of youth actually felt. Continue reading Joe Strummer and the Clash
What’s great about Dickens’ he makes judgments: against lawyers corruption, against the corrupt Court of Chancery, against the brutalization of the poor and the homeless. Well, right now the United States is also a Bleak House dominated by corruption: the corruption of the Iraq War totals billions. What is missing in a lot contemporary fiction is Dickens’ moral judgments.
I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel which won a recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but the well-written novel has a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalypse America. In many ways I thought the Road was metaphorically saying this country is now so bad off all a decent person can do is suffer it–I find that a huge cop out. Give me Dickens any day of the week instead.
Or Lib Lit.
Called progressive but actually a far more liberal array of films overviewed in the Progressive Picture Prizes by Ed Rampell, author of “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States” (2005).
“Some will say it’s unfair to hold the movie of a novel to task for repeating the propaganda version of U.S. history, but the myth of the United States as macho rescuer is not only misleading, it’s deadly — for people in Afghanistan and around the world. Shed all the tears you like as you’re watching, but don’t leave the remorse in the cinema. Try as it might, Hollywood can’t purge our guilt, or dissuade us of the need to act.”