From The Jungle
Jurgis talked lightly about work, because he was young. They told him
stories about the breaking down of men, there in the stockyards of
Chicago, and of what had happened to them afterward--stories to make
your flesh creep, but Jurgis would only laugh. He had only been there
four months, and he was young, and a giant besides. There was too much
health in him. He could not even imagine how it would feel to be beaten.
"That is well enough for men like you," he would say, "silpnas, puny
fellows--but my back is broad."
Jurgis was like a boy, a boy from the country. He was the sort of man the
bosses like to get hold of, the sort they make it a grievance they cannot
get hold of. When he was told to go to a certain place, he would go there
on the run. When he had nothing to do for the moment, he would stand round
fidgeting, dancing, with the overflow of energy that was in him. If he
were working in a line of men, the line always moved too slowly for him,
and you could pick him out by his impatience and restlessness. That was
why he had been picked out on one important occasion; for Jurgis had stood
outside of Brown and Company's "Central Time Station" not more than half
an hour, the second day of his arrival in Chicago, before he had been
beckoned by one of the bosses. Of this he was very proud, and it made him
more disposed than ever to laugh at the pessimists. In vain would they all
tell him that there were men in that crowd from which he had been chosen
who had stood there a month--yes, many months--and not been chosen yet.
"Yes," he would say, "but what sort of men? Broken-down tramps and good-
for-nothings, fellows who have spent all their money drinking, and want to
get more for it. Do you want me to believe that with these arms"--and he
would clench his fists and hold them up in the air, so that you might see
the rolling muscles--that with these arms people will ever let me starve?"
"It is plain," they would answer to this, "that you have come from the
country, and from very far in the country." And this was the fact,
for Jurgis had never seen a city, and scarcely even a fair-sized town,
until he had set out to make his fortune in the world and earn his right
to Ona. His father, and his father's father before him, and as many
ancestors back as legend could go, had lived in that part of Lithuania
known as Brelovicz, the Imperial Forest. This is a great tract of a
hundred thousand acres, which from time immemorial has been a hunting
preserve of the nobility. There are a very few peasants settled in it,
holding title from ancient times; and one of these was Antanas Rudkus,
who had been reared himself, and had reared his children in turn, upon
half a dozen acres of cleared land in the midst of a wilderness. There had
been one son besides Jurgis, and one sister. The former had been drafted
into the army; that had been over ten years ago, but since that day nothing
had ever been heard of him. The sister was married, and her husband had
bought the place when old Antanas had decided to go with his son.
It was nearly a year and a half ago that Jurgis had met Ona, at a horse
fair a hundred miles from home. Jurgis had never expected to get married--
he had laughed at it as a foolish trap for a man to walk into; but here,
without ever having spoken a word to her, with no more than the exchange
of half a dozen smiles, he found himself, purple in the face with
embarrassment and terror, asking her parents to sell her to him for his
wife--and offering his father's two horses he had been sent to the fair
to sell. But Ona's father proved as a rock--the girl was yet a child,
and he was a rich man, and his daughter was not to be had in that way.
So Jurgis went home with a heavy heart, and that spring and summer toiled
and tried hard to forget. In the fall, after the harvest was over, he saw
that it would not do, and tramped the full fortnight's journey that lay
between him and Ona.
He found an unexpected state of affairs--for the girl's father had died,
and his estate was tied up with creditors; Jurgis' heart leaped as he
realized that now the prize was within his reach. There was Elzbieta
Lukoszaite, Teta, or Aunt, as they called her, Ona's stepmother, and there
were her six children, of all ages. There was also her brother Jonas,
a dried-up little man who had worked upon the farm. They were people of
great consequence, as it seemed to Jurgis, fresh out of the woods; Ona
knew how to read, and knew many other things that he did not know, and now
the farm had been sold, and the whole family was adrift--all they owned in
the world being about seven hundred rubles which is half as many dollars.
They would have had three times that, but it had gone to court, and the
judge had decided against them, and it had cost the balance to get him to
change his decision.
Ona might have married and left them, but she would not, for she loved
Teta Elzbieta. It was Jonas who suggested that they all go to America,
where a friend of his had gotten rich. He would work, for his part,
and the women would work, and some of the children, doubtless--they
would live somehow. Jurgis, too, had heard of America. That was
a country where, they said, a man might earn three rubles a day;
and Jurgis figured what three rubles a day would mean, with prices as
they were where he lived, and decided forthwith that he would go to
America and marry, and be a rich man in the bargain. In that country,
rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into
the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally officials--
he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man.
So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed. If one
could only manage to get the price of a passage, he could count his
troubles at an end.
It was arranged that they should leave the following spring, and meantime
Jurgis sold himself to a contractor for a certain time, and tramped nearly
four hundred miles from home with a gang of men to work upon a railroad
in Smolensk. This was a fearful experience, with filth and bad food
and cruelty and overwork; but Jurgis stood it and came out in fine trim,
and with eighty rubles sewed up in his coat. He did not drink or fight,
because he was thinking all the time of Ona; and for the rest, he was
a quiet, steady man, who did what he was told to, did not lose his temper
often, and when he did lose it made the offender anxious that he should
not lose it again. When they paid him off he dodged the company gamblers
and dramshops, and so they tried to kill him; but he escaped, and tramped
it home, working at odd jobs, and sleeping always with one eye open.
So in the summer time they had all set out for America. At the last
moment there joined them Marija Berczynskas, who was a cousin of Ona's.
Marija was an orphan, and had worked since childhood for a rich farmer
of Vilna, who beat her regularly. It was only at the age of twenty
that it had occurred to Marija to try her strength, when she had risen
up and nearly murdered the man, and then come away.
There were twelve in all in the party, five adults and six children--
and Ona, who was a little of both. They had a hard time on the passage;
there was an agent who helped them, but he proved a scoundrel, and got
them into a trap with some officials, and cost them a good deal of their
precious money, which they clung to with such horrible fear. This happened
to them again in New York--for, of course, they knew nothing about the
country, and had no one to tell them, and it was easy for a man in a blue
uniform to lead them away, and to take them to a hotel and keep them there,
and make them pay enormous charges to get away. The law says that the
rate card shall be on the door of a hotel, but it does not say that it
shall be in Lithuanian.
It was in the stockyards that Jonas' friend had gotten rich, and so to
Chicago the party was bound. They knew that one word, Chicago and that
was all they needed to know, at least, until they reached the city.
Then, tumbled out of the cars without ceremony, they were no better off
than before; they stood staring down the vista of Dearborn Street, with
its big black buildings towering in the distance, unable to realize that
they had arrived, and why, when they said "Chicago," people no longer
pointed in some direction, but instead looked perplexed, or laughed,
or went on without paying any attention. They were pitiable in their
helplessness; above all things they stood in deadly terror of any sort
of person in official uniform, and so whenever they saw a policeman they
would cross the street and hurry by. For the whole of the first day
they wandered about in the midst of deafening confusion, utterly lost;
and it was only at night that, cowering in the doorway of a house,
they were finally discovered and taken by a policeman to the station.
In the morning an interpreter was found, and they were taken and put upon
a car, and taught a new word--"stockyards." Their delight at discovering
that they were to get out of this adventure without losing another share
of their possessions it would not be possible to describe.
They sat and stared out of the window. They were on a street which seemed
to run on forever, mile after mile--thirty-four of them, if they had known
it--and each side of it one uninterrupted row of wretched little two-story
frame buildings. Down every side street they could see, it was the same--
never a hill and never a hollow, but always the same endless vista of ugly
and dirty little wooden buildings. Here and there would be a bridge
crossing a filthy creek, with hard-baked mud shores and dingy sheds and
docks along it; here and there would be a railroad crossing, with a tangle
of switches, and locomotives puffing, and rattling freight cars filing by;
here and there would be a great factory, a dingy building with innumerable
windows in it, and immense volumes of smoke pouring from the chimneys,
darkening the air above and making filthy the earth beneath. But after
each of these interruptions, the desolate procession would begin again--the
procession of dreary little buildings.
A full hour before the party reached the city they had begun to note the
perplexing changes in the atmosphere. It grew darker all the time, and
upon the earth the grass seemed to grow less green. Every minute, as the
train sped on, the colors of things became dingier; the fields were grown
parched and yellow, the landscape hideous and bare. And along with the
thickening smoke they began to notice another circumstance, a strange,
pungent odor. They were not sure that it was unpleasant, this odor;
some might have called it sickening, but their taste in odors was not
developed, and they were only sure that it was curious. Now, sitting in
the trolley car, they realized that they were on their way to the home
of it--that they had traveled all the way from Lithuania to it. It was
now no longer something far off and faint, that you caught in whiffs;
you could literally taste it, as well as smell it--you could take hold
of it, almost, and examine it at your leisure. They were divided in their
opinions about it. It was an 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. The new emigrants were still tasting it, lost in wonder,
when suddenly the car came to a halt, and the door was flung open, and a
They were left standing upon the corner, staring; down a side street
there were two rows of brick houses, and between them a vista: half a
dozen chimneys, tall as the tallest of buildings, touching the very
sky--and leaping from them half a dozen columns of smoke, thick, oily,
and black as night. It might have come from the center of the world,
this smoke, where the fires of the ages still smolder. It came as if
self-impelled, driving all before it, a perpetual explosion. It was
inexhaustible; one stared, waiting to see it stop, but still the great
streams rolled out. They spread in vast clouds overhead, writhing, curling;
then, uniting in one giant river, they streamed away down the sky,
stretching a black pall as far as the eye could reach.
Then the party became aware of another strange thing. This, too, like
the color, was a thing elemental; it was a sound, a sound made up of ten
thousand little sounds. You scarcely noticed it at first--it sunk into
your consciousness, a vague disturbance, a trouble. It was like the
murmuring of the bees in the spring, the whisperings of the forest; it
suggested endless activity, the rumblings of a world in motion. It was
only by an effort that one could realize that it was made by animals,
that it was the distant lowing of ten thousand cattle, the distant
grunting of ten thousand swine.
They would have liked to follow it up, but, alas, they had no time for
adventures just then. The policeman on the corner was beginning to
watch them; and so, as usual, they started up the street. Scarcely had
they gone a block, however, before Jonas was heard to give a cry, and began
pointing excitedly across the street. Before they could gather the meaning
of his breathless ejaculations he had bounded away, and they saw him enter
a shop, over which was a sign: "J. Szedvilas, Delicatessen." When he came
out again it was in company with a very stout gentleman in shirt sleeves
and an apron, clasping Jonas by both hands and laughing hilariously.
Then Teta Elzbieta recollected suddenly that Szedvilas had been the name
of the mythical friend who had made his fortune in America. To find that
he had been making it in the delicatessen business was an extraordinary
piece of good fortune at this juncture; though it was well on in the
morning, they had not breakfasted, and the children were beginning to
Thus was the happy ending to a woeful voyage. The two families literally
fell upon each other's necks--for it had been years since Jokubas Szedvilas
had met a man from his part of Lithuania. Before half the day they were
lifelong friends. Jokubas understood all the pitfalls of this new world,
and could explain all of its mysteries; he could tell them the things
they ought to have done in the different emergencies--and what was still
more to the point, he could tell them what to do now. He would take them
to poni Aniele, who kept a boardinghouse the other side of the yards;
old Mrs. Jukniene, he explained, had not what one would call choice
accommodations, but they might do for the moment. To this Teta Elzbieta
hastened to respond that nothing could be too cheap to suit them just
then; for they were quite terrified over the sums they had had to expend.
A very few days of practical experience in this land of high wages had
been sufficient to make clear to them the cruel fact that it was also a
land of high prices, and that in it the poor man was almost as poor as in
any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the
wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis. What had made
the discovery all the more painful was that they were spending, at American
prices, money which they had earned at home rates of wages--and so were
really being cheated by the world! The last two days they had all but
starved themselves--it made them quite sick to pay the prices that the
railroad people asked them for food.
Yet, when they saw the home of the Widow Jukniene they could not but
recoil, even so. ln all their journey they had seen nothing so bad
as this. Poni Aniele had a four-room flat in one of that wilderness of
two-story frame tenements that lie "back of the yards." There were four
such flats in each building, and each of the four was a "boardinghouse"
for the occupancy of foreigners--Lithuanians, Poles, Slovaks, or Bohemians.
Some of these places were kept by private persons, some were cooperative.
There would be an average of half a dozen boarders to each room--sometimes
there were thirteen or fourteen to one room, fifty or sixty to a flat.
Each one of the occupants furnished his own accommodations--that is,
a mattress and some bedding. The mattresses would be spread upon the
floor in rows--and there would be nothing else in the place except a stove.
It was by no means unusual for two men to own the same mattress in common,
one working by day and using it by night, and the other working at night
and using it in the daytime. Very frequently a lodging house keeper would
rent the same beds to double shifts of men.
Mrs. Jukniene was a wizened-up little woman, with a wrinkled face.
Her home was unthinkably filthy; you could not enter by the front
door at all, owing to the mattresses, and when you tried to go up the
backstairs you found that she had walled up most of the porch with old
boards to make a place to keep her chickens. It was a standing jest of
the boarders that Aniele cleaned house by letting the chickens loose in
the rooms. Undoubtedly this did keep down the vermin, but it seemed
probable, in view of all the circumstances, that the old lady regarded it
rather as feeding the chickens than as cleaning the rooms. The truth was
that she had definitely given up the idea of cleaning anything, under
pressure of an attack of rheumatism, which had kept her doubled up in
one corner of her room for over a week; during which time eleven of her
boarders, heavily in her debt, had concluded to try their chances of
employment in Kansas City. This was July, and the fields were green.
One never saw the fields, nor any green thing whatever, in Packingtown;
but one could go out on the road and "hobo it," as the men phrased it,
and see the country, and have a long rest, and an easy time riding on
the freight cars.
Such was the home to which the new arrivals were welcomed. There was
nothing better to be had--they might not do so well by looking further,
for Mrs. Jukniene had at least kept one room for herself and her three
little children, and now offered to share this with the women and the
girls of the party. They could get bedding at a secondhand store, she
explained; and they would not need any, while the weather was so hot--
doubtless they would all sleep on the sidewalk such nights as this, as did
nearly all of her guests. "Tomorrow," Jurgis said, when they were left
alone, "tomorrow I will get a job, and perhaps Jonas will get one also;
and then we can get a place of our own."
Later that afternoon he and Ona went out to take a walk and look about them,
to see more of this district which was to be their home. In back of the
yards the dreary two-story frame houses were scattered farther apart,
and there were great spaces bare--that seemingly had been overlooked by the
great sore of a city as it spread itself over the surface of the prairie.
These bare places were grown up with dingy, yellow weeds, hiding
innumerable tomato cans; innumerable children played upon them, chasing
one another here and there, screaming and fighting. The most uncanny
thing about this neighborhood was the number of the children; you thought
there must be a school just out, and it was only after long acquaintance
that you were able to realize that there was no school, but that these
were the children of the neighborhood--that there were so many children
to the block in Packingtown that nowhere on its streets could a horse and
buggy move faster than a walk!
It could not move faster anyhow, on account of the state of the streets.
Those through which Jurgis and Ona were walking resembled streets less
than they did a miniature topographical map. The roadway was commonly
several feet lower than the level of the houses, which were sometimes
joined by high board walks; there were no pavements--there were mountains
and valleys and rivers, gullies and ditches, and great hollows full of
stinking green water. In these pools the children played, and rolled
about in the mud of the streets; here and there one noticed them digging
in it, after trophies which they had stumbled on. One wondered about this,
as also about the swarms of flies which hung about the scene, literally
blackening the air, and the strange, fetid odor which assailed one's
nostrils, a ghastly odor, of all the dead things of the universe.
It impelled the visitor to questions and then the residents would explain,
quietly, that all this was "made" land, and that it had been "made" by
using it as a dumping ground for the city garbage. After a few years the
unpleasant effect of this would pass away, it was said; but meantime,
in hot weather--and especially when it rained--the flies were apt to
be annoying. Was it not unhealthful? the stranger would ask, and the
residents would answer, "Perhaps; but there is no telling."
A little way farther on, and Jurgis and Ona, staring open-eyed and
wondering, came to the place where this "made" ground was in process
of making. Here was a great hole, perhaps two city blocks square,
and with long files of garbage wagons creeping into it. The place had
an odor for which there are no polite words; and it was sprinkled over
with children, who raked in it from dawn till dark. Sometimes visitors
from the packing houses would wander out to see this "dump," and they
would stand by and debate as to whether the children were eating the food
they got, or merely collecting it for the chickens at home. Apparently
none of them ever went down to find out.
Beyond this dump there stood a great brickyard, with smoking chimneys.
First they took out the soil to make bricks, and then they filled it
up again with garbage, which seemed to Jurgis and Ona a felicitous
arrangement, characteristic of an enterprising country like America.
A little way beyond was another great hole, which they had emptied and
not yet filled up. This held water, and all summer it stood there,
with the near-by soil draining into it, festering and stewing in the sun;
and then, when winter came, somebody cut the ice on it, and sold it to
the people of the city. This, too, seemed to the newcomers an economical
arrangement; for they did not read the newspapers, and their heads were
not full of troublesome thoughts about "germs."
They stood there while the sun went down upon this scene, and the sky
in the west turned blood-red, and the tops of the houses shone like fire.
Jurgis and Ona were not thinking of the sunset, however--their backs
were turned to it, and all their thoughts were of Packingtown, which
they could see so plainly in the distance. The line of the buildings
stood clear-cut and black against the sky; here and there out of the
mass rose the great chimneys, with the river of smoke streaming away to
the end of the world. It was a study in colors now, this smoke; in the
sunset light it was black and brown and gray and purple. All the sordid
suggestions of the place were gone--in the twilight it was a vision of
power. To the two who stood watching while the darkness swallowed it up,
it seemed a dream of wonder, with its talc of human energy, of things being
done, of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity
and freedom, of life and love and joy. When they came away, arm in arm,
Jurgis was saying, "Tomorrow I shall go there and get a job!"
The Jungle Chapter 3