Visions of America Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
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. […] 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." (2.23)
This dump can work as a metaphor for Sinclair's perception of America. Mike Scully, powerful businessman, has this plan where he digs out the soil of Packingtown to make bricks. Then, he fills the giant hole with garbage and covers it over as reclaimed land. So, even though it looks good, underneath it's all decaying trash. Metaphorically speaking, this describes Jurgis's experience of the United States: when he first arrived, he is immediately impressed by the modern machinery he sees all over the place. It's only after some personal experience that he realizes all of this fine-looking new stuff is hiding a rotten center.
For every one that Jurgis spoke to assured him that it was a waste of time to seek employment for the old man in Packingtown. Szedvilas told him that the packers did not even keep the men who had grown old in their own service – to say nothing of taking on new ones. And not only was it the rule here, it was the rule everywhere in America, so far as he knew. (4.4)
Early on, Jurgis's grandfather absolutely insists on looking for a job. No one wants to employ such an old man, though. There is no Social Security or pension to support Antanas in his old age (Social Security was not signed into law until 1935), so he has to keep trying to avoid being a burden to his family. People still differ about what kind of work older people should be allowed to do. For example, there is discussion about changing the retirement age from 65 to 70 or even higher. Now that Americans are routinely living into their eighties, why should people in some professions be forced from their jobs by an arbitrary number? At the same time, as a nation, Americans work incredibly hard. We have many fewer vacation days per year than most European nations, for example. Shouldn't there be a time when we are just allowed to relax and enjoy life? Poor Antanas is living before any of these security nets for older people are in place, though, so he essentially works himself to death.
One of the consequences of all these things was that Jurgis was no longer perplexed when he heard men talk of fighting for their rights. He felt like fighting now himself; and when the Irish delegate of the butcher-helpers' union came to him a second time, he received him in a far different spirit. A wonderful idea it now seemed to Jurgis, this of the men – that by combining they might be able to make a stand and conquer the packers! Jurgis wondered who had first thought of it; and when he was told that it was a common thing for men to do in America, he got the first inkling of a meaning in the phrase "a free country." The delegate explained to him how it depended upon their being able to get every man to join and stand by the organization, and so Jurgis signified that he was willing to do his share. Before another month was by, all the working members of his family had union cards, and wore their union buttons conspicuously and with pride. (8.14)
The amazing thing about an ideal like the American Dream is that, even if it is out of reach at the time Sinclair is writing, it is still an ideal. It is something that we can keep striving to make true. One direct way that Jurgis learns to try and create the freedom he had hoped to find by coming to America is by joining a union. Unions are not perfect in this novel: they don't help save Jurgis from poverty, and they are subject to misuse by Jurgis himself, when he uses his union membership to help rig Mike Scully's election later in the novel. Even so, the fundamental idea that workers can band together to lobby for things like higher wages, shorter work weeks, and better working conditions is a powerful concept. The union presents a much different (and more positive) vision of America than we find anywhere else in this novel, as a nation in which oppressed people can work together to make things better for themselves. What role do unions play in today's society? What perception do you have of contemporary unions?