Made an odd book find at the Strand the other day: Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle, by Giedrius Subacius. Y'all know about The Jungle, right? Muckraking fiction exposing the incredible foulness of the old Chicago stockyards? Everyone remembers the gross parts:
As for the other men, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting -- sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!Although as someone who grew up in one sausage-making town and went to college in another, my own view is more like this passage:
He had dressed hogs himself in the forest of Lithuania; but he had never expected to live to see one hog dressed by several hundred men. It was like a wonderful poem to him.Subacius's book deals with Upton Sinclair's use of the Lithuanian language in The Jungle. Background: a fair number of Lithuanians immigrated to the U.S., to work in the stockyards and mills, and the generations that followed provided the gridiron with some of its greatest names, like Butkus and Unitas. By pure chance, Sinclair happened on a Lithuanian wedding reception near the stockyards in Chicago one afternoon in 1904, and fell in love with the folk there; the first chapter of The Jungle is a fictional recollection of that party. Subacius analyzes it in detail.
Subacius's philological examination of Sinclair's use of Lithuanian compelled me the most: the different dialect variants that Sinclair recorded, the competing orthographies (this is the second book I've read recently that went into detail about Lithuanian orthographic change, believe it or not), and the complicated linguistic history of both Chicago and Lithuania. It's an oddly melancholy book as well. In effect, Subacius reconstructed a lost era of immigrant history in much the same way a historical linguist will reconstruct a lost tribe, from the few names left behind and the scraps of their speech recorded by outside observers. The pictures Subacius includes of the old Lithuanian Chicago taverns, homes and churches, now burned down or variously demolished -- one church torn down to build a parking lot! -- add to this tone. On the other hand, like the wedding feast of The Jungle's first chapter, there are fun bits too! For instance, the first two Lithuanian translations of The Jungle were printed in Chicago, in 1908. One was called Raistas, 'The Swamp', and the other was called Pelkes, 'The Bog'. I love that. Also, tavern owners in that era's Chicago would publish verse in Lithuanian to attract customers. Subacius reprints such an ad (translation by Elizabeth Novickas):
Pas Bierzinski visad szoka Jauni, jaunos, kurie moka. Nes lietuviai ju pazista Jam prielankus, kad iszvysta. At Bierzinskis's they come to dance Boys and girls who love to prance The Lithuanians all know him well, Just to see him they feel swell. Kad Chicagon atkeliausi, Niekur rodos tu negausi, Pas Bierzinski tik ateikie Viska gausi, ka tik reikia. So if to Chicago you have come, No where will you find such wisdom. Come on by Bierzinskis's place All your needs they will embrace.That's wonderful.