One of the most prolific writers in the history of American letters, Upton Beall Sinclair published 90 books and thousands of essays over the course of his career, most of his work focusing on the need for social and political reform. Born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of fourteen and published pieces in several magazines while still an undergraduate. He began work toward a master’s degree at Columbia University but left in 1901 without completing the program. That same year his first novel, Springtime and Harvest, was published, but neither it nor any of his three subsequent novels met with favorable critical response. With the publication of his fifth novel, The Jungle, in 1906, Sinclair suddenly established a reputation as one of America’s preeminent writers and crusaders for reform; his expose of the meat-packing industry won him an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt and prompted the passage later that year of the U.S. Pure Food and Drugs Act.
Sinclair became a devotee of socialism in 1903 and considered The Jungle a forum for examining capitalism’s exploitation of working men and women. The narrative follows its protagonist, the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, as he wrestles with a harsh environment where only the ruthless survive. The novel opens at Jurgis’s vesilija, or Lithuanian wedding feast-a ceremony expressing individual hope and the reaffirmation of traditional values. Jurgis struggles against external conditions native to the Chicago stockyard but representative of an entire society dedicated to the values of capitalism. Sinclair introduces a political alternative and effective antidote to capitalistic excesses by describing Jurgis’s eventual conversion to socialism. Although Sinclair was not completely satisfied with the mixture of rhetorical techniques he employed in The Jungle, his vivid descriptions of outrageous industrial practices quickly attracted public attention to the novel and stimulated social reform.
The Jungle takes place in the meat-packing plants, stockyards, and settlement houses of Chicago during the opening years of the 20th century. As much a work of journalism as of fiction, the novel grew out of Sinclair’s firsthand observations of life in the “Yards” and his interviews with workers, foremen, and politicians. Although Sinclair wanted his novel to focus on the merits of socialism, its impact stemmed from its raw depiction of the inhumane working conditions at the packing plants and the health hazards posed by filth in the slaughterhouses. The novel’s naturalistic setting thus proved far more important to its success than did its political content.
Before the publication of The Jungle, Sinclair commented in the Appeal, a Socialist journal, that his novel would “set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profits. It will shake the popular heart and blow the roof off the industrial tea-kettle.” Critics have generally viewed his success in this plan as at least as mixed as his metaphor. Breaking human hearts requires more skill in characterization than Sinclair possessed, but in blowing roofs he succeeded most admirably. Concerned with all the evils suffered by wage earners under a capitalistic system and what he saw as the certain lessening of those evils under socialism, Sinclair picked as his subject an industry to whose callousness and dangers the public had already been alerted by several previous investigators. The thought that the canned meat products they regularly consumed might contain rat parts proved of more immediate concern to most readers than the adventures of a fictional Lithuanian immigrant. Sinclair himself later remarked that the packing house episodes quite took over the novel and moved the setting into position as a central theme. In effect, the reader’s turning stomach overshadows the protagonist’s breaking heart, and Sinclair is left to insert the idea of “salvation through socialism” unconvincingly into the book’s didactic closing chapters. Still, Sinclair’s novel fired at many targets in the jungle of social ills, and that it scored even one direct hit that resulted in significant reform entitles it to its respected place in the canon of American literature.
Sinclair’s expose of Chicago’s meatpacking industry produced an immediate decrease in American meat consumption and soon led to the passage of stricter laws regulating the food industry. As an agent of reform, The Jungle fit squarely into the tradition of muckraking journalism, an outgrowth of the progressive movement that dominated American cultural and political spheres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An adjunct to the “trust-busting” fervor that drove political activists to fight for legal restraints against corporate monopolies, muckraking strove to expose in print-and thus, eventually, eradicate-social and political injustice.
Upton Sinclair’s overwhelming concern was the betterment of society; art served as a tool for improving conditions among the working classes. First conceived of as an analogy between the wage slavery imposed on workers and the slavery earlier imposed on blacks, The Jungle graphically exposed the brutality that capitalism allows the privileged to inflict on the poor. Sinclair spent two months in and around Chicago’s packing houses disguised as a worker, observing the squalor, filth, and despair spawned by an economic system designed to promote personal gain. Returning to his home in New Jersey, Sinclair wrote his novel in less than six months. At first rejected by major publishing houses for fear of libel, The Jungle was published by Doubleday in 1906 after the publishing company investigated and verified Sinclair’s claims.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What elements in the plot have caused critics to accuse The Jungle of being too melodramatic to be classified as good literature?
The Jungle was Sinclair’s first success and remains his most powerful and popular book; the remainder of his work is now virtually unread. While critics agree that much of Sinclair’s writing is notable primarily for its uneven quality, one of the author’s novels deserves mention both for its literary merits and its thematic similarities to The Jungle. In 1914 the National Guard was called to Ludlow, Colorado, to break a strike by United Mine Workers. The Guard fired into a tent camp, killing several women and children. Sinclair visited Colorado and found the plight of the miners as moving as the Chicago wage slavery that inspired his earlier masterpiece. Three years after the Ludlow massacre, he published King Coal, the story of a wealthy young student, Hal Warner, who poses as a miner to investigate working conditions in the Colorado mines. Warner becomes a union advocate and plays a leading role in organizing the workers before returning to college with a new purpose in his life: “To fight for the working people.” Warner’s experiences present a panorama of an industry as corrupt, oppressive, and dangerous as any Sinclair took arms against, and the author had high hopes for the novel’s success. Its reception, however, was disappointing.