Social Sensitivity

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.

Sinclair’s gruesome descriptions of rats, children’s fingers, and tubercular steers being ground up into canned meats, and hogs diseased with cholera or men drowned in cooking vats being processed into lard brought worldwide attention to meat-packing practices. The horror of these details caused so much public outcry that Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act less than a year after the book’s publication. The filth in the industry that feeds the nation was the thrust of Doubleday’s marketing and the object of the readers’ horror, but Sinclair’s concerns also included the exploitation of workers, the dangers of unsafe machinery, the abuses of child labor, and the degrading effects of slum existence. Critics of the book have labeled it melodramatic and sensationalistic, and as a work of literature The Jungle is indeed flawed. Most accusations are effectively countered, however, by the fact that Sinclair dared to delve-no matter how crudely-into problems frequently whitewashed or overlooked entirely, and in doing so forced others to take action as well. The Jungle did not change everything that its author would have changed, but its responsibility for significant improvement in the food industry merits its reputation as the most effective expression of social concern in American fiction.

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