Sinclair Publishes The Jungle
Sinclair Publishes The Jungle
United States 1906
Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 as a socialist argument against wage slavery. Instead of generating interest in socialism, his exposure of the unsafe and unclean aspects of the Chicago meatpacking industry fueled reform and helped ensure the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act. The novel remains an important one for historical as well as literary reasons and is one of a handful of books in the Muckrakers' canon.
- 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
- 1891: Construction of Trans-Siberian Railway begins. Meanwhile, crop failures across Russia lead to widespread starvation.
- 1896: Nobel Prize established.
- 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
- 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
- 1906: After disputes resulting from the presidential election in Cuba, various Cuban parties invite the United States, under the 1901 Platt Amendment (which limits the terms of Cuban independence), to restore order. American troops begin a three-year occupation of the country.
- 1906: German neurologist Alois Alzheimer identifies the degenerative brain disorder that today bears his name.
- 1906: An earthquake, the worst ever to hit a U.S. city, strikes San Francisco on 18 April. It kills some 2,500 people, leaves another 250,000 homeless, and destroys more than $400 million worth of property.
- 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
- 1908: The Tunguska region of Siberia experiences a strange explosion, comparable to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, whose causes will long be a subject of debate. Today many scientists believe that a comet caused the Tunguska event.
- 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
- 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
Event and Its Context
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 20 September 1878, Sinclair was the only child of an alcoholic father and a teetotaling, deeply religious mother. His family moved to New York around 1886, and his mother educated Sinclair at home until age 10. After his graduation in 1897 from the College of the City of New York, he continued his education at Columbia University with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Destitute while in school, he supported himself by selling puzzles, stories, and other items to magazines and newspapers. He wrote mostly fiction at first, publishing adventure stories for the Street and Smith company and then self-publishing his first novel, Springtime and Harvest, in 1901. That same year, he married Meta Fuller, who later gave birth to a son, David.
A chance meeting in 1902 with Leonard D. Abbot, a young socialist, led to Sinclair's introduction to socialism and to meeting several prominent members of the Socialist Party of America. As Sinclair biographer William A. Bloodworth noted, "It took Sinclair several years to grasp the proletarian and reformist aspects of socialism. However, from the beginning, it appears that he understood the way in which many socialists accepted socialism as the culmination of Christianity." Sinclair quickly embraced this mixture of political philosophy with theology. Over the next two years he mingled with the socialist elite, and in the winter of 1902-1903 wrote a short novel, A Captain of Industry, from a neosocialist perspective. The work, published in 1906, was unsophisticated fiction and ineffective socialist propaganda.
Sinclair's next book, Manassas (1904), about a southern family in the antebellum period and the abolitionist movement just prior to the Civil War, drew on history for its source material. Though it was another weak attempt at fiction, the book was important for Sinclair for several reasons. An improvement over previous efforts, it demonstrated to Sinclair that he could develop a better story when relying extensively on facts and historical data. It signaled the transition from his earlier work, which emphasized imagination rather than reality, and from being a hack writer to a competent one. His research helped him connect the earlier abolitionist crusade with the Progressive movement. He envisioned socialism at the vanguard of political reform. To aid this cause, he turned to exposing the unforgiving reality of the human condition in a contemporary setting in the slaughterhouses of Chicago's stockyards district, which he would call "Packingtown."
Muckrackers and the Beef Trust
By the time Sinclair settled on the topic of how the slaughterhouses in Chicago had created wage slaves of the workers, social and political conditions made his timing ripe for success. Muckraking articles, often serialized in mainstream magazines such as The World's Work and Cosmopolitan, had created a stir against several trusts, or monopolies, that controlled entire industries. Muckraker journalists such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, whose major works, The Shame of the Cities and History of the Standard Oil Company, respectively, appeared in 1901. The Muckrakers—so named by Theodore Roosevelt because they, like the Man with the Muckrake in Pilgrim's Progress, looked down at the filth and ignored the celestial crown—exposed and attempted to correct graft and corruption in both government and business.
For years, beginning with the "embalmed meat" scandals during the Spanish-American war, muckrakers had been attacking the so-called Beef Trust, focusing attention not only on the unhealthy food but also the monopolistic business practices and corrupt political connections. Theodore Roosevelt, hero of the war in Cuba and governor of New York, testified before a Senate investigating committee in 1899 that he would as soon eat his old hat as the canned goods shipped under government contract to the soldiers fighting in Cuba. Yet, despite the newspaper articles and Senate testimony, there had been very little public outcry against the Beef Trust. The meatpackers managed public relations better than most other businessmen of the era, arranging sham tours to carefully manicured parts of their plants and advertising their virtues. Cosmopolitan and other magazines lavished positive articles on the packers. Even the appearance of a series of muckraking articles in 1904 about the trust failed to have any effect.
Meanwhile, Dr. Harvey Wiley had been laying much of the practical groundwork for reforming the beef industry. As chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the United States Department of Agriculture since 1886, Wiley had been investigating the adulteration of foodstuffs for several years before Sinclair visited Chicago in 1904. In 1902 Wiley began showing through experiments on humans the unhealthful effects of the dyes, boric acid, benzoic acid, and other preservatives used by unscrupulous businessmen and consumed by an ignorant public. Wiley and his associates conducted the basic scientific research that proved necessary for Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, but it would take the explosive work of Sinclair to push a recalcitrant U.S. House of Representatives into action.
Sinclair and the Chicago Stockyards
Before heading for Chicago in November of 1904 to start his research, Sinclair divided his time between reading about standard socialist theory and philosophy and developing an audience by writing for mass publication journals. In the summer of 1904 Sinclair officially joined the Socialist Party of America. He became a regular contributor to Appeal to Reason, a weekly populist-socialist journal published in Kansas. The foremost socialist voice in the country, the magazine had an established circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The Appeal introduced Sinclair to a large and sympathetic audience. He wrote a series of articles about the unsuccessful strike in the Chicago meat packing industry that took place that same summer. He informed his readers that the Beef Trust was hardly interested in responding to union demands under the present capitalist system and that socialism was absolutely necessary to combat the problem. He incorporated the strike into his next book, The Jungle.
Though Manassas was selling poorly, the favorable reviews of the book garnered Sinclair enough publicity to have the mainstream Collier's publish two of his articles. One article was an explanation of the aims of the Socialist Party in the upcoming election: to educate Americans about social injustice and to thereby open the door to economic democracy and to avoid revolution. The other article, "Our Bourgeois Literature," argued that as long as workers were being exploited, society could achieve "neither political virtue, nor social refinement, nor true religion, nor vital art." The article signaled Sinclair's break from the idealistic writing that informed his earlier novels and his move toward literature that would help alleviate the conditions workers faced under capitalism. To agitate for change in American culture from the bottom up, he decided to deal specifically with lower-class life and practical politics.
Sinclair approached the publisher of Manassas with his idea for a new novel that "would be intended to set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profits." The publishing house, Macmillan, gave him an advance of $500. The editor of Appeal to Reason matched that offer for the serial rights to the novel if he would produce one as good as Manassas but one that would deal with present-day wage slavery instead of chattel slavery.
Sinclair devoted seven weeks in Chicago to gathering factual information and personal impressions, spending nearly all of his waking hours at the task. He interviewed a wide variety of people about conditions in the packing plants and the political corruption in Chicago, including lawyers, doctors, laborers, and social workers. His socialist affiliation won him invitations into the homes of laborers for interviews. He toured the plants as an official visitor and as a disguised worker. He met a correspondent for Lancet, the prominent British medical journal, who provided him with detailed information about slaughterhouse conditions. What he saw made a disturbing, lifelong impression on him. He returned home and began the difficult task of turning facts and impressions into a novel.
A Brief Summary and Analysis of The Jungle
The story of Jurgis Rudkus and his Lithuanian relatives in the first two-thirds of the novel follows the classic naturalistic pattern of inevitable downward spiral toward anarchy and doom. The book opens with the marriage celebration of Jurgis and his 16-year-old bride, Ona Lukoszaite, a lavish celebration they can not afford but feel compelled to stage so as to maintain connections to their heritage. The celebration is marred by the emergence of differences between older men and women and the younger people who have turned their backs on their cultural heritage. The party lasts into the early hours of the morning. Despite the prodigious amounts of alcohol consumed and lack of sleep, the guests and even the bridal couple must still prepare to head for work or risk losing their jobs.
Though Jurgis is a Lithuanian immigrant, Sinclair portrayed him as a stereotype of the American dreamer: he is a strong believer in the work ethic and trusts that his hard work will deliver to him and his family greater and greater material rewards; he goes to night school to learn English and becomes an American citizen; and he purchases a home and provides for his extended family. Yet for all his efforts, Jurgis struggles mostly in vain. The hopeful and hardworking immigrants are ground down by American industry. Their American dream turns into a nightmare.
The strain to exist overwhelms the family. Every ablebodied member of the family must work. When Ona gives birth to their son, her premature return to work makes her sick. When Jurgis injures himself and has to miss work to convalesce, he loses his job at the packing plant and has to take one at a fertilizer plant. The poor pay forces Ona to prostitute herself clandestinely. When Jurgis attacks the man who forced her into prostitution, he lands in jail for 30 days. Upon his release he finds his house has been repossessed, and then he watches as his wife dies of a miscarriage. Despite the devastation, he must still provide for his family, so he takes a job first in a harvester plant and then in a steel mill. He returns home from work one day to find that his son has drowned in a mud puddle in the unpaved streets of the stockyards district. He then flees Packingtown and the pain it has caused him, taking odd jobs in the countryside and spending his wages in saloons and brothels living a life of "wild rioting and debauchery" in an attempt to forget his sorrows.
Jurgis finally returns to Chicago and takes a job digging tunnels beneath the city. Another injury forces him to become a beggar. A chance encounter with the son of a packer reveals that wealth produces no greater rewards of family and a sense of community—the wealthy son is no happier than Jurgis. Jurgis soon finds himself working for the corrupt Democratic political machine and as a strikebreaker in the packing plants. After another stint in jail for again attacking the man who forced his dead wife into prostitution, Jurgis reaches his emotional nadir.
While wandering the streets and trying to figure out how keep from losing his humanity—his concern for others—in a social and economic system that only seems to produce helplessness and sorrow for him, he stumbles into a political meeting where the speaker is discussing socialism.
Jurgis is stirred by what he hears. The masters of the wage slaves, he is told, "do nothing to earn what they receive, they do not even have to come for it. . . . The whole of society is in their grip, the whole labor of the world lies at their mercy. . . . They own not merely the labor of society, they own the governments." As the speaker continues, Jurgis undergoes what can be described best as a religious conversion to socialism. "The whole world had been changed for him—he was free, he was free! . . . He would be a man, with a will and a purpose." Enraptured, Jurgis meets with the speaker afterwards and learns more about socialism, finds a good job, and begins living a better and enlightened life. The serialized version of the story concludes with the Socialist Party having made substantial gains in the election of 1904, but Jurgis is hauled off to jail on election night for having jumped bail earlier. This final stab at social injustice in America was omitted from the book version. The book version ends on the upbeat note of a postelection rally at which a socialist speaker declares that in the next election, "Chicago Will Be Ours!"
Up until the late stages of the story, Sinclair achieved his goal of writing a kind of Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery. Jurgis suffers as a result of working in the slaughterhouses and other dangerous jobs, has lost everything of value to him, and is at a point of great despair. Sinclair had effectively set the stage for his hero to find that socialism is the solution to his—and to society's—ills. But in the last third of the novel, from the political meeting through the conclusion, Sinclair diverges from the naturalistic style and gets bogged down as he attempts to convey his political message through the various incidents and discussions that engage Jurgis. When Sinclair shifts the focus from Jurgis to the various lectures and speeches, the book becomes little more than a political treatise in a narrative form. The two sections and styles do not easily coexist. Nonetheless, the work succeeded far more than Sinclair anticipated.
Reaction to The Jungle
Sinclair's effort had a huge impact on the reading public. Though the book's dedication had declared, "To the Workingmen of America," Sinclair's original intentions of a prosocialist political tract that exposed unseemly wage slavery became lost in the uproar caused by the book's lurid descriptions of the abysmal working conditions and complete lack of quality control in the stockyards. As Sinclair noted, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Macmillan decided not to publish the story, fearing that many of the scenes in the packing plants were possibly libelous. Doubleday, Page, and Company verified the facts by sending investigators of its own and published the book in 1906. To capitalize on the growing anger over contaminated food, the company advertised the novel as "a searching exposéof . . . the flagrant violations of all hygienic laws in the slaughter of diseased cattle . . . and the whole machinery of feeding a nation." Sinclair became world famous, and book sales earned him enough money to lift him permanently out of poverty.
The book also launched Sinclair into active reform politics. He requested that President Roosevelt order an investigation of sanitary conditions in the Chicago packing plants and agitated for passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act, which had been stalled in the U.S. Congress for months. Roosevelt threatened to make his own secret investigation report public to coerce Congress into passing the more stringent Senate version of the bill that he favored. Undeterred, the House emasculated the Senate version, and Roosevelt leaked part of the report to the press to force the issue. The confirmation of Sinclair's claims caused a sharp drop in American meat sales in Europe, and the packers and their representatives caved in.
Roosevelt agreed to have the government pay for the meat inspectors but insisted on civil service status for inspectors and the government's right to stop approving meat in plants that refused to act on its suggestions. A new federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was created to carry out the laws. With it, the scope of federal administrative rule was extended and the whole concept of a national duty and power to police and protect the public was enlarged. Though the laws did not have all the provisions for which Sinclair had hoped, in the end Sinclair, Roosevelt, and Wiley could all claim credit for the legislative victory.
Roosevelt, Theodore (1858-1919): A lifelong civil servant, war hero, and author, Roosevelt became the youngest president ever upon William McKinley's assassination in 1901. With the passage of laws such as the Pure Food and Drug Act, Roosevelt strengthened the executive branch by using the progressive agenda during his two terms. He ran for a third term in office in 1912 on the Progressive Party ticket but lost.
Sinclair, Upton (1878-1968): Sinclair wrote other novels that exposed social evils, including King Coal (1917), Oil!(1927), Boston (on the Sacco-Vanzetti Case, 1928), and Little Steel (1938). An ardent socialist, Sinclair was in and out of the American Socialist Party but was defeated as the Democratic candidate for governor of California in 1934. World's End (1940) is the first of a cycle of 11 novels that deal with world events since 1914 and feature the fictional Lanny Budd as hero; the third, Dragon's Teeth (1942), won a Pulitzer Prize. Many of Sinclair's more than 80 books have been widely translated.
Wiley, Harvey W. (1844-1930): Food chemist, born near Kent, Indiana. He was professor of chemistry at Purdue (1874-1883), then became chief of the chemical division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a position he held for 30 years. His main interest was in improving purity and reducing food adulteration. Conflicts over enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act led to his resignation in 1912, but he continued as an active propagandist on food purity until his death. He also served as professor of agricultural chemistry at George Washington University from 1899 to 1914.
See also: Socialist Party of the U.S.
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Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1991.
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—James G. Lewis