THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Can you remember the pressure that built up inside the last time you had an urge to tell someone off?
If you can, you'll understand the fury that prompted Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle in 1905.
Sinclair was a cheerful man; yet he loved a fight, especially whenever he felt wronged or saw others
being treated unfairly. Instead of responding with physical force to injustice, however, he would reach for
his favorite weapon- a pen- and dash off a book, an article, or a play to expose the wrongdoer. Or he'd
deliver a speech- or run for public office (in fact, in 1934 he even came close to winning the governorship
Furious about the amount of control giant industries had over people's lives at the turn of the century
in the United States, Sinclair believed that the greed of the men who ran them had turned the American
Dream into a nightmare for millions of workers and consumers. And so he wrote The Jungle in 1905 to
alert the nation to the misery of American workers, and to sketch a solution- socialism- to their
Sinclair's work over the years (including more than eighty books and numerous plays, pamphlets, and
speeches) was largely a record of his political passions. With his writings he hoped, literally, to change
the world. So, in order to understand The Jungle, it's helpful to look at the author's life and at the world he
wanted to change in 1905.
- CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1878, Sinclair grew up there and in
New York City as the only child of poor but proud parents. His mother was the daughter of a well-to-do
railroad executive; his father was the son of a U.S. Navy captain, who fought and died for the South
during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Upton's father, a liquor salesman, drank away most of his earnings,
and "home" to this sad family was a succession of boarding-house rooms.
Whenever his father failed to pay the rent, a frequent occurrence, Mrs. Sinclair would take Upton to
her father's house or to the home of her wealthy sister. The contrast between his own family's poverty and
his relatives' wealth bewildered him. "Mamma, why are some children poor and others rich?"
he remembered asking his mother. "How can that be fair?" As Sinclair noted in his
autobiography, those questions would never stop haunting him:
Readers of my novels know that I have one favorite theme, the contrast between the social classes;
there are characters from both worlds, the rich and the poor, and the plots are contrived to carry you from
one to the other. The explanation is that as far back as I can remember, my life was a series of Cinderella
transformations; one night I would be sleeping on a vermin-ridden sofa in a lodging-house, and the next
night under silken coverlets in a fashionable home.
Sinclair's childhood experiences made him a lifelong foe of alcohol, which plays a villain's role in
several of his novels, including The Jungle. As a teenager he "traced the saloon to Tammany [the
political 'machine' that ran Democratic party politics in New York] and blamed my troubles on the high
chieftains of this organization.... I had not yet found out 'big business.'"
Big Business was the name given to the largely unregulated corporations that began
to dominate the U.S. economy after the Civil War. The most harmful ones- those which Sinclair attacked
in The Jungle and in several other books- were the trusts. Trusts were corporations or groups of
corporations that were so big, they could monopolize an industry, squeezing out the free competition that
can keep prices down. Although a Federal law, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, banned such trusts,
the government used this weapon sparingly, and some trusts survived well into the 20th century.
The free-booting ways of the trusts were an embarrassment to backers of capitalism, the economic
system based on private ownership of the enterprises that produce goods and services. In the 1980s, the
U.S. government plays an active role in the nation's capitalist economy. But in the 1800s, the government
kept its distance from business. The belief then was that the natural course of supply and demand would
regulate the economy to the best interests of everyone.
The trusts made a mockery of that belief by keeping competition down and prices high in the
industries they dominated. They did this by gobbling up small companies, some of which might have
found a method to produce and sell a product at a lower price.
The trusts trampled on the public interest in other ways, too. Sometimes they corrupted the political
process by bribing crooked politicians. During Sinclair's youth, voters who thought elected officials spoke
for them were often shocked to find these officials acting solely in the interests of the "Beef
Trust," or the "Oil Trust," or some other concentrated industry. As a result, many
citizens lost faith in all elected officials.
The trusts had their defenders, however. One of the most well-known was John D. Rockefeller, whose
Standard Oil Company had the petroleum market cornered from 1882 to 1911. "The growth of a
large business is merely a survival of the fittest," he said. "The American beauty rose can be
produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early
buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a
law of nature and a law of God."
The courts disagreed and in 1892 ordered the breakup of Rockefeller's trust. It lived on under the
guise of a holding company until the courts ordered its dismemberment in 1911.
Sinclair wouldn't turn his attention to the trusts until 1902, when he became acquainted
with socialist ideas. Socialism is a body of ideas that blames many of society's ills on competition for
profit. Socialists want to substitute cooperation for competition. They want the government to control the
enterprises that produce goods and services and to direct these enterprises toward socially responsible, not
just profitable projects.
As the final chapter of The Jungle demonstrates, socialists don't always agree on goals or methods.
Some of them want total government control of the economy, some only partial control. Others, including
communists, believe that it's necessary to use violence to replace a capitalist system with a socialist one.
Sinclair didn't believe in violent methods or in the need for government to take over an entire
economy. From 1902 until his death in 1968, he was a democratic socialist. He believed that voters who
were educated about the evils of a capitalist system could use the ballot- not the bullet- to take control of
the economy through their elected government. The extent of this control would depend on what the
voters decided was necessary. Educating the voters was Sinclair's major purpose in writing The Jungle.
- EARLY ADULTHOOD
At age twenty-four, when Sinclair first began reading socialist theory, he
was ready for its message. Financially and professionally, he was down and out. He had financed three
years of graduate study at Columbia University by churning out cheap adventure novels. Then he had
spent two frustrating years writing serious novels, but his serious books had been washouts. He was unable
to earn enough money to support his wife and their baby son, and this failure depressed him.
Still, he tried his hand at another novel, Manassas, about the Civil War, while living on thirty dollars
a month provided by a wealthy socialist. The book was published in 1904 and earned Sinclair five
hundred dollars. His total earnings from four novels in four and a half years came to less than a thousand
Fortunately, Sinclair didn't have to give up writing. The editor of a socialist magazine, the Appeal to
Reason, offered him $500 for the right to serialize a novel about "wage slaves" (industrial
workers). Sinclair snapped up the offer. Leaving his wife and son in Princeton, New Jersey, he took a
train to Chicago, which was the world center of the meat-packing industry. He lived among stockyard
workers for seven weeks, collecting information for his novel.
What he saw appalled him. There was nothing "enlightened" about the way industrialists
of the day viewed their employees. Profits came first; the workers' well-being, second. In the absence of
strong unions, workers were treated brutally and paid wages much too low for a family to live on.
But the workers dared not complain. Outside the packing plants, newly arrived immigrants- men and
women desperate for jobs- offered to work for even lower wages.
Data gathered by the historian Oscar Handlin show just how desperate they were. For every dollar a
native-born American earned in 1900, Italian immigrants earned 84 cents, Hungarian immigrants 68
cents, and other European immigrants 54 cents.
Sick pay and unemployment benefits, standard in the 1980s, didn't exist for the average worker in
1904. When the bread-winner lost his job or was too sick to work, his family often went hungry.
At the time, there were few laws governing healthy living and working conditions. The packing
plants were dangerous places- sites of accidents and sources of all kinds of diseases, from pneumonia and
blood poisoning to deadly tuberculosis. The hovels where stockyard workers lived were overcrowded
firetraps. The unpaved streets in the slums became open sewers when rains flooded the cesspools behind
Sinclair also noted how little the government did to protect consumers against fraud. Sawdust and rat
droppings were mixed into the sausage meat and deviled ham. Spoiled meat regularly found its way into
cans. One U.S. Army general estimated that spoiled meat, first treated with dangerous chemicals and then
canned, had killed three thousand U.S. soldiers during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
To survive, workers in the meat-packing plants were forced to take part in this horrendous fraud- one
that affected nearly every American. Moreover the poor and uneducated workers were frequently
swindled into buying furniture, houses, insurance, and other things they couldn't afford, usually signing
contracts they couldn't understand.
- SINCLAIR'S RESEARCH
Sinclair was a good reporter. He checked and double-checked his facts. He
talked with settlement house workers- men and women who had opted to live among Chicago's poor
immigrants and help them "settle" in America.
Once he had the facts, he had to dream up people to "hang" them on. He tells in his
autobiography how he put together his story:
Wandering about "back of the yards" one Sunday afternoon I saw a wedding party going
into the rear room of a saloon.... [Sunday was the only day the workers had free.] I slipped into the room
and stood against the wall. There, the opening chapter of The Jungle began to take form. There were my
characters- the bride, the groom, the old mother and father, the boisterous cousin, the children, the three
musicians, everybody. I... began to write the scene in my mind, going over it and, as was my custom,
fixing it fast. I... stayed until late at night,... not talking to anyone, just watching, imagining, and
engraving the details on my mind.
It was two months before I... first put pen to paper; but the story stayed, and I wrote down whole
paragraphs, whole pages, exactly as I had memorized them.
Back in Princeton, the Sinclairs borrowed some money and moved out of their one-room cabin into a
farmhouse. Behind the house, Sinclair set up a rickety cabin, 8 feet wide and 10 feet long. He equipped it
with a potbelly stove, a chair, and a table, and began writing The Jungle on Christmas Day, 1904.
His experiences in Chicago had shocked him. Nonetheless, the book's emotional energy, from the first
page to the last, comes primarily from Sinclair and his family's own suffering.
The Appeal to Reason began serializing The Jungle even before it was finished. The weekly,
published in Kansas, had about 500,000 subscribers, mostly farmers in the Midwest and West. Readers
began to write to Sinclair, and he saw he had a success on his hands.
Nonetheless, a number of book publishers refused to handle The Jungle. One wanted Sinclair to cut
out some of the graphic descriptions of packing-plant operations. Others, no doubt, wanted nothing to do
with a book that aimed to convert the nation to socialism. Finally, one publisher sent a lawyer to Chicago
to check out Sinclair's facts. The lawyer's report backed Sinclair, and the firm brought out the book in
The Jungle caused a furor. The book's revelations became front-page news.
Sinclair's shocking picture of packing-plant conditions made a nation of meat-eaters groan with pain and
anger. President Theodore Roosevelt sent a commission to Chicago to investigate the charges of this new
Muckraker was Roosevelt's word for writers like Sinclair, who exposed business abuses and political
corruption. Roosevelt read their work and even consulted with them. (It was at a White House lunch with
Sinclair that Roosevelt decided to send his own investigators to Chicago.) But he claimed not to care
much for them, possibly because they attacked many of the politicians and business leaders he had to
work with as president.
Historians point out that muckrakers served a useful purpose. Most of them wrote for large-
circulation magazines that had the money to support thorough investigations. Their reports helped drum
up public support for government regulation of the trusts and for electoral reforms that made politics in
the U.S. more democratic.
Sinclair's muckraking in The Jungle helped clean up the meat-packing industry. Roosevelt's
commission upheld all of Sinclair's charges, except one about men falling into vats and being turned into
lard. (Sinclair's informants in Chicago insisted this had happened- not once, but several times.) As a
result, the president put the power of his office behind two bills designed to reform the industry.
The Pure Food and Drug Act banned the selling of dangerous or fake drugs and impure food. The
Meat Inspection Act required federal officials to inspect meat slaughtered in one state and sold in another.
Both became law in June 1906, less than six months after The Jungle appeared in book form.
Sinclair's work had had a major effect- but not the one he had hoped it would. He felt that the uproar
over spoiled and adulterated meat had caused his readers to miss his larger message, and he spelled out
his disappointment in a magazine article that appeared in October 1906:
I wished to frighten the country by a picture of what its industrial masters were doing to their victims;
entirely by chance I had stumbled on another discovery- what they were doing to the meat-supply of the
civilized world. In other words, I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
The message of The Jungle was not lost on fellow socialists, however. Jack London, a prominent
socialist and best-selling author, touted the novel in the pages of the Age of Reason:
Here it is at last! The book we have been waiting for these many years! The Uncle Tom's Cabin of
wage slavery! Comrade Sinclair's book, The Jungle! And what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for black slaves,
The Jungle has a large chance to do for the wage-slaves of today.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, troubled the nation's conscience with a
painful portrait of the evils of slavery. It was one of the many wedges that drove Northerners and
Southerners apart and brought on the war that put an end to slavery in America.
The Jungle failed to arouse a similar response for the "working men of America," to
whom it is dedicated. Most Americans in 1906 seemed to accept Rockefeller's claim that the worker's
sacrifice was part of God's design. Government programs designed to protect workers on the job and
during periods of unemployment wouldn't arrive until the bleak days of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Yet the novel's failure to extend democracy to the workplace is no reflection on Sinclair's abilities as
a reporter. The Jungle is a heartbreaking story of an immigrant family's struggle to survive, and for that
alone it is well worth reading. But it is also a sound historical document of the life and sufferings of
factory workers during the early years of this century.
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[Essay comparing Upton Sinclair to Sinclair Lewis]
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