Imagine that a journalist, with outside political views, decided to go undercover to expose corruption. That investigation turned into a series of articles in a political magazine, which found a sympathetic audience. Then the journalist turned those articles into a novel and pushed it through to publication.
Once people start reading this new book, they were disgusted. However, they didn’t care about the story’s theme of working-class struggles. They were disturbed by gross descriptions of meat packing factories.
That’s what happened to Upton Sinclair when he published The Jungle in the early 1900s.
During Sinclair’s time, critics dismissed the author as a sensationalist. Yet, public outcry after the novel’s initial publishing fueled food regulations.
I have always been fascinated by that swift cause-and-effect between the book’s publishing and related legislation — and why Sinclair’s main message missed his audience.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Inside The Jungle, the reader discovers squeamish sentences such as, “…and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, 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 the conditions of the meat packing facility are secondary to the drama of the main character’s trials, they became the focus after the novel was published. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Upton Sinclair said in an interview about his novel with Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1906.
The characters meet horrible fates, including:
- Dying in childbirth
- Forced prostitution
- Sleeping on the streets
- Being eaten to death by rats
Sinclair wanted to criticize corrupt capitalism. Instead, the impact on business regulation including factory conditions and food safety remains the novel’s legacy.
The story begins with the main character, Jurgis, arriving in America with his young wife and extended family. They are tired, unskilled, and hopeful. Soon, they fall prey to Chicago’s harsh meat-packing district.
Corruption and greed controls the city. Jurgis fights against oppression for most of the tale. He caves in to the corruption as his family falls apart. His morality must be sacrificed for the sake of survival.
His trials include:
- The meat-packing factory
- Becoming a hobo
- Joining the graft
- Working for the union
- Turning on the union
- Working as a con artist
- Day labor
Jurgis rekindles his passion for work and life when he joins the socialist movement, although he still mourns his dead wife and children. At this juncture, the story concludes with a hopeful and determined protagonist.
Fear and Food Safety
The most referenced part of the story is Jurgis’ time at the meat factory. Food safety concerned all members of society, including those with privilege. With minimal oversight, corrupt capitalism devolved into nauseating greed.
These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Sinclair spent seven weeks working undercover in Chicago’s meat packing plants to inspire the details of these scenes. Contaminated food scandals are familiar to modern readers. During the late 1800s, people assumed their food was safe and chemical free. Public outcry over this revelation led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.
Quality of Life
As the story progresses, many of the main characters perish. The family traded a simple, healthy existence for a competitive life. In Lithuania, they lived in a rural locale and worked with their hands. Coming to America, they found a situation that perpetuated poverty with a lower quality of life. At first, the family falls prey to ignorance, as big businesses and unscrupulous people take advantage of their naivety. Later, Jurgis understands that those same people act unethically for their own survival. As the story continues, the family finds that their honest and hardworking attitudes will not help them survive.
Other immigrants try to explain the phenomenon to the newcomers. The companies wear employees out. Hurt and unable to work, each former employee succumbs to homelessness. Jurgis’ family does well until they become injured by dangerous working conditions.
Their children were not as well as they had been at home; but how could they know that there was no sewer to their house, and that the drainage of fifteen years was in a cesspool under it? How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drugstore and buy extracts—and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had?The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Workplace injuries resulted in debt, prison, or death.
Chaos and Calamity
Jurgis can’t cope. He falls prey to dangerous circumstances. He fears death from the factory conditions.
It was said by the boss at Durham’s that he had gotten his week’s money and left there. That might not be true, of course, for sometimes they would say that when a man had been killed; it was the easiest way out of it for all concerned. When, for instance, a man had fallen into one of the rendering tanks and had been made into pure leaf lard and peerless fertilizer, there was no use letting the fact out and making his family unhappy.The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The people are treated like animals and they begin to act like animals. Jurgis transforms from a muscular, ethical family man to a scrawny creature that leaves his extended family to starve.
In the story, most of the men leave their suffering families to save themselves.
Jurgis’ new American dream favors the socialist movement, ending the story on a hopeful note.
Missing the Mark
From Sinclair’s point of view, a rogue, corrupt capitalism increased wealth through exploitation. He intended to make a moral argument. His audience latched onto part that most effected them — food safety. That immediate legislative response linked to public outcry continues to fascinate me.
As readers turned the novel’s pages, they worried about their food.
Writers debate the reader’s role in interpretation of the text. It’s an essential part of any project and, to a degree, out of the author’s control.
In this case, timing was everything — Chicago’s meatpacking district kept experiencing strikes including a walk-out in 1904 from two large unions. When Sinclair started the project, The Appeal to Reason (a Socialist newspaper) asked him to investigate for an article. They, and later another socialist magazine, published The Jungle true to its original form.
Then, Sinclair and Macmillan negotiated a contract to publish the book to a more mainstream audience. They requested a list of changes to the content, negotiations fell through, and there is some suspicion that the meat-packing industry influenced the situation.
Sinclair toyed with the idea of self-publishing, through support from readers of The Appeal to Reason. This never materialized.
He convinced Frank Doubleday to publish, despite threats of lawsuits and bribery via ad buys in Doubleday magazines, from meatpackers.
Sinclair noted that between changes from Macmillan and Doubleday, the novel was cut down by about a third. While, there is some debate about how much of that cutting was for editorial improvement and how much was pressure to appeal to the mainstream, the reaction to the book shifted far from Sinclair’s intent.
The final, printed book has left behind a legacy related to food regulation instead of creating a groundswell for the socialist movement.
That contrast between author’s intention and audience reception continues to fascinate me.
- The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition by Earl Lee
- Banned & Challenged Classics from ALA.org
- After 100 years, Sinclair’s ‘Jungle’ still has lasting impact by Emily Udell
- Conditions in Chicago Stock Yards from Congress
- The Fictitious Suppression of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle by Christopher Phelps