The early twentieth century was a wild, wild time – though we can't immediately think of a time in American history that has been calm. Still, even by rowdy American standards, the first few years of the last century were crazy. Upton Sinclair was lucky enough to ride this wave of national dissatisfaction with the status quo straight to literary success. His novel The Jungle, an exposé of the meatpacking industry, became an enormous bestseller translated into seventeen languages within weeks of its publication in 1906. But while The Jungle has long been associated with food production (and its disgustingness), the book is actually a much broader critique of early twentieth-century business and labor practices in the rapidly growing cities of the United States.
By the time The Jungle was published at the turn of the century, the massive flow of poorer European immigrants into the United States over the previous half-century had changed the demographics of American cities. Many of these immigrants lived in overcrowded, run-down tenement buildings with no access to clean water or proper sewage systems (source). Having come to America looking for work opportunities, the immigrants provided a cheap source of labor for American factories and businesses. As Sinclair, a self-proclaimed socialist, saw it, millionaire businessmen were building up huge fortunes by exploiting their immigrant workers.
One major lightning rod for struggles between rich and poor was the rapidly expanding industrial center we all know and love as Chicago. In 1854, the population of Chicago was 55,000; by 1898, less than fifty years later, that number had grown thirty times over, to nearly 1,700,000 (source). As the major city lying between the Midwest (with all its many, many cattle) and the ports and big cities of the East Coast, Chicago became the center of both transcontinental railway lines and the meatpacking industry. Of course, the flip side of all of this rapid city growth were huge slums housing the people who worked in the factories. Life in these slums was absolutely awful. And it's this terrible quality of life that The Jungle sets out to document.
Chicago becomes a useful backdrop to Sinclair's story of a Lithuanian immigrant family struggling to adapt to their new lives in the United States precisely because Chicago was a city of such extremes. Down by Lake Michigan, you can find beautiful towers of stone and steel, but, near the meatpacking plants, there is no drainage for sewage. There had been serious strikes in the stockyards in 1894 and 1904 (source), but it took Sinclair's fictional look at life in the slums to personalize the struggle of workers to get better treatment.
Sinclair wrote The Jungle to promote a very specific socialist agenda. The whole point of this look at working conditions in Chicago's slums is to make you want to organize with other workers in support of the socialist cause. After Sinclair submitted an article to the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason on the failure of the Chicago stockyards strike of 1904, Appeal editor Fred Warren offered Sinclair a five hundred dollar advance to investigate the meatpacking industry. Sinclair spent seven weeks working undercover in Chicago's stockyards before writing The Jungle using material he had collected firsthand. The Jungle appeared in installments in Appeal before being published as a book in 1906.
But pretty much no one read The Jungle to find out about the plight of the working man in America. Sinclair got lots of positive press about his socialist message from fellow socialists and progressives – notably, radical author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who wrote the famous short story "The Yellow Wallpaper"). But most people who read the book either did not care about or actively disapproved of Jurgis Rudkus's conversion to the socialist cause. What mattered to them – and what made the novel a bestseller – was the absolutely disgusting, gag-inducing descriptions of what goes on in meatpacking factories.
From the use of diseased cattle as sausage meat to the processing of people who fall into rendering tanks as lard and fertilizer, it's fair to say that the nation was revolted to learn what actually went into their canned beef and processed hams. President Teddy Roosevelt scoffed at Sinclair's socialist idealism, but he also wrote personally to Sinclair to promise that there would be an investigation of poor sanitation and hygiene inside meatpacking plants (source). Further, Roosevelt kept his word: it was partly public outcry over The Jungle that led to the passage of the Food and Drugs Act of 1906, the precursor to today's Food and Drug Administration (source). So finally, the United States had federal control over what could go into meat products (healthy beef and pork) and what had to stay out of them (people).
While Upton Sinclair's politics remain controversial, no one can deny that The Jungle exposed serious (and seriously gross) behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the meatpacking industry. Thanks to Sinclair's hard work, we no longer have to eat sausage that includes bits of meat scraped from the drainage hole in the factory floor (we hope). Sinclair became part of a generation of what are known as muckraker journalists – people who worked hard to uncover social problems and to educate the public. You can read more about other writer-activists like Upton Sinclair in our Shmoop US History Learning Guide on Muckrakers & Reformers of the Progressive Era. It's through the organization and activism of independent journalists like Sinclair that tons of labor and consumer protection laws first guaranteed Americans the quality of life we currently enjoy.
Here are some differences between today's America and Upton Sinclair's nightmarish vision of the Chicago stockyards in 1906:
So, kudos to Upton Sinclair and investigative journalists like him for bringing public attention to issues like child labor and hygiene in food production. Great job on the whole less-rat-feces-in-food thing, guys!
Mission accomplished right? American working conditions have gotten a lot better in the last hundred years. So why should we read The Jungle as anything more than a historical artifact of a bad time for laborers in the United States? Here is at least one answer: The Jungle only accomplished one very small part of its total goal. After The Jungle got published, on the strength of public outcry about diseased cattle and filthy hog meat, President Teddy Roosevelt passed the first Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. However, we're still being surprised today by what's in our food and how it's produced, thanks to recent films like Food, Inc. (2008), Fast Food Nation (2006), and Supersize Me (2004).
Still, Upton Sinclair wasn't aiming for food safety; he was aiming for social safety. He wanted to change the structure of American society so that even poor immigrants are protected from gross exploitation and oppression. Sinclair's many, many topics for consideration include: the close relationship between business and the court system, industrial pollution of the environment, the incorporation of new immigrants into American society, and the place of the federal government in providing a safety net for the poor.
All we have to do is look at the BP Deep Horizon oil rig that polluted the Gulf of Mexico to see that industrial accidents and pollution haven't gone away. And many federal judges already have ties to the oil industry (source), so how is BP going to get a real trial in our biased court system? Questions of corporate influence peddling persist a hundred years after The Jungle first criticized ties between the meatpacking industry and local courts.
Then there is immigration. The Jungle focuses on the life and times of recent immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe. The US is a country largely based on immigration, and there have been waves and waves of immigrants coming from poorer countries to find a better way of life here. There is also a long historical legacy of resistance to immigration and concern about competition from recent (or illegal) immigrants in the American job market. Nowadays, controversial proposals to make English the national language of the United States or to demand that all legal immigrants carry their documentation with them at all times demonstrate ongoing anxieties about the effects of immigration on American society. So immigration is another hot-button issue that gets people as fired up now as it did in Upton Sinclair's day.
And let's not forget Upton Sinclair's outspoken economic agenda. Upton Sinclair is a genuine, self-described socialist. This means that he believes that there should be centralized control of the American economy. Along with this organized control of economy, there should also be some kind of safety net in place for people who are poor or who can't take care of themselves. Sound familiar? Well, the question of what role the federal government should play in providing care for its citizens is absolutely central to that intense yearlong debate we all had about the Democrats' health care bill. It's also at the heart of Democrat, Republican, and Tea Party arguments over the value of small versus big government. Apparently, politics hasn't really changed that much over the last hundred years. Indeed, we can't help but notice that a lot of the social issues The Jungle set out to solve in 1906 remain as enduring and difficult today as they were in Upton Sinclair's day.