On Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle takes readers back to a time when socialism was still a viable force in American politics. Many early socialists were devoutly religious in character, and perhaps this is why Mr. Sinclair later referred to his own turn toward socialism in terms of a divine epiphany –as a “conversion” sent from “fallen angels.” These early socialists were often reacting against the harsh brutalities of the industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was an age of greedy industrialists, muckracking journalists, populist politicians (think Eugene Debs), and a debased, exploited working class which faced little hope for the future –perhaps it is reminiscent of our own epoch in some respects.

At the time, Upton Sinclair had just finished writing a trilogy of novels about the Civil War and he was deeply ensconced in socialist theory. With great interest, he reported on a general strike at the Chicago Union Stockyards in the summer of 1904. Much to everyone’s chagrin, the strike was broken with no chance of improved working conditions for those who worked under the “Beef Trust,” thus Mr. Sinclair took to writing for a militant socialist rag called Appeal to Reason. From these reports, The Jungle was born. He wrote it between November and December 1904 and it was published by the Spring of 1905 though a censored version was soon picked up by Doubleday and collectively published in 1906. The Doubleady publication is largely the novel we see in circulation to this day.

“There are able-bodied men here who work from early morning until late at night in ice-cold cellars, with a quarter of an inch of water on the floor – men who for six or seven months in the year never see the sunlight from Sunday afternoon till the next Sunday morning – and who cannot earn three hundred dollars in a year” (17-18).

The Jungle was intended by Upton Sinclair to be a cry for justice amidst a cold and unforgiving society. In the novel, a family of penniless rural peasants escapes from Lithuania (then part of the decaying Russian Empire) in order to come to the fabled land of opportunity: The United States. Jurgis Rudkus and his young bride Ona head to Chicago, a city which stands as the central economic and cultural hub for the middle of the country as hogs and cattle travel by train to the stockyards, meat processing plants, and slaughterhouses. Nearby tenant workforce housing provide a steady stream of poor laborers. In the novel the area is known as “Packingtown.” It is here that Jurgis and Ona decide to settle as Jurgis is given a low wage job working in a meatpacking factory. At first he is thankful for his newfound employment cleaning up animal entrails, but Jurgis soon learns of various illnesses and ailments endured by his co-workers and morale is low. The pay is little but the hours are long –and we are treated to grotesque and graphic descriptions of blood stained floors lined with hooves and innards and carcasses as well as rat feces and trash. The book offers readers the general sense of repugnance for the meatpacking industry, however it also offers broad disgust for the acts people must perform in order to earn a living in America.

“And for this, at the end of the week, he would carry home three dollars to his family, being his pay at the rate of five cents per hour – just about his proper share of the total earnings of the million and three-quarters of children who are now engaged in earning their livings in the United States” (89).

As Jurgis uses his meager savings to take out a home loan, he is cruelly exploited by the bank, and his debts begin to mount. He turns to drinking, while his wife is regularly raped by her boss and she quickly develops a heroin habit. She becomes pregnant and without access to any form of healthcare or family planning, the pregnancy goes awry, she begins to deliver early, and in the end both she and the baby die. Jurgis then bounces in and out of jail, between odd jobs, trapped in a hopeless cycle. The family loses the house, Ona’s cousin turns to a life of prostitution, and Jurgis eventually winds up getting involved with a local socialist party, a group which he sees as his only hope.

Dedicated “To the Workingmen of America,” The Jungle was initially rejected by five publishers before Doubleday picked it up. It was praised by the likes of Winston Churchill while critiques by President Roosevelt (though he publicly declared his intent to look into the “Beef Trust” situation). Public pressure soon led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both intended to regulate harmful and unhealthy food practices. However, Mr. Sinclair supported neither of these initiatives. He often complained about the public’s misunderstanding of his true purpose in writing the book. In a 1906 interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine Mr. Sinclair is quoted as saying: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” In other words, he intended to appeal to the public’s sympathy for America’s poor, working-class immigrants, and instead people were merely concerned about the quality of their own food.

I re-read The Jungle again only recently after first reading Upton Sinclair’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dragon’s Teeth (click here to read my reflections on the novel). In both novels Upton Sinclair presents a heartfelt appeal to the better angels of our nature, displaying the tragedies of modern life while remaining optimistic of a better future. Generally speaking, I would judge The Jungle to be an important historical relic but perhaps not the greatest example of American literature. At least we can acknowledge Mr. Sinclair’s integrity and honest sympathy for the downtrodden much like his literary forebearers, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Editor: Ronald Gottesman, Penguin Classics Edition. New York, NY, 1986.

The original manuscript published in Appeal to Reason was apparently lost in a fire in 1907 so an alternative version which was published in serial format for One Hoss Philosophy is all that survives today.

Feel free to read my reflections on Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth here.

1 thought on “On Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)

  1. So in essence, Sinclair hoped to bring attention to the condition and treatment of the workers, and he really caused a change in food preparation practice?

    I have this on my shelf and I expect one day to read it. Thanks for the insight.

    Liked by 1 person

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