In the early decades of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair was one of the most popular authors in the United States, writing more than 90 novels. A socialist and onetime founder of a utopian community, Sinclair was a prolific producer of novels, many of which were equal parts story and journalism, only thinly-veiling major political events to reach his audience. Despite his incredibly wide readership in his day, Sinclair is little remembered, his overly-journalistic writing style and the red scare of the 1950s combining to largely erase him from historical memory. The exception? The Jungle, which continues to be recognized as one of the most important and influential books of the twentieth century, not so much for its literary contribution as the immense and lasting political impact it had.
The Jungle tells the story of Lithuanian immigrants working in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, and was instrumental in exposing the widespread poverty, abominable working conditions, and rampant political corruption of the time. Published in 1906, the book is the result of weeks of undercover research in which Sinclair took a job as a meatpacker to investigate working conditions for a series of articles (the basis of the novel) in the left wing magazine Appeal to Reason. The impact was swift and far-reaching – as a result of the novel, the US government ordered surprise inspections of meatpacking facilities, which ultimately led to legislation that would establish what has been known since 1930 as the Food and Drug Administration.
Upton Sinclair hoped to generate national outcry at the abominable working conditions he had seen; in fact, it was the impact of those conditions upon food safety that ultimately got political attention, leading him to comment that The Jungle made its mark “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef”. Nonetheless, a mark it made, and today is remembered for exactly the purposes Sinclair hoped – its depiction of the brutality of America’s industrial capitalism in the early years of the twentieth century.
- Wikipedia pages on The Jungle and Upton Sinclair
- Full text of The Jungle
- C-Span Video on the Upton Sinclair and the impact of The Jungle