On February 26, 1906, author Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” first hit bookstores, becoming an instant bestseller that even now remains required reading at many high schools. Explore some illuminating facts about this lurid critique of the meatpacking industry, which exposed workplace conditions so filthy and exploitive that President Theodore Roosevelt felt compelled to act.
1. “The Jungle” is a work of fiction.
Sinclair is arguably the best known of the so-called muckrakers, the forerunners of today’s investigative journalists who in the early 1900s exposed widespread corporate and political malfeasance. Unlike most other muckrakers, such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, Sinclair mainly wrote fiction. Yet he reported his books much like a journalist. For “The Jungle,” a 26-year-old Sinclair spent seven weeks in Chicago, touring stockyards and slaughterhouses and interviewing the laborers there, along with priests, bartenders, policemen, politicians and social workers. At one point, he also stumbled upon a laborer’s wedding party, which served as the inspiration for his opening chapter.
2. “The Jungle” initially appeared in a socialist newspaper.
Sinclair embraced socialism wholeheartedly within months of being introduced to it, and, except for a brief interlude during World War I, he would remain a committed member of the Socialist Party of America for decades thereafter. Discovering socialism, Sinclair said, “was like the falling down of prison walls about my mind.” In September 1904, he penned his first article for Appeal to Reason, the largest-circulation socialist newspaper in the United States. Having made a favorable impression, he then received $500 to research and write “The Jungle,” which ran in installments from February to November 1905. Appeal to Reason never printed the ending, however, due to tepid reader response. Meanwhile, several publishers, including one that had given Sinclair a second $500 advance, turned it down. But Doubleday, Page & Co. rescued it from obscurity, publishing “The Jungle” in book form. (The book differs in many respects from the newspaper serial.) To this day, “The Jungle” has never been out of print.
3. It depicts one tragedy after another.
“The Jungle” tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Chicago’s meatpacking district determined to live out the American dream. At first, his solution to everything is to work harder. Yet the system eventually beats him down. Among other calamities, he is laid off after being injured on the job, his wife is raped and then dies in childbirth, he is jailed, his house is repossessed and his young son drowns in the street. Only after becoming a socialist does Rudkus turn his life around.
4. Sinclair felt the public missed the point of his book.
By depicting the trials and tribulations of the Rudkus family, Sinclair hoped to bring attention to the plight of immigrant laborers, whose working conditions, he believed, amounted to “wage slavery.” An acquaintance recalled him saying that he had come to Chicago to write the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of the labor movement. Most readers, however, instead fixated on his descriptions of rotten meat, filled with toxic chemicals, dirt, sawdust and rat droppings, that went out for sale. In the book’s most famous passage, Sinclair even wrote of laborers falling into vats and being turned into lard. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he famously remarked, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
5. The book turned Sinclair into a celebrity.
As a teenager, Sinclair wrote jokes, short stories and puzzles for pulp magazines, as well as dime novels. Yet despite making decent money, he gave up this line of work to become a more serious author. At first, it appeared to be a terrible career move. From 1901 to 1904, Sinclair published four books that were all commercial failures. Luckily for him, “The Jungle” put a quick end to this period of anonymity. Within months, it had been translated into 17 languages and had attracted the attention of prominent figures around the world, such as Winston Churchill, who praised Sinclair for making the “great Beef Trust stink in the nostrils of the world.” President Roosevelt also read it, after which he invited Sinclair to the White House. (The two men, it turned out, did not get along particularly well.) Although “The Jungle” represented the pinnacle of his career, Sinclair was no one-hit wonder. His 90 or so books include “Oil!,” the basis for the Oscar-winning film “There Will Be Blood,” and “Dragon’s Teeth,” which won a Pulitzer Prize.
6. “The Jungle” sparked the immediate passage of food-safety legislation.
Bills designed to regulate the food industry had been languishing in Congress for decades until “The Jungle” came out and thrust them into the national spotlight. After the book’s publication, Roosevelt wasted no time in directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate Sinclair’s claims. It reported back that “The Jungle” was mostly lies and exaggerations. But because Roosevelt distrusted its close ties to the meatpacking industry, he secretly instructed Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James B. Reynolds to likewise take a look. Neill and Reynolds found that meat was being “shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely washed, pushed from room to room in rotten box carts, in all of which processes it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth, and the expectorations of tuberculous and other diseased workers.” They also observed laborers urinating near the meat and ancient meat being re-labeled as new. Sinclair’s veracity having thus been confirmed, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in June 1906. In addition to prohibiting mislabeled and adulterated food products, these two laws paved the way for all future consumer protection legislation.
7. Sinclair used royalties from the book to start a utopian colony.
By the middle of 1906, Sinclair had earned about $30,000 (nearly $800,000 in today’s money) from sales of “The Jungle.” Rather than save or invest it, he decided to buy Helicon Hall, a former boy’s school in Englewood, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and turn it into a utopian colony for artists, writers and social reformers. At its peak, the colony had several dozen members, who, by sharing the cooking, housekeeping, and childcare duties, hoped to maximize their time for intellectual pursuits. While there, Sinclair ran for Congress as a Socialist and worked on a book called “The Industrial Republic.” His experiment in cooperative living ended in disaster, however, when Helicon Hall burned to the ground in a March 1907 fire. After that, Sinclair drifted from place to place for almost a decade until finally settling in California, where he would spend the majority of the rest of his life.