The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Context


Chicago Meat Packers' Strike

In 1904 Chicago's meat-packer's union went on strike to protest low wages and difficult working conditions. The four largest meatpacking companies broke the strike by hiring non-unionized workers, eventually forcing the meatpackers back to work with little to show for their lost wages. Sinclair made a splash writing an impassioned article titled, "You Have Lost the Strike! And Now What Are You Going to Do About It?" in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. In short order the Appeal gave Sinclair an advance to cover the strike's aftermath.

Sinclair spent seven weeks in Chicago's meatpacking district, living with socialists, wandering among the stockyards and packing houses, and interviewing workers, lawyers, and social workers. He witnessed the laborers' working conditions, home lives, relationships, and financial struggles. He filled notebooks with his observations, which were then serialized in the newspaper and soon after published as a book.

Capitalism versus Socialism

When The Jungle was published, America was the model of a free capitalist economy, with almost no regulations on industry. While the American Dream in this "free world" promised rags-to-riches stories, the reality was that each industry, like the meatpacking industry, was ruled by a small group of giant corporations, called trusts. These trusts called all the shots, from prices, to working conditions, to worker pay. At the same time the government was reluctant to regulate businesses, so there weren't laws to stop meatpackers from selling toxic meat to the public, let alone to prevent exploitative working conditions.

At the time, socialism was gaining traction with working-class Americans for its message of hope: when banded together, the powerless could overthrow the powerful. With the powerful socialist messages propelling them, workers began fighting for better pay, treatment, and conditions from their employers. In writing The Jungle, Sinclair set out to expose the truth and rally support for socialism, the only political strategy he believed could counter the evils of capitalism. He felt sure his depiction of Jurgis and his family's stockyard struggle would outrage readers and lend support for the socialist movement. Readers were outraged, but to Sinclair's disappointment, their fervor for reform was aimed at food safety standards. One reader in particular, President Theodore Roosevelt, believed Sinclair's claims and hired his own private investigators to corroborate the author's accusations. His discoveries would eventually lead to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Although the novel was a wild success, Sinclair felt it was a failure, saying, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit its stomach."

The socialist movement continued to grow, however. The party gained 110,000 official members from 1900–1912, and Socialist Eugene Debs won nearly one million votes in the 1912 presidential election. It is often thought that the socialist movement would have continued its rise in popularity had World War I not broken out. With hundreds of thousands of young men shipping off for duty, the movement lost momentum. When it was reignited in the 1930s, it failed to garner as much attention as it had at the turn of the century. Party members in America again found their message drowned out, this time by concerns over the growth of fascism in Europe.

Sinclair's Style

Sinclair wrote The Jungle in a muckraking style, modeled after his favorite investigative journalists. These writers exposed the real-life horrors of an industrialized America, digging or "raking" through society's muck in search of the truth. Most muckrakers, Sinclair included, sought to demonize capitalism and industrialization as detrimental to American ideals like equality and the importance of family. Sinclair was also heavily influenced by the naturalist literary movement, which attempted to present events scientifically, emotionally detached from the characters. However, the novel has been celebrated for its politically influential message rather than its literary merit. Most critics agree that his portrayal of the fictional protagonist and his extended family are overly sentimental and that the last part of the novel is far too preachy. Nevertheless, the reading public, both then and now, have been enthralled by his journalistic descriptions of events in Packingtown—events that he claimed to witness (though some details, like men falling into lard vats, could never be confirmed).

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