One of the most powerful, most enduring proletarian novels ever published in the United States
This dramatic and deeply moving story documents the brutal conditions in the Chicago stockyards at the turn of the century and brings into sharp moral focus the appalling odds against which immigrants and other working people struggled for their share in the American dream.
As Ronald Gottesman points out in his discerning introduction, Upton Sinclair was a passionate believer in the redemption of mankind through social reform. His expose of the interlocking corruption in American corporate and political life was a major literary event when it was published in 1906, and caused an almost immediate reform in pure-food legislation.
by Ronald Gottesman
More than any other novel of its time, The Jungle brought together dramatically and put into sharp moral focus the social, political, and economic problems that lurked below the cheerful surface of American life at the turn of the century. In his passionate, flawed masterpiece, Upton Sinclair provided a voice to the great masses of immigrants who had come to America yearning to be free and comfortable and who had found instead the wage slavery and misery of mill, factory, sweatshop, and slum. Jacob Riis had shown How the Other Half Lives in 1890; Sinclair showed how more than the other half worked in 1905—in conditions of physical danger, insecurity, fear, exploitation, corruption, and filth. The Jungle remains the best and most powerful proletarian novel ever published in the United States. Its agonized cry for justice has reverberated across the years, not least because the conditions it protested have been duplicated as industrialization has spread around the world.
Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr., was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 20, 1878, the only child of Upton Beall and Priscilla (Harden) Sinclair. His paternal great-grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a hero of the War of 1812, and one of the founders of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, was the first in a line of distinguished naval officers and Virginia aristocrats—a line that came to a close with the displacement of Confederate supporters following the Civil War. Upton Senior, born a few years before this war, was for a time a wholesale whiskey distributor in Baltimore; in the later 1880s, when the family moved to New York, he sold hats to clothing stores. Throughout his adult life the author’s father was an irregular provider and an alcoholic; he died in 1907 of delirium tremens. Sinclair’s mother also came of a “good Southern family”; her father was a deacon of the Methodist Church in Baltimore and secretary-treasurer of the Western Maryland Railroad. An uncle, John Randolph Bland, founded the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company and became one of the wealthiest men in Baltimore.
As a child, Upton was thus caught between the piety, puritanism, and gentility of his mother, and the poverty and degradation to which his father’s drinking exposed the family. Deeply pained by his father’s lack of self-restraint and frivolousness, young Sinclair turned to his mother for support and affection. But his mother’s lack of intellectual curiosity and her social pretentiousness later created problems in the relationship, and Sinclair had to find a series of surrogates to feed his emotional, moral, and intellectual hunger. As he observed in his autobiography, the favorite theme of his fiction is “the contrast between the social classes”; this contrast between the rich and the poor was the essential material and emotional fact of Sinclair’s childhood, and the driving force behind his mature literary achievement and political commitment.
Sinclair’s childhood and young manhood were spent chiefly in New York City. He did not go to school until he was ten. Since he was an omnivorous and precocious reader, it did not take him long to make up what he had missed. Five days before his fourteenth birthday he entered the College of the City of New York (then an old brick building at Lexington Avenue and Twenty- third Street), from which he graduated in 1897. In the fall of that year, Sinclair entered Columbia University, where he spent three years as a special student, taking courses in philosophy, history, literature, and music with such famous professors as Nicholas Murray Butler, James Harvey Robinson, George Edward Wood- berry, and Edward MacDowell. While Sinclair was a student at CCNY he began to write puzzles, jokes, cartoon captions, and eventually stories for newspapers and magazines. He earned enough money from this activity to be able to leave home for a rented room. As a graduate student at Columbia, he continued to write— he was paid forty dollars a week for Spanish-American War adventure stories by the publisher Street and Smith. Sinclair had entered Columbia with the idea that he would spend a year studying literature and philosophy before going to law school. But the more he read Shakespeare, Milton, Emerson, and Shelley, the more convinced he became that he had been chosen to be an artist-prophet who would help usher in a new dawn for mankind.
As an adolescent and a young man, Sinclair attempted to channel his strong religious feelings and moral idealism (and to sublimate his powerful sexual drive) into an art worthy of his divine, fictional, and human idols: Jesus, Hamlet, and Shelley. His first, self- published, novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), told the “story of a young woman’s soul redeemed by high and noble love.” While there are some references to economic inequities in this sentimental narrative, the object of Sinclair’s criticism is materialism, not capitalism; the mode of reform endorsed is personal purity, not collective political action. At this point in his life—and until he discovered socialism—Sinclair believed that artists had failed society, not vice versa. In the novel’s preface, Sinclair spoke of “a dream” that someday he “might build a tremendous force for the spreading of light” by establishing a library of his own and others’ books “for the purpose of increasing helpful reading among the humble people of our land.” Even in this first book, then, published a year before Sinclair had discovered socialism, were foreshadowed the roles of prophet, reformer, novelist, and publicist that would become so familiar over the next six decades.
Soon after he finished Springtime and Harvest, Sinclair married Meta Fuller, the young woman with whom he had shared his youthful vision in a small cabin by a lake in Quebec. The marriage was ill advised; the fictionalized account of their anguished life together (they were divorced in 1912) is told in Love’s Pilgrimage (1911). The birth of their son, David, on December 1, 1901, simply exacerbated an unhappy relationship for a hopelessly mismatched young couple with no dependable means of support.
Following the terrible disappointment of his hopes for Springtime and Harvest in the fall and winter of 1900-1901, the Sinclairs left New York in the spring for the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River and a life of primitive simplicity while Upton went to work on his second romantic novel, Prince Hagen: A Fantasy (1903). This book was an outspoken fable—a critique of political, economic, and religious institutions in America. The central creed in this work, however, is not Socialistic. Rather, the author-narrator, reflecting on this “huge, over-grown civilization of ours, this vast, machine-built jungle,” is led to the conclusion that “it must be the fault of the artists, who are its soul; there being among them no man with any thought of strenuous living, or of the need of truth, nor soul to scourge the selfishness, and fire the hearts of the coming men with generous emotion and resolve.” The millennium is still seen under the aspect of beauty, the prophet is still the heroically triumphant artist, the scriptures are still those of literature and romantic music, the hoped- for transformation still an inner, spiritual conversion of the heart.
The manuscript of Prince Hagen was rejected, in the following months, by seventeen magazines and twenty- two publishing houses. One result of this humiliation is apparent in Sinclair’s next book, The Journal of Arthur Stirling, written during the spring and summer of 1902. The story Arthur Stirling tells is one of suicide—of how a “poet and man of genius,” driven to despair by the failure of the public to accept his work and provide him with the modest support he needs to continue writing his poetry, drowns himself in the Hudson River. The journal is not a merely fictional representation of Sinclair’s mood. Sinclair, indeed, turned the fiction into something like fact by actually having Stirling’s obituary published in The New York Times on June 9, 1902— about the time Sinclair finished writing the Journal. This hoax, moreover, was carefully exploited by Sinclair (and an editor at D. Appleton), and when the book was first published, it provoked a small furor of sympathy from a gullible press and public.
The suicide by drowning of Arthur Stirling marks precisely the submersion of the pure poet, the devotee of Art, in Upton Sinclair. Only by means of this symbolic self-execution could Sinclair hope to survive as a man and as a writer—though a writer of a very different kind. Sinclair’s imagination had betrayed him; the feverish pursuit of the cluster of false lights—Art, Beauty, Inspiration, Poetry, Love—had brought him to ruin: his marriage, romantically undertaken, had already become a nightmare; his attempts at “pure” literature had failed to impress either publishers or the public; he was alienated from his family, virtually friendless, and living in poverty.
In the fall of 1902, when Sinclair returned to New York from the Thousand Islands and the Adirondacks, he made the acquaintance of Leonard D. Abbott at the offices of Literary Digest, and through Abbott was introduced to socialism and some influential American Socialists, among them George D. Herron and Gaylord Wilshire. These men, like many other American Socialists, were profoundly religious (Herron had been a Congregationalist clergyman), and it is no wonder that when Sinclair described the experience of discovering socialism he did so as “a conversion,” as “a visitation by angels,” as “the falling down of prison walls about my mind.” Although this fundamentally Christian socialism was to provide the theoretical economic framework for most of the rest of his career, the “principal fact the Socialists had to teach,” Sinclair remarked later, “was that they themselves existed.” His disaffection from a society based, as he saw it, on greed and competitiveness, was already deep. He needed both company and a program of action to serve as support and focus for his high resolve to change things.
Before he could actively participate in Socialist affairs, Sinclair had to discharge the residue of venom he had secreted against a society that had driven him to destroy himself as a Poet. During the winter of 1902-1903, a time that marked the nadir of his life, Sinclair wrote A Captain of Industry (1906), which he later called the “most ferocious of my stories.”
The book is an uncontrolled narrative of revenge. The summer before, Sinclair had been forced to drown himself, and now he would rise from his watery grave and wreak his vengeance on Satan, in the guise of the wealthy playboy “Robbie” van Rensselaer. The story tells how Robbie’s father, Chauncey, pays off and sends away Daisy, a poor girl with whom his son has been intimate. In very short order, the father dies, Robbie becomes a “captain of industry,” and at forty, though married, falls in love with a young girl. The girl, Mary Harrison, is discovered by the lovers to be Robbie’s daughter by Daisy. When they learn this horrible fact, Mary blows her brains out. But Robbie is not let off so easily. He makes a hundred million dollars on the stock market before he is allowed to get drunk and take his yacht to sea, where it is caught in a storm and all aboard are killed.
The disproportionate detail lavished on the fate of Robbie van Rensselaer’s body is a sign of Sinclair’s rage. All night long, the waves play catch in the moonlight with the body, until, when the “morning broke it was swollen and purple, and it lay half hidden in the sand.” Denied the peace of total destruction or complete burial, the body must undergo still further dishonor before being allowed to return to the “civilized” world of merely hypocritical Fifth Avenue funerals. “Innumerable small creatures” feed on this choice morsel before a poor fisherman can render the final insults of failing to recognize who the dead man is and complaining that “he smells like the devil.” The extreme rancor with which Sinclair satisfied his vendetta is a measure of what he felt he had lost and a warning sign of his inexorability in the future. But for the time being, his outrage was pacified sufficiently to allow him to go on to the more noble, if still bloody, subject of the Civil War.
Just why Sinclair determined to write a fully documented trilogy of novels on the Civil War is not clear. Certainly, if he was going to redeem America it would help to know its history, particularly as that history centered on the exploitation of race and class. Sinclair sought a patron to support him while he did the research and wrote the first volume, and finally persuaded his wealthy Socialist friend George D. Herron to advance him two hundred dollars and to promise a thirty-dollar-a-month stipend for a year.
Armed with Herron’s promise of support, Sinclair belligerently announced his intentions to the world in “My Cause.”1 In this article Sinclair announced, among other things, that he was going to make his “life work” the completion of a trilogy of novels with the collective title The American. This work “was to be … an attempt to make an imaginative picture of the Civil War, to place it with its agonies and its terrors as a living reality before mankind.” With that typically paradoxical attitude of the native American radical, Sinclair planned to invoke the sacred American past in order to mitigate the profanity of the present. At about the time “My Cause” was published, the Sinclairs moved into two tents north of Princeton, New Jersey.
Manassas, the first volume of the trilogy, was completed in the spring of 1904 and published by Macmillan that August. Although Sinclair hadn’t yet found his true metier—contemporary history as fictional exposé—Manassas is marked by certain features and techniques that would become over the years typical patterns and stock devices in his work. Allan Montague is the prototype, in Sinclair’s fiction, of the comfortable and conventional man of basic goodwill who is converted to the role of active moral agent through an intellectual enlightenment that becomes an emotional reaction— that is, having seen the light, he becomes a zealous advocate of reform. The novel is marked also by simplistic conceptions of character and issue. The good are poor, abstinent laborers victimized by the sensual, hard-drinking men of property. Present, too, are a sometimes brilliantly realized rendering of surface detail, a skillful journalistic description of complex processes, and a lucid presentation of complicated issues. Allan’s chance meetings with Jefferson Davis, John Brown, President Lincoln, and others strain credibility severely, but some of the set pieces, once excused, can be appreciated for their effectiveness. And just as the omnipresent Allan Montague foreshadows the ubiquitous Lanny Budd of later days, so does the fundamental failure of achieved form that makes this all-purpose character necessary suggest one of the telling deficiencies of nearly all of Sinclair’s future work.
Ideologically as well as biographically, The Jungle grew out of Manassas. After finishing the Civil War novel, Sinclair devoted himself to reading Socialist theory, and he followed with great interest a strike of the workers in Chicago’s Union Stockyards in the summer of 1904. The news of the strike had appeared in the Socialist paper with the widest circulation, Appeal to Reason. When the strike was finally broken—and the workers forced to resume their difficult and dangerous jobs with little improvement in pay and conditions—Sinclair contributed his first piece of militant Socialist writing to the Appeal.
This took the form of a front-page article—also distributed as a broadside—entitled “You Have Lost the Strike! And Now What Are You Going to Do About It!” Identifying himself as a man who wants neither the workers’ money nor their votes, Sinclair delivers a powerful sermon to those who have been forced back to work. In this incantatory piece, Sinclair delivers the familiar message about the “handful of men” who “own all the instruments and means of production” and who distribute inequitably the profits earned by the sweat of exploited laborers. He concludes with a reminder that the workers’ only hope lies with the Socialist party and its presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs.
Undoubtedly encouraged by Appeal editor Fred D. Warren’s enthusiastic reception of the “Strike” article, Sinclair sent him a copy of Manassas, just published by Macmillan. Warren was greatly impressed by this novel of the Civil War, and especially by the vivid description of the slave’s attempt to escape from his pursuers in the swamps of the Mississippi delta. Warren was so impressed that he suggested Sinclair apply his talents to an expose of the conditions of wage slaves in an industrial setting. Sinclair replied that he would do just that if the Appeal to Reason advanced him the five hundred dollars he required to gather the necessary information and to live for a year while he shaped the data into a novel. With the understanding that the money would be an advance payment for serial rights, the offer was made and accepted.
Long before Sinclair considered Packingtown a likely subject for a novel, the “Beef Trust,” as it was generally called, had been scrutinized and attacked from several directions. During investigations of the charges of graft in connection with the rotten meat supplied to the army during the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt had testified that the meat sent to Cuba was unfit for human consumption. Indeed, Thomas F. Dolan, a former superintendent for the Armour company, had signed an affidavit exposing the common practice of packing condemned meat, a document published in the New York Journal of March 4, 1899. By 1904, when Sinclair first became directly concerned with the Beef Trust, Charles Edward Russell had begun publishing in magazine form the series of articles that would later be gathered into a book, The Greatest Trust in the World (1905). Appeal to Reason, Wilshire’s, and a number of other radical and/or muckraking magazines had also featured articles exposing not only the monopolistic tendencies and exploitative and oppressive tactics of the Chicago packers but also the unspeakably filthy conditions under which the nation’s meat supply was handled.2 The subject, in short, was a familiar one to reformers and muckraking journalists.
As nearly as can be determined, Sinclair left for Chicago on Wednesday, November 2, 1904, and stayed there for seven weeks, or until about December 21.3 The first public hint of Sinclair’s work came on January 14, 19o5—just three weeks after he had begun to write his novel—in an article by Josephine Conger, the woman who contributed a regular column directed at the Appeal’s female Socialist audience. In this article, flatteringly entitled “Genius and Socialist,” Conger briefly reviewed Sinclair’s previous publications and then confidently announced that the “book that the young author is working on now, ‘The Jungle,’ is destined to be a masterpiece of Socialist literature.” It was hardly a surprise when, three weeks later, there appeared an unsigned announcement that The Jungle would appear serially in the Appeal, beginning on February 28, and would constitute “the Crowning Achievement of the Appeal.” The comrades were assured that “it will be the most powerful story ever written,” that “it will stir the nation.” On February 11 it was announced that “a million copies of no. 482 will be published.” Since the subscription figures for no. 481 totaled 294,868, the editors were obviously hoping that this powerful serial would boost circulation (a hope that was disappointed, since the Appears subscription figures never went over 300,000 while the serial was running). Along with this front-page announcement, Sinclair provided the following synopsis:
It will set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profits. It will shake the popular heart and blow the top off of the industrial tea-kettle. What Socialism there will be in this book, will, of course, be imminent; it will be revealed by incidents—there will be no sermons. The novel will not have any superficial resemblance to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Fundamentally it will be identical with it—or try to be. It will show the “system working.” It will show Graft in its thousand forms at work slaughtering women and children. Its themes will be the every-day ones of bread and butter; it will have incidents and adventures—a life and death struggle, and a heart-breaking tragedy—the tragedy of life.
The scene will be Chicago and the stockyards strike. I have been there and seen things. But I did not have to go to Chicago to learn of the struggle and of the mental and physical break-down which follows. There will be factories and bad air and accidents and adulterated food. All around will be strikers and employers’ associations and grafting politicians—and Socialists. The reader will get glimpses of various tragedies; there will be, perhaps, a bit of the white slave traffic. There will be foreigners who have come to America to find liberty, and are out of work.
As I said, I will write this book to be read. In the climax of the strike the hero’s wife will give birth to a child. She will be unattended, and, unless I am mistaken, I can make a fruitful tragedy out of this by relating the simple truth, without transgressing the proprieties. The strike fails; the hero is not taken back; his wife is evicted and dies. He tends the baby a while, feeds it poisoned milk and impure drugs, and finally it dies also. Then the hero goes out and hears about anarchism. Anarchists and the social crime and terror that make them have not yet been put into fiction. The hero is making bombs—and then he learns about Socialism. He meets a man—a poor, hunger driven tailor—a Socialist—one of the real heroes of the social revolution—who suddenly causes the whole of the problem to become clear to him—who flashes a light into the farthest depths of the “jungle.”
On the strength of this passionate—if unpolished— prediction of what Sinclair would accomplish (the finished book, of course, differs in several important details), Warren promised to return the special subscription price of twenty-five cents if The Jungle serial did not make the subscription worthwhile.
The first installment of The Jungle: A Story of Chicago was printed on February 25, 1905. Accompanying the first chapter was an editorial note pointing out that the next portion would appear two weeks later, in the issue of March 11. The following week there was evidence that Sinclair had some doubts about the glowing promises that had been made by the Appeal for a book that had not yet been written. Giving voice to his misgivings and at the same time providing some further interesting insights into his conception of the “purpose” and strategy of The Jungle, Sinclair wrote the following letter to Fred Warren at the Appeal to Reason.
Dear Comrades of the Appeal:
I sometimes wonder and worry if this story that I am sending you is what you thought you were going to get. All your large promises have made me afraid. I wonder in particular if the story is going to hold the interest of the reader, as a serial—if it is not moving too slowly. A serial story, you know, generally starts off with a “Hist villain!” in the first paragraph, and a murder on the first page. “The Jungle” does not start that way, and I wonder if some of your readers may not give it up in despair. I trust that you understand what I am trying to do. I do not intend to write a story without climaxes, and without things happening; but I want these things to be real and convincing, and not superficial. That means, as I conceive it, that I have first to make the reader acquainted with an atmosphere and an environment, and that takes time. You see, I have to write a book as well as a serial—something that will, I hope, be doing work when its serial publication is forgotten. I have in “The Jungle” not merely to set forth a tragedy, but to drive home to the dullest reader the truth that this tragedy is, in its every detail, the inevitable and demonstrable consequence of an economic system. If that is to be done, the reader must first have the system in his mind; and concerning the system that prevails in Packingtown, the average American is as ignorant as an unborn babe. My belief is that the majority of the Appeal readers are ignorant of it, and so my hope is that they may find this gradual unfoldment of the little world of the beef trust interesting in itself. At any rate, perhaps you ought to tell them that that is what they are going to get—for a while.
Warren, more confident than the author, simply observed: “I can assure our comrades that his doubts and fears are groundless,” and from March 11, 1905, chapters appeared regularly.
Although the newspaper serialization proceeded straightforwardly, the publishing plot soon began to thicken. A notice for April 15 offered the previously published chapters for thirty cents, these chapters and five more having been published separately in the April issue (no. 33) of Appeal publisher J. W. Wayland’s quarterly, One Hoss Philosophy. By July 8 “the previously printed chapters” (really only twelve of fourteen and a half) were being offered for ten cents. Except for one amusing puff—a James W. Babcock, “author of ‘The Irrepressible Conor,’ etc.,” observed that The Jungle “is all meat, and good meat, too”—the serial publication ran its normal course until nearly the end of the book.
The last installment, published in the issue of November 4, took the story only to the point where Jurgis is made an “outcast and a tramp once more.” The third installment of the One Hoss Philosophy version was published in the October issue, and it offered a conclusion to the novel that differed very substantially from that ultimately published in the book version. In it, the Appeal to Reason is given a plug, the virtues of socialism are cried up, and, with regard to plot, Jurgis is caught by the police when he is spotted at a Socialist rally. With the final appearance of The Jungle in the Appeal, notice is given that the balance of The Jungle will be mailed to anyone who requests it on a postcard.
It seems apparent, then, that sometime later in the summer of 1905 Sinclair began to suffer the difficult problem of resolving the plot of his novel. A quarter of a century later, he recalled in a letter: “I went crazy at the end of that book and tried to put in every thing I knew about the Socialist movement” (September 3, 1930). The family of immigrants had been ground up like so much raw meat, Jurgis crushed and embittered. Then what? To end the story at that point would have been Zola’s way—and in fact the first French translation (1906) terminates about halfway through Chapter 20, when Jurgis is blacklisted in the stockyards—but Sinclair was attempting, as he later said, “to put the content of Shelley into the form of Zola.”4 Shelley-Sinclair would not allow himself to indulge in the attractive but destructive logic of naturalism, to have his protagonist crushed like a bug by forces over which he had no control. He could not, on the other hand, use the facile tricks of serial writing that he had learned as a hack writer. No deus ex machina could be rushed to the scene to pluck the protagonist from his seemingly inevitable doom. Nor was this book a historical novel like Manassas, in which the denouement could be selected (and then applied) from the stockroom of the settled past. Physically and emotionally depleted by the strain of keeping up with the presses and by his steadily worsening relations with his “sister-wife,” Sinclair was temporarily as severely devastated as Jurgis, and unequal to the difficult task of ending his novel without betraying either the inner logic of his materials or the very real demands of his total commitment to melioristic socialism. As Walter Rideout put it succinctly in The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954, Sinclair had run up against the “central artistic problem” of Socialist fiction: “How to combine the unburdening of capitalist fact with a convincing statement, in fictional terms, of their hope for a different future” (p. 30).
Characteristically, Sinclair renewed himself, at least to some measure of health, through action. During the summer of 1905 he set about founding the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.5 On September 12, 1905, at a dinner in Peck’s Restaurant, on Fulton Street, New York City, the Society was formally established, with Jack London as president and Upton Sinclair as first vice president. Activities connected with the Society kept him busy until early November, at least, at which point he was able to complete the manuscript of his neglected book. Once the theoretical attractiveness of socialism as the wave of the future had been verified for him both by the voting gains in the 1904 elections and by the favorable response to Jack London’s first talks as president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, Sinclair could safely commit himself to “ ‘CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!’ ” as a resolution for his novel. Sinclair had had to make the history that he could then exploit for the purposes of his fiction.
Five publishers, including Macmillan, turned down the manuscript before Doubleday, Page accepted it. Even so, it was taken only after an independent investigation corroborated Sinclair’s allegations. Sinclair had in the meantime arranged to issue a “Sustainers’ Edition” to readers of the Appeal under the imprint Jungle Publishing Company. On February 26, 1906, the two first editions were published, the earliest sheets in the run being bound for sale by Doubleday, Page. The Jungle was widely noticed in the popular press, sometimes as a literary event, sometimes as a news story. Predictably, conservative publications denounced the book. Edward Clark Marsh in The Bookman (April 1906) declared with respect to Sinclair: “His reasoning is so false, his disregard of human nature so naive, his statement of facts so biassed, his conclusions so perverted, that the effect can be only to disgust any honest, sensible folks with the very terms he uses so glibly.” Elbert Hubbard was even more outraged:
The “Jungle Book” [sic] by Upton Sinclair is a libel on the Western farmers who raise the hogs and cattle. It is a libel on the United States inspectors who are employed in the packing-house and render sworn reports of their work to the Government. It is a libel on the workers in the packinghouses, many of whom are people of intelligence, thrift, and genuine worth and merit who own their homes, educate their children and live lives that are above reproach. It is a libel on the men of brain and power who inaugurated these plants and who serve the public and give work to thousands. It is an insult to the intelligent people of America who are asked to read it.
Indeed, so pernicious was the book, Hubbard concluded, that it was “bound to increase the death rate.” Less extravagantly, The New York Times reviewer contemptuously dismissed the naive Socialist assumptions of the author.
Those who shared Sinclair’s political perspective came to very different conclusions, of course. Eugene Debs, the Socialist party’s perennial candidate for the presidency, declared: “It marks an epoch in revolutionary literature.” The radical feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote: “That book of yours is unforgettable. I should think the Beef Trust would buy it up at any price—or you, if they could.” In two successive issues of T.P.O. (the magazine named for the Irish journalist and nationalist T. P. O’Connor) in June 1906, young Winston Churchill reviewed the novel perceptively and at great length, praising particularly Sinclair’s rhetorical skill in achieving his purpose: “to make the great Beef Trust stink in the nostrils of the world, and so contaminate the system upon which it has grown to strength.” There is no question, however, that the novel’s most important reader was President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who promoted himself as a “trustbuster,” had been sent an advance copy. Finley Peter Dunne, one of the wittiest journalists of the time, described the President’s reaction through the eyes of “Mr. Dooley”:
‘Th’hayro is a Lithuanian, or as ye might say, Pollacky, who left th’barb’rous land iv his birth an’ come to this home iv oppochunity where ivery man is th’ equal iv ivery other man befure th’ law if he isn’t careful…. Annyhow, Tiddy was toying with a light breakfast an’ idly turnin’ over th’ pages iv th’ new book with both hands. Suddenly he rose fr’m th’ table, an’ cryin’: ‘I’m pizened,’ began throwin’ sausages out iv th’ window Since thin th’ Prisidint, like th’ rest iv us, has become a viggytaryan, an’ th’ diet has so changed his disposition that he is writin’ a book called ‘Supper in Silence,’… [and] Congress decided to abolish all th’ days iv th’ week except Friday.”
Comic hyperbole aside, Roosevelt did write to Sinclair and promised to have the novelist’s charges fully investigated. Sinclair, concerned that official visitors would not get the full truth, barraged the President with advice about how to proceed. Roosevelt passed his suggestions on to Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, admonishing him: “We cannot afford to have anything perfunctory done in this matter.”
At the same time, Roosevelt lectured Sinclair about his “pathetic belief” in socialism. “Personally,” the President continued, “I think that one of the chief early effects of such attempt to put socialism of the kind there [in The Jungle] preached into practice, would be the elimination by starvation, and the diseases, moral and physical, attendant upon starvation, of that same portion of the community on whose behalf socialism would be invoked.”6
Whatever political differences separated the two men, when the report of Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill and a social worker named James Bronson Reynolds, fully confirming Sinclair’s charges, came back to Roosevelt, he used it—or the threat of disclosing its contents—to move the long-stalled Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act through Congress. These acts became law on June 30, 1906, the culmination of a quarter of a century of investigation into the adulteration of foodstuffs and patent medicines by Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912.
The Jungle’s extraordinary initial success—it became an international best-seller within weeks—can be explained in several ways. In the first place, The Jungle capitalized on the strong contemporary interest in exposé. In the last half of the nineteenth century—at least since the publication of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills (1861)—Americans had displayed an increasing appetite for that particular form of the literature of exposure known as muckraking. Americans have always responded to writing that calls attention to discrepancies between the ideal and the actual, but with the growth of literacy and the spread of mass-circulation magazines and newspapers at the turn of the century, shocking news about corporate and political wrongdoing—usually interrelated—became big business. Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904), and David Graham Phillips’s The Treason of the Senate (1906) all first appeared serially in such leading journals of the day as McClure’s Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s, and the Independent. No area of American business or government, no abuse of power was safe from the forerunners of what are familiar today as investigative reporters.
Sinclair’s expose of the meatpacking industry hit home with readers regardless of their ideological commitments. The scandalous behavior of captains of industry and their political lieutenants might cause the moral gorge to rise in some; accounts of the presence of chemicals, diseased meat, and rodent excrement in one’s morning sausages made the stomach rebel in everyone. Sinclair had inadvertently discovered an important principle of modern-day reform: involve the public in the pain caused by the deficiency in need of remedy.
A convincing case can also be made that The Jungle was immediately appealing because it showed more than any other novel of protest the structural, interlocking nature of corruption in American life: the interdependence of urban politics and urban crime; the symbiosis of corporate graft and precinct patronage; the direct linkage of the disintegration of the family, alcoholism, ill health, and despair. Efficiency, competitiveness, and materialism, Sinclair showed, were worshiped at great social cost. The Jungle revealed dramatically the consequences of the convergence of the rapid spread of technology, the flood of immigration, the urbanization of the population, the centralization of finance, and the domination of government by business.
Why, though, does The Jungle survive as a classic? The story The Jungle tells is of the Fall of the House of Rudkus—of how a peasant family from Lithuania comes to America determined to make a better life, and of how it is ineluctably drawn into the gears of competitive capitalism and chewed up by what Sinclair characterized as predatory greed. This story, of course, is the archetypal American narrative of disappointed expectations—the familiar American story of failure, of soured hopes, of emotional alienation and cultural confusion in place of community and identity. The Jurgis Rudkus myth of failure is the other side of the Horatio Alger myth of success. Underneath the despair, however, is the even more profoundly American story of survival against great odds: Ishmael in Moby-Dick eludes disaster as an orphan riding a coffin; Huck Finn evades the logic of his drift into the heart of darkness by lighting out for the Territory. So, in the last five chapters of The Jungle, Jurgis (like Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) is renewed by the promise of the coming victory of socialism. In terms of the narrative that comes before it, the conclusion is unconvincing; but Sinclair’s denial of darkness is not alien as a theme in American literature, which has always tried to make the best of disappointment and disaster.
Finally, Sinclair created a masterpiece that is of continuing interest not only for what it shows us about the time and place in which it was written but for what it tells us of the painful human condition of most men, women, and children before and since, in America and elsewhere. For once in his career, Sinclair united his psychic anguish to his intellectual analysis, joined his personal agony to the suffering of this immigrant family. That is why, despite our easy (and valid) objection to the breakdown of the narrative, The Jungle lives in our imaginations not in pieces but as a sympathy-stirring whole. The wedding with which the novel opens celebrates Sinclair’s deep connection with his subject— a bond that survives the failure of his narrative ingenuity and ties us unforgettably to the wretched of the earth.7
The publication of The Jungle made Sinclair an international celebrity overnight and earned him thirty thousand dollars within a few months. But fame and fortune did not bring him health, happiness, or political or artistic success. In fact, Sinclair spent the next decade in a restless search for physical well-being, a permanent base of operations, and new subjects appropriate to his talents as a writer. In the process, he established a cooperative living colony at Helicon Hall in New Jersey, became a Socialist party candidate for Congress, wrote eight novels, three nonfiction books, several plays, and scores of articles on personal as well as social problems.
In The Industrial Republic (1906) Sinclair speculated on the future of America, predicting that William Randolph Hearst would defeat Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1912 and oversee the rapid development of a Utopian Socialist state from the rubble of shattered capitalism. While it makes claims to be scientific and empirical, the book is best understood as an unsuccessful attempt to find historical grounds for the essentially millennarian vision that somehow sustained Sinclair’s hope through a lifetime of disappointment over the slow pace of social change.
From the time Helicon Hall was destroyed by fire, in March 1907, until he settled in Pasadena, California, in 1916, Sinclair was seldom in one place for more than a few months at a time. He lived in Socialist and single-tax colonies, spent time at the Kellogg sanitarium in Michigan, crossed the country a couple of times, made visits to Bermuda and Europe, and, after his divorce in 1912 and marriage to Mary Craig Kimbrough the following year, lived in Mississippi for nearly two years. During these years he wrote prolifically about health and diet for Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine and devoted books to Good Health and How We Won It (1909, co-authored by Michael Williams) and The Fasting Cure (1911), books that anticipate by seventy years current popular American obsessions.
More central to Sinclair’s social concerns in this period are three novels, The Metropolis and The Money-changers (both 1908), and Samuel the Seeker (1910). The first is an expose of upper-class profligacy and venality; the second offers a weak, fictionalized account of J. P. Morgan’s stock-market manipulations and the panic of 1907. Samuel the Seeker is a parable of the conversion of a religious seeker to socialism. A more important book is the painfully autobiographical Love’s Pilgrimage (1911), a thinly veiled account of the emotional and sexual tensions that characterized the troubled relationship between Upton and Meta Sinclair. Three other novels, Sylvia (1913), Sylvia’s Marriage (1914), and Damaged Goods (1913), awkwardly and unconvincingly joined Sinclair’s interest in heath and disease—specifically venereal disease—to his interest in social and economic reform.
In King Coal (1917), Sinclair returned to the subject of The Jungle, the grim life of unorganized industrial workers. In this case, the workers are the miners in the Colorado coalfields, whose attempts to unionize in 1913 and 1914 had been brutally suppressed, most notably by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, a Rockefeller subsidiary. News of the “Ludlow Massacre,” in April 1914, inspired Sinclair to organize a demonstration in New York City in front of the Standard Oil Company offices. As a result of the demonstration, Sinclair was kept in jail for two days. Soon after his release, he traveled to Colorado to investigate the miners’ life. Although other projects—especially compilation of the comprehensive anthology of social protest The Cry of Justice (1915)—kept Sinclair from converting this experience into a novel for a couple of years, the result of its long gestation (and elaborate revision) was Sinclair’s best book in a decade. Indeed, his depiction of the virtual slavery of coal miners and their families in oppressive, isolated company towns was to represent his best fictional work for another decade—until the publication in 1927 of Oil!
Whether or not the lack of popularity of King Coal was the result of America’s entry into World War I, there can be little doubt that organized socialism was a casualty of that war. At any rate, Sinclair was one of those who resigned from the party in 1917, having decided that the threat of German militarism must be dealt with, even if that meant supporting President Wilson’s war policy. Partly to demonstrate his continued commitment to the spirit of socialism, partly to justify his support of American policy, Sinclair started in 1918 a monthly journal, Upton Sinclair’s, one feature of which was a serialized version of Jimmy Higgins, a novel that recorded his increasing disillusionment over America’s part in the military action against the Bolshevik revolution.
Sinclair’s disenchantment with American life is also reflected in an important series of six nonfiction attacks on capitalist institutions which he characterized as the “Dead Hand” series. The Profits of Religion (1918) offers an outline of the collaboration of institutionalized religion with oppressive regimes in Western history; The Brass Check (1920), for which he drew on his own experiences with the press, reveals the prostitution of journalism to commercial interests; The Goose-Step (1923) and The Goslings (1924) suggest, respectively, the power of interlocking directorates over higher education and their power over public and parochial schools; Mammonart (1925) attacks the class bias of most Western art and artists, while Money Writes! (1927) addresses the bourgeois servility of the vast majority of modern writers. Perhaps because these books are ideologically simplistic, perhaps because they fed an appetite for scandal and an anti-intellectual strain in American life, they were popular as well as notorious.
The publication of Oil! (1927) restored Sinclair’s claim as a serious novelist. Set chiefly in the oil fields of Southern California, drawing on the events surrounding the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration, and centering on the moral, social, and political education of a young man, Bunny Ross, the novel vividly incorporates many features of American life in the 1920s, from flappers and football games to strikes and political corruption. For the first time in his career Sinclair also created multidimensional characters whose actions and thoughts manifest their individual natures rather than illustrate ideological positions. Oil! was as close as Sinclair was to come to the poetic power of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), which explores a similar theme.
The arrest and trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and their execution in August 1927 galvanized liberal and radical opinion in America as no other event before or since, and it was inevitable that Sinclair would seek to call attention to the tragic injustice they paid for with their lives. This he did in his powerful two-volume novel Boston (1928), which not only provides a vivid and detailed history of this seven-year-long cause célèbre but also records the poisonous climate of social, economic, and political prejudice that prevailed in Boston and across the country in the 1920s. Few other works of history or fiction provide such a compelling sense of the dynamics of the decade; no other work offers such a believable portrait of the American immigrant as martyred hero.
Sinclair turned fifty soon after Boston was published, but for three more decades his energy and literary output were startlingly prodigious. He wrote more than forty-five books in this period, undertook the financing of a film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein ran for governor of California, and remained active in a wide range of liberal and radical social and political causes. Many of his publications were weak; some were devoted to his persistent interest in religion, psychic phenomena, and alcoholism. His gubernatorial campaign made him a national figure and the massive eleven- volume Lanny Budd series made him, for the first time since The Jungle, a best-selling author.
Though as a Socialist he had been a congressional candidate in 1906, 1920, and 1922, and a gubernatorial candidate in 1926 and 1930, these candidacies were nominal. He did not campaign actively—except by writing articles—and his objective was educational. But by 1933 the Depression was deep and pervasive, and Sinclair decided that the times required dramatic change. He registered as a Democrat, accepted the call to enter the primary, wrote I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty (1933), and soon emerged as the leader of the EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement.
The EPIC campaign, with its espousal of production for use rather than for profit, was bound to provoke powerful opposition, and once Sinclair had won the primary, the major newspapers, the movie industry, and large corporate interests combined forces to attack him with unprecedented ferocity. In the end, Republican Frank Merriam won, but California politics were permanently changed, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was encouraged to move national Democratic policy to the left. Within a few weeks, Sinclair wrote I, Candidate for Governor—And How I Got Licked (1935).
The last major achievement of Sinclair’s literary career was the monumental series of long historical novels usually called the Lanny Budd series. Beginning with World’s End (1940) and ending with The Return of Lanny Budd (1953), these eleven books provide a detailed if simplified panorama of Western history from 1913 to 1949. The central figure of the series is Lanny Budd, a composite of several men Sinclair knew—art dealer Martin Birnbaum and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., among them. More important, as William A. Bloodworth has observed in his fine study of Sinclair, “Lanny Budd is Sinclair’s overextended metaphor for the nineteenth century sensibility forced to exist in the troubled modern world.” Lanny’s response to these troubles turns him, as they did Sinclair, first into a Socialist, then into a liberal Democrat, next into an anti-Fascist, and finally into an almost paranoid anti-Communist. The series was immensely popular, and the third volume, Dragon’s Teeth (1942), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. Sinclair continued writing well into his eighties. He died at the age of ninety in 1968.
As Van Wyck Brooks observed, Sinclair is hard to be right about. His production as a writer was so large and various that he defies easy categorization. Moreover, Sinclair was not only a writer, or a thinker, or a social and political activist. He was, above all, a moral force in the prophetic American tradition that has its religious roots in William Bradford and its secular branches in Michael Harrington and Ralph Nader. Sinclair early recognized and spent a lifetime decrying the pernicious effects of modern industrial capitalism. From start to finish he was a profoundly passionate believer in the possibility of the redemption of man through the reform of society, a deeply compassionate human being for whom the cause of universal social justice was a consuming calling. He was, in Emerson’s phrase, a man of good hope.
1. Independent 55 (May 14, 1903): 1121-26.
2. See, especially, Ernest Poole, “The Meat Strike,” Independent (July 18, 1904): 179-84. See also Louis Filler, The Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism, pp. 157-70. Chapter 7 of Carl S. Smith’s Chicago and the American Literary Imagination provides a rich account of “The Stockyards” in fact and fiction.
3. See Appeal to Reason (November 17, 1906): 4. A news item dated November 3 quotes Sinclair as having said, the previous evening: “ ‘It happens by a curious coincidence to be just exactly two years ago tonight since I set out for Chicago to study the meat-packing industry.’ ” Forty years later he claimed that he arrived in Chicago on September 20, his twenty-sixth birthday (Introduction to the Viking Press Edition, The Jungle [New York, 1946], p. 7). He may, of course, have been attempting to dramatize the occasion in both instances—or he may simply have forgotten the date he left New York.
4. “What Life Means to Me,” Cosmopolitan 41 (October 1906): 594.
5. He had announced his intention of organizing the Intercollegiate Socialist Society as early as December 12, 1904; Sinclair had learned nothing of socialism in eight years of college and was determined that future college students should have the opportunity to learn about Socialist thought, if only outside the normal curriculum.
6. Quoted in Leon Harris’s richly detailed biography Upton Sinclair: American Rebel, p. 87.
7. See, however, Michael Brewster Folsom’s “Upton Sinclair’s Escape from The Jungle: The Narrative Strategy and Suppressed Conclusion of America’s First Proletarian Novel.” Folson sees The Jungle as “one of those compelling, garbled, perplexing, sometimes amusing encounters between the conventionally literate and the working class which became a fixture of imaginative life in America by the end of the nineteenth century.” The heart of Folsom’s argument is put thus: “As Sinclair worked out his plot during the months of crisis in his personal, political, and imaginative life, the great gulf widened between Sinclair, the expensively educated professional writer, and the humble working stiffs who peopled his brilliant early chapters. The Anglo-Saxon Protestant petit-bourgeois intellectual triumphed over realism, Socialism, the alien working class, and serious literature” (p. 248)
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Suggestions for Further Reading
Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left. New York: Avon Books, 1969.
Becker, George J. “Upton Sinclair: Quixote in a Flivver.” College English 21 (1959): 133-40.
Biella, Arnold P. “Upton Sinclair: Crusader.” Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1954.
Blinderman, Abraham, ed. Critics on Upton Sinclair. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1975.
Bloodworth, William A., Jr. “The Early Years of Upton Sinclair: The Making of a Progressive Christian Socialist.” Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, 1972.
————. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Brooks, Van Wyck. The Confident Years. New York: Dutton, 1952.
————. Emerson ana Others. New York: Dutton, 1927.
Cantwell, Robert. “Upton Sinclair.” In After the Genteel Tra- aition, edited by Malcolm Cowley. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
Chalmers, David Mark. The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers. New York: Citadel, 1964.
Dell, Floyd. Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest. New York: George H. Doran, 1927.
Dickstein, Morris. Introduction to The Jungle. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Downs, Robert B. Afterword to The Jungle. New York: New American Library, 1960.
Egbert, Donald Drew. Socialism and American Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Filler, Louis. The Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968.
Folsom, Michael B. “Literary Radicalism and the Genteel Tradition: A Study of the Principal Literary Works of the American Socialist Movement Before 1912.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1972.
————. “Upton Sinclair’s Escape from The Jungle: The Narrative Strategy and Suppressed Conclusion of America’s First Proletarian Novel.” Prospects 4 (1979): 237-66.
Fretz, Lewis A. “Upton Sinclair: The Don Quixote of American Reform.” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1970.
Gilbert, James Burkhart. Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1968.
Gottesman, Ronald. A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, and Other Materials from the Upton Sinclair Archives. Bloomington, Ind.: Lilly Library, 1963.
————. “Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Bibliographical Catalogue, 1894—1932.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1964.
————. Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1973.
Gottesman, Ronald, and Charles L. P. Silet. The Literary Manuscripts of Upton Sinclair. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.
Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.
Hicks, Granville. “The Survival of Upton Sinclair.” College English 4 (1943): 213-20.
Jones, Howard Mumford. The Age of Energy: Varieties of American Experience, 1865-1914. New York: Viking, 1971.
Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds. New York: Doubleday, 1955.
Koerner,J. D. “The Last of the Muckrake Men.” South Atlantic Quarterly 55 (1956): 221-32.
Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Millgate, Michael. American Social Fiction. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1964.
Quint, Howard H. “Upton Sinclair’s Quest for Artistic Independence—1909.” American Literature 29 (1957): 194— 202.
Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900– 1954. New York: Hill and Wang, 1956.
Shannon, David A. The Socialist Party of America: A History. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
Smith, Carl S. Chicago and the American Literary Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Straumann, Heinrich. American Literature in the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Swados, Harvey. “The World of Upton Sinclair.” Atlantic Monthly 208 (December 1961): 96-102.
Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877-192o. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
Yoder, Jon. Upton Sinclair. New York: Ungar, 1975.
Zanger, Martin. “Politics of Confrontation: Upton Sinclair and the Launching of the ACLU in Southern California.” Pacific Historical Review 38 (November 1969): 383-406.
Source: Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, with an Introduction by Ronald Gottesman, Penguin Books, South Boston, 1985