Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(New York: Doubleday, Page, 1906)
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) was the author of ninety books and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for Dragon’s Teeth (1942). Best known for his socialist politics, Sinclair developed an early interest in social justice as a result of his own troubled upbringing. Born in Baltimore, Sinclair’s childhood was marked by poverty and hunger as his alcoholic father struggled to provide for his family. Having to rely on his mother’s more well-to-do family for assistance, Sinclair saw firsthand the disparity of wealth in America. His family eventually moved to New York, where he was educated at both City College of New York and Columbia University. To finance his studies Sinclair began a career as a hack writer, composing stories about life at West Point. In 1906 he founded Helicon Home Colony, a short-lived utopian community in New Jersey. He also ran for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket and later for the California governorship. Throughout his life Sinclair corresponded and enjoyed relationships with such public figures as Arthur Conan Doyle, William Dean Howells, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Albert Einstein. Despite such an extensive literary career, Sinclair is best remembered for his sixth book, The Jungle (1906).
Dedicated to “the workingmen of America,” The Jungle is an expose of the brutality and injustice suffered by the working class in Chicago’s meat-processing industry. Set in Packingtown, the hub of the city’s stockyards, The Jungle opens amid the frenzied celebration of a wedding feast in honor of the narrative’s protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, and his young bride, Ona Lukoszaite. Recent immigrants from Lithuania, this couple and various relatives have come to the stockyards hoping to improve their way of life. Despite their early optimism, Jurgis and his family soon learn that their attempts to secure their portion of the American Dream are futile. Where they once believed America to be a place where “rich or poor, a man was free,” they soon find themselves bound to the drudgery and horror of the “killing beds” and the other industries connected to the packing plants that have made them pawns to America greed—cogs in a machine whose only aim is increased production. Despite their best efforts to get ahead, the family suffers one tragedy after another. Soon Jurgis finds himself alone and penniless, having lost nearly all that is dear to him. His wanderings as a hobo, time in jail, and participation in Chicago’s corrupt political scene finally give way to his conversion to socialism at the end of the text, underscoring Sinclair’s solution to the wrongs meted out upon the nation’s working poor.
Dubbed by London “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” The Jungle has also been called America’s first proletarian novel. Its origins can be traced to this nascent tradition along with a number of key events. In 1904 thousands of laborers in Chicago’s stockyards protested in vain against their low wages and poor working conditions. Sinclair’s recent embrace of socialism and interest in the Appeal to Reason, a weekly socialist newspaper, persuaded him to write a manifesto in support of the strikers’ plight for publication in the paper. The editor promised Sinclair $500 for serialization rights. Thus, in 1904 Sinclair moved to Chicago, where he lived for seven weeks in a settlement house among those he called the “wage slaves of the Beef Trust.”
Although the characters and setting for The Jungle emerge from his time interacting with the laborers and examining the filthy and oppressive working conditions, the book was just as much a reflection of Sinclair’s personal life. In his autobiography he explains that “externally, the story had to do with a family of stockyard workers, but internally it was the story of my own family.” The suffering he, his wife, and infant son endured while living in a small, rustic cabin in New Jersey during the harsh winter while he was writing The Jungle and the periods of want and hunger he suffered as a child clearly inform this text. After having been rejected by five different publishers because of the story’s graphic and controversial nature, The Jungle was finally published in hard covers by Doubleday, Page in February 1906.
The impact of The Jungle was monumental. While Sinclair’s objective was to convey the plight of the American worker to a national audience, the novel exposed the horrendous conditions characterizing the country’s meat supply. As Sinclair observed, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Americans called for immediate inspections of the nation’s meat industry, while the owners of the packing plants rejected Sinclair’s claims by providing their own testimonials as to the safety and sanitation of their facilities. Thus a press battle ensued between Sinclair and companies such as Armour with articles representing both sides of the charges appearing in The Saturday Evening Post and Everybody’s Magazine.
The claims in The Jungle also captured the attention of government officials, and Theodore Roosevelt requested Sinclair’s presence at the White House to discuss the matter. The impact of The Jungle also had international repercussions. A journalist and member of Parliament at the time, Winston Churchill wrote two articles in an English newspaper praising Sinclair’s work. Such high-profile responses to The Jungle brought instant fame to Sinclair, but, more important, facilitated significant changes to the meatpacking industry. Coupled with the “embalmed beef” scandal during the Spanish-American War, when thousands of soldiers died from eating tainted meat, Sinclair’s work demanded immediate change. In the same year that The Jungle was published, the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act were signed into law.
The Jungle continues to be read as both a significant historical document and an important novel that speaks to the political, social, and economic conditions of the early twentieth century. Since its 1906 publication, the novel has been translated into many languages and adapted to both the stage and film.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Consider the relationship of The Jungle to two of the primary literary trends at the turn of the century: Naturalism and Realism. What evidence do you find that aligns The Jungle with these movements? Various critics have considered Sinclair a lesser naturalist writer than his contemporaries Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Stephen Crane. What reasons can you find in the text to support this claim? In your response, consider Sinclair’s depictions of Jurgis throughout the text and particularly in the final chapters. How do various conclusions of The Jungle noted above affect a Naturalist reading?
- 2. Along with the works of French Naturalist writers Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, Sinclair was influenced by the father of American Realism, William Dean Howells. Despite Sinclair’s concern for the “truth” to be revealed in his portrayal of the plight of America’s laboring classes, how authentic is this work to their experiences in light of the depictions of Jurgis throughout the text? How would you argue for or against a Realist reading based on the representation of the American immigrant experience Sinclair portrays?
- 3. Many readers have commented on the conclusion of The Jungle as a bizarre shift from the rest of the narrative. What do you make of the final chapters? In your response compare the traditional conclusion to The Jungle, which ends with a speaker urging a crowd to believe that “CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!” with the original ending, that appeared in One Hoss Philosophy, which is available in The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition. How does their difference influence how you interpret the text? How does Sinclair justify the differences?
- 4. In the final chapter of The Jungle Nicholas Schliemann addresses a particular view of marriage and its effects on women. A few pages later, Sinclair references the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose Women and Economics is most certainly the work from which Schliemann derives his ideas. What do Schliemann’s and Gilman’s commentaries regarding marriage and women say about gender in turn-of-the-century America? Do such positions justify the fate of Ona and other women throughout The Jungle?
- 5. How would you describe Sinclair’s portrayal of Chicago’s minority groups? Are there differences in the amount of sympathy by which they are depicted? How would explain such discrepancies, if any?
- 6. Following the death of Antanas, Jurgis flees Chicago to take up as a tramp riding the rails through the Midwest looking for work. This flight from the city to the country represents a powerful theme in Western literature that pits idyllic rural settings against the ill effects of industrialization. How does Jurgis’s experience compare? Does Sinclair reproduce this common theme or does he complicate it?
The Jungle: An Authoritative Text, Contexts and Backgrounds, Criticism, edited by Clare Virginia Eby (New York: Norton, 2003).
Includes the 1906 Doubleday, Page version along with the conclusion that appeared in the Appeal to Reason. The book contains useful excerpts by the author about his literary program as well as commentary from Sinclair’s day on the meatpacking industry and the life of the immigrant laborer. A range of criticism about The Jungle concludes this text.
The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition (Tucson, Ariz.: Sea Sharp Press, 2003).
One-third longer than the commercial version.
Kevin Mattson, Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2006).
Examines Sinclair’s contributions to the sociopolitical landscape of the twentieth century, emphasizing his political, rather than literary, career. Mattson provides useful information about Sinclair’s early years and his ongoing commitment to exposing the negative side of America’s rise to economic might.
Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962).
Provides valuable insight into Sinclair’s literary career and the particular circumstances that motivated and shaped The Jungle. The work begins with his earlier childhood and comments on many of his works and career as a socialist.
Sinclair, My Lifetime in Letters (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1960). Includes letters Sinclair received from some of the most celebrated intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century.
Michael Brewster Folsom, “Upton Sinclair’s Escape from The Jungle: The Narrative Strategy and Suppressed Conclusion of America’s First Proletarian Novel,” Prospects, 2 (1979): 237-266.
Examines the structural and thematic challenges Sinclair encountered writing The Jungle and charts the effects of his publishers on the conclusions drawn in the text.
Orm 0verland, “The Jungle: From Lithuanian Peasant to American Socialist,” American Literary Realism, 37 (Fall 2004): 1-23.
Considers The Jungle as both historical and literary text, examining the veracity of Sinclair’s observations in the stockyards and his complicated relationship with Naturalism.