The Jungle at 100

Why the reputation of Upton Sinclair?s good book has gone bad.

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

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Late in 1904, 26-year-old Upton Sinclair left his wife and young son in a cold, dilapidated farmhouse outside Princeton, New Jersey, to research the meatpacking industry in a sec-tion of Chicago called Packingtown. Sinclair’s fourth book, the Civil War novel Manassas, had just been published and it had, like his three previous novels, failed to garner either readers or positive reviews. Sinclair was impoverished, unhappily married, and devastated by his failures. “The life I am living,” he wrote to novelist Owen Wister in October 1904, “almost drives me mad.” Despite lifelong poverty, Sinclair had been, in his words, a “perfect little snob and a tory” until he discovered socialism in 1902. With the single-mindedness and industry that once allowed him to generate 8,000 words per day for pulp magazines, he devoured the socialist canon, permanently rearranging his worldview in the process. The incipient muckraker created his first socialist character in Manassas and began contributing to socialist newspapers and magazines, including the prominent weekly paper the Appeal to Reason. In the fall of 1904, the editor of the Appeal offered him a $500 advance for the serial rights to a novel about wage slaves in the Chicago stockyards. Sinclair accepted the advance—it was more than half the money he had made on his four previous novels—and before leaving New Jersey pitched the novel to George Brett, his Macmillan editor, as a break from his previous artistic work and a “definite attempt to write something popular.”

When he arrived in Packingtown, the destitute writer had no need to go undercover. As Sinclair biographer Leon Harris writes, “So shabby were [Sinclair’s] clothes that, by no more elaborate a disguise than the carrying of a dinner pail and armed with a few simple lies appropriate to the area in which he was investigating, he had no trouble going everywhere and noting everything.” Sinclair stayed in Packingtown for seven weeks, living with and learning from the socialists and unionists who knew him from his writing in the Appeal. By interviewing workers and closely observing the stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants, he learned the horrific conditions of meat production—rats and rat poison were among the least offensive ingredients in the sausage—and the equally horrific conditions of labor. Every job in Packingtown had its attendant dangers: The hands of picklers and wool-pluckers were eaten away by acid; the thumbs of beef-trimmers were hacked down to lumps. Sinclair noted the strategies of bosses and foremen, such as graft, blacklisting, and “speeding up the gang,” whereby relatively well paid, closely watched, and frequently alternated workers set a furious pace for the rest of the plant.

Having amassed ample material, Sinclair returned to the rural poverty of his New Jersey farm and began The Jungle, by far the most enduring and successful work of a career that spanned six decades and produced 87 books. As you might recall from high school—probably from history class, not English—The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus and his family, Lithuanian immigrants who are not only pulverized by the dangerous, disgusting, and low-paying work in the yards, but also cheated and grafted by rich and poor alike. In a relatively short period, Jurgis, once strong and confident, is injured, imprisoned, and bereft of his loved ones, strength, and will. His wife, Ona, dies in childbirth at 18, and his young son, Antanas, drowns in one of the deep pools of mud that form in the slums each spring. Having lost his job, wife, and son, Jurgis jumps a train and heads for the country, living for a time as a tramp before returning to Chicago and, in the novel’s final chapters, discovering socialism.

The Jungle was rejected by a half-dozen publishers, including Macmillan (“Gloom and horror unrelieved,” noted one of Brett’s readers. “As to the possibilities of a large sale, I should think them not very good.”), before Doubleday, Page & Company agreed to publish it. The book came out 100 years ago, in February 1906, when Sinclair was 27, and it achieved immediate and astonishing international success. According to the New York Evening World, “Not since Byron awoke one morning to find himself famous has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book as has come to Upton Sinclair.”

Within months, the novel had been translated into 17 languages. Sinclair once received (and tactlessly shared with his friend Jack London) a letter from Doubleday informing him that 5,500 copies of the novel had been sold in one day. The many admirers of the novel included Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote in a letter, “that book of yours is unforgettable”; future British prime minister Winston Churchill, who, in one of two essays devoted to the novel, wrote that it “pierces the thickest skull and most leathery heart”; George Bernard Shaw, who expressed his regard for Sinclair and The Jungle in his preface to Major Barbara; Bertolt Brecht, whose plays In the Jungle of the Cities and St. Joan of the Stockyards seem clearly to have been influenced by the novel; Eugene Debs, who wrote that The Jungle “marks an epoch”; and, most notably, President Theodore Roosevelt.

The extensive correspondence between the young, previously unknown novelist and President Roosevelt is one of the more remarkable epiphenomena of The Jungle. Sinclair, neither amazed nor even satisfied that the president had read his novel and written him a letter promising to look into the operations of the meat industry, hounded Roosevelt with letters, telegrams, and newspaper clippings, trying to persuade him to take action. On April 11, 1906, Roosevelt received a letter and a telegram from Sinclair while he was writing a response to the author’s most recent letter and telegram. (“Your second telegram has just come,” Roosevelt wrote in a second postscript. “[R]eally, Mr. Sinclair, you must keep your head.”) Once the president understood Sinclair’s tenacity, he told Frank Doubleday, “Tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while.” For his part, Sinclair was decidedly unsatisfied with the frequency and content of his replies from Washington. In a letter to Jack London, Sinclair nonchalantly reported that he had received three letters from “his majesty,” among them a “three-page discourse upon the futility of Socialism.”

Roosevelt’s individualism clashed with Sinclair’s socialism, but he shared Sinclair’s dislike of the “arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist,” and in his initial letter to Sinclair he followed his critique of socialism with a postscript: “But all this has nothing to do with the fact that the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated.”

Roosevelt followed through with this promise, but not as radically as Sinclair had hoped. The purpose of the novel, which Sinclair dedicated to “the Workingmen of America,” was to draw attention to the misery of the lowest tier of workers in a capitalist economy. And yet The Jungle brought far more attention to rotten sausage than to wage slavery. What most people tend to remember about the novel, besides perhaps the half-inch pools of blood on the slaughterhouse floor or the geysers of gore that shoot from infected or diseased cattle, is its instrumental role in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair’s novel helped initiate federal regulation—a century later, this seems unimaginable—but the author had missed his target. As he famously remarked after publication, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Although The Jungle is still in print and continues to be assigned for the muckraking mini- unit in American History, it has not aged well as a novel. Grudgingly called a “minor masterpiece” at midcentury by critic Howard Mumford Jones, The Jungle today is certainly regarded as less than that, more likely to be mentioned alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Bad but Important) than The Grapes of Wrath (Political but Good). While writers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal took at least a passing and sympathetic interest in Sinclair’s work, now it is nearly impossible to imagine an emergent American novelist for whom The Jungle is an influential or cherished book.

The easiest explanation is aesthetic: The Jungle just isn’t artful. While its descriptions of Packingtown operations are meticulous, its characters and scenes are not particularly vivid or developed, and its language is not graceful or elevated. Structurally it lacks the pleasing symmetries and contrasts, the subtle patterns of imagery and metaphor that we expect from great and lasting works. Many chapters pass without a line of dialogue, and while Sinclair devotes pages to rancid meat, he covers the birth of Antanas in exactly three sentences. Alfred Kazin once wrote that Sinclair was “something more than a ‘mere’ writer and something less than a serious novelist.” Sinclair himself claimed that “the proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of ‘art for art’s sake’ than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin.”

No propaganda goes over particularly well in an American novel these days, and particularly not Sinclair’s sort. His portrayal of the powerlessness of the individual within a ruthless system is antithetical to the American belief in self-determination and class mobility. Furthermore, while he was committed through-out his life to peaceful change, the economic solutions he presented in The Jungle—as well as in his 1934 platform as a gubernatorial candidate in California—were more revolutionary than reformist. The Jungle provides socialism as the answer to the question, What is an alternative to capitalism? Today, both the answer and the question are, in the U.S. at least, politically extinct. Sinclair, Kazin noted, “will remain a touching and curious symbol of a certain old-fashioned idealism and quaint personal romanticism that have vanished from American writing forever.”

But there is another possible explanation. Perhaps it is not the political or reportorial novel per se that feels outmoded, but rather the philosophical assumptions that underlie and license it. During the last half century, as philosophers and theorists have launched sustained attacks on objectivity and truth, “the world” or “reality” has taken on quotation marks. “Evidence is not truth,” says the nameless narrator of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. “It is only evident.” Or, as the nameless narrators of The Virgin Suicides conclude, “We are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations.” Given this skeptical climate, it seems possible that when we object to a novel’s didacticism or stridency, we are objecting in part to its epistemic swagger—its presumption to know.

Mrs. Trace, a character in Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, says, “What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want?” Sinclair, however, wanted to change the world, not make it up. It makes sense that as the 20th century grew increasingly preoccupied with the limits of perception and representation, even the best of Sinclair’s work began to look unsophisticated.

Today, it’s easy to dismiss Sinclair as a writer who never transcended his youthful work as a pulp magazine hack (in which capacity he claimed to have produced, by age 21, as much work as Sir Walter Scott). But if we consider that technique follows intent, we might at the very least acknowledge a method to Sinclair’s badness. Consider one of the novel’s more obvious syntactical quirks, the surprisingly frequent use of the word “would,” as in “There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it.” This sentence, and the many others like it, is easy to rewrite in the simple past tense, but Sinclair was determined to communicate that the rats were repeatedly racing over the meat, day in and day out. It is a muckraker’s one-word conversion kit, transforming scene into exposition, particularity into pattern, anomaly into scandal.

The Jungle aims to provide an accurate report of the many ways that life in Packingtown crushes people, destroys their power of self-determination, even their humanness. Individual desire, typically the engine of fiction, is eradicated. If Sinclair’s characters seem to lack agency or a certain kind of Rooseveltian pluck, if they seem unresponsive or passionless, well, that’s the point. Readers may long for a tender conversation between Jurgis and Ona as they hold each other on a particularly cold night, but as Sinclair writes, “truly it was hard, in such a life, to keep any sentiment alive.”

Later in his career, Sinclair knew himself well enough as an artist to tell the critic Van Wyck Brooks that “some novelists I know collect their material with a microscope, and I collect mine with a telescope.” E.L. Doctorow once said that contemporary American writers are more technically proficient and far less socially or politically motivated than previous generations of writers (many of whom began as journalists). Readers of contemporary literary fiction have grown accustomed to the novel’s microscopic power to render, often beautifully, the small moments of a character’s life. Conversely, we’ve grown skeptical of the novel’s telescopic function to bring large, distant abstractions into focus. We’re wary of the big picture. And if the accurate depiction or explanation of the world outside our minds is not a part of our conception of Good Literature, we will fail to recognize the power of The Jungle.

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