The Jungle Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Motivation and Methods in The Jungle

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's one claim to a place in literary history, was not so much a novel as it was a tract for the times. Sinclair intended it not as a work of art but as an instrument for changing people's minds. He thought of it as an expendable round of ammunition in the battle for social justice. The novel is better judged as propaganda than as literature, but it has compelling power and interests readers today long after the circumstances under which it was written passed into history. Sinclair's considerable ability as a storyteller, coupled with the fierce indignation of a born reformer, made The Jungle perhaps the most memorable document of the muckraking movement. He was incensed by the appalling conditions he observed among the workers in the Chicago stockyards and was determined to do something to improve them.

Sinclair recalled the novel's provenance in 1946 when he wrote an introduction for a new edition. He remembered being sent in 1904 by the Appeal to Reason, a socialist magazine, to investigate conditions in the meat-packing industry. This was at a time when American business answered to no one for safety, sanitary conditions, product reliability, or working conditions. Unions were weak or non-existent, and business squeezed as much profit as it could from low wages. A good many magazines, chief of which was McClure's, were then busily publishing exposes of corruption and malpractice in both industry and government. After the scandal of lethal "embalmed beef” sold to the army during the Spanish-American War, the meatpacking industry seemed a prime subject for investigative reporting.

Sinclair spent seven weeks in Chicago living among and interviewing the stockyard workers and studying conditions in the packing plants. He found that he could go anywhere in the stockyards provided he wore old clothes and carried a lunch pail. One day outside the slaughter-houses he chanced upon a Lithuanian wedding supper and dance, spent the afternoon and evening watching and talking to the newly married couple and their relations, and realized that this immigrant group could provide his point of view for his propaganda novel. He invented Jurgis Rudkus and his family and depicted their lives in and about the...

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The Problem with Classroom Use of The Jungle

There is no doubt that The Jungle helped shape American political history. Sinclair wrote it to call attention to the plight of Chicago packinghouse workers who had just lost a strike against the Beef Trust. The novel appeared in February 1906, was shrewdly promoted by both author and publisher, and quickly became a best seller. Its socialist message, however, was lost in the uproar over the relatively brief but nauseatingly graphic descriptions of packinghouse "crimes" and "swindles." The public's visceral reaction led Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana to call for more extensive federal regulation of meat packing and forced Congress to pay attention to pending legislation that would set government standards for food and beverages. President Theodore Roosevelt sent two sets of investigators to Chicago and played a major role in securing congressional approval of Beveridge's measure. When the President signed this Meat Inspection Act and also the Food and Drugs Act in June, he graciously acknowledged Beveridge's help but said nothing about the famous novel or its author.

Teachers of American history and American studies have been much kinder to Sinclair. Most consider him a muckraker because the public responded so decisively to his accounts of rats scurrying over the meat and going into the hoppers or workers falling into vats and becoming part of Durham's lard. Many embrace The Jungle as a reasonably trustworthy source of information on urban immigrant industrial life at the turn of the century. Few raise questions about Sinclair's credentials as either a journalist or historical novelist. If doubts arise, they are quickly dismissed...

Drawing on old records and new scholarship, this article looks first at Sinclair's motives for writing the novel, then compares what he says about packers, packinghouse products, immigrant workers and their community with the historical evidence. In concludes that contrary to the author's 1906 claim that it was "so true that students may go to it, as they would a work of reference," The Jungle often strays quite far from the truth. As a result, the book misinforms readers about life in what Sinclair called "Packingtown" but which residents and reporters knew as "Back of the Yards." . . .

Capitalist packers were the most fearsome monsters in Sinclair's jungle. They were "the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. . . . devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs." They could live in the lap of luxury because they cheated cattle raisers, set high market prices on their meat products, bribed federal inspectors to pass diseased animals, and chiseled on workers' wages. To them [as Sinclair records in his Autobiography] "a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit." Their plants were "honeycombed with rottenness": "bosses grafted off the men" who in turn were "pitted against each other." As a result, Packingtown "was simply a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds; there was no loyalty or decency anywhere." Female employees, "mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation," were at the mercy of foremen "every bit at brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers." Things "quite unspeakable" went on in the packinghouses and "were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show. . . because there was no difference in color between master and slave." . . .

Those in the path of the Chicago packers fought a noisy rear guard action. Dairy farmers called margarine a "cheap, nasty grease" capable of transmitting tuberculosis and trichinosis. Congress placed a modest tax on it in 1886, but the Department of Agriculture's Division of Chemistry pronounced it safe and nutritious. As Chicago chilled beef invaded eastern markets, local slaughterers and butchers dubbed it "stale" or "dead" meat, implying that it absorbed ammonia from cooling machinery or was chemically "embalmed" to prolong its life. Customers liked its superior taste and lower price and thus ignored the warnings. Opponents then accused Chicago packers of using diseased animals and said only local inspection in their own states at the time of slaughter could safeguard consumers. Several states banned Chicago beef, but the Supreme Court overturned these laws in 1890. Meantime, European countries banned American pork products until the federal government certified that they were free of trichinae. Congress in 1890-91 authorized the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Industry to inspect livestock before and after slaughter and, at the request of packers or foreign governments, conduct microscopic examinations of pork before certifying it. The large packers quickly availed themselves of this service, and by 1900 federal meat inspectors, graduates of veterinary colleges and protected by civil service, were working in 149 packinghouses in 46 cities.

Criticism of Chicago meat products surfaced again during the Spanish-American War. General Nelson A. Miles, still smarting from the packinghouse workers' insolence to his soldiers during the Pullman strike, blamed the sickness of American troops in Cuba and Puerto Rico on the canned meat and chilled beef prepared in Chicago. He told [as noted by Louise Carroll Wade in "Hell Hath No Fury Like a General Scorned," in The Illinois Historical Journal, Autum, 1986] the War Investigating Commission that the former was defective, the latter what "you might call embalmed beef." Major General Leonard Wood, trained at Harvard Medical School, testified that the chilled beef was nutritious and wholesome, while academic and government chemists (including Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief of the Division [later Bureau] of Chemistry from 1883 to 1912) gave clean bills of health to samples of the canned beef.

After visits to the packinghouses and voluminous testimony, the Commission declared that the canned beef was "generally of good quality" and that "no refrigerated beef. . . was subjected to or treated with any chemicals." Undaunted, General Miles asked for a military court of inquiry into his beef charges. It ruled that Miles had no justification for "alleging" that the beef was "embalmed" or "unfit for issue."

These two investigations revealed that careless handling of the refrigerated beef and the practice of eating canned meat opened days before contributed to intestinal illnesses, but drinking contaminated water was the major factor. Medical doctors and researchers soon tracked typhoid to poor sanitation and pinned malaria and yellow fever on mosquitos. Despite exoneration of Chicago meat and scientific explanations for the illnesses, historian Graham A. Cosmas [in his book An Army for Empire, 1971] concedes that the "sensational charges, not the sober refutations, stuck in the minds of thousands of ordinary citizens."

Foes of the packers kept the rotten beef charges alive, and, as Floyd Dell noted, this "more or less prepared" the public for The Jungle. Simons rejoiced that "the world knows now the story of the infamous part played … by the packers of Chicago." Charles Edward Russell asked "How did they manage to emerge unharmed from the terrible 'embalmed-beef’ revelations of the Spanish War? How did they escape prosecution when more American soldiers fell before their deadly beef than were hit by all the Spanish guns?" The Jungle claimed "the 'embalmed beef ’… killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards." And in May 1906 Sinclair issued a press release stating that Philip Armour's 1901 death was due—not to pneumonia—but to "worry incidental" to hushing up the company's responsibility for those deaths...

Another aspect of food safety was the question of whether meat and milk from tubercular cattle could infect people. When Dr. Robert Koch discovered the bacillus in 1882, he thought it caused the same disease in man and beast. No one knew how tuberculosis was transmitted, but veterinarians advocated stringent livestock inspection as a public health measure. While doctors did not rule out infection through meat or milk, they thought cooking meat and boiling milk could eliminate the risk. Since they suspected the White Plague spread through lung discharges of sick individuals, they emphasized disinfection of premises and careful disposal of sputum so it could not dry out, pulverize and travel through the air. Disagreement sharpened after Koch declared in 1901 that bovine and human tuberculosis were caused by different bacilli and conjectured that people seldom if ever contracted tuberculosis from cattle....

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Realism and Revolution in The Jungle

Lincoln Steffens tells in his Autobiography of receiving a call during the early years of muckraking from an earnest and as yet little-known young writer.

One day Upton Sinclair called on me at the office of McClure's and remonstrated.

"What you report," he said, "is enough to make a complete picture of the system, but you seem not to see it. Don't you see it? Don't you see what you are showing?"

Having just been converted to Socialism, Sinclair was sure he "saw it," and in the late autumn of 1905 his friend Jack London was writing to the Socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason in praise of a new book which it was serializing.

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